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Cincinnati's NBA Connections Are Gone and Mostly Forgotten

By Bill Peterson · May 4th, 2005 · Sports
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Jerry Dowling



Cincinnati isn't fated for professional basketball, which is to say big league basketball as opposed to the minor league stuff. Big league basketball history uncovers a curious pattern of neglecting the Queen City. Either that, or Cincinnati history reveals a lack of interest in big league basketball.

Either way, it stings, if only a little, as the great show of the NBA playoffs sizzles all over America while Cincinnati watches from afar.

The Cincinnati Royals lasted all of 15 NBA seasons (1957-72), never drew better than 6,909 per game (that was 1964) and put together only five winning seasons (1961-65). But the franchise's woes can't be blamed on Cincinnati.

The Royals also struggled in Rochester, Kansas City/Omaha and Sacramento before turning good at the start of this century. And their decline in Cincinnati is an especially sad tale.

The Royals were headed for doom almost from the moment they entered the NBA. They came in as the Rochester Royals in 1947, jumping with the Minneapolis Lakers, the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Indianapolis Jets from the National Basketball League (NBL) to the Basketball Association of America (BAA).

Created in 1937 by three corporations -- General Electric, Goodyear and Firestone -- the NBL combined industrial clubs and smallish cities in the Great Lakes region. They put teams in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, but also in Columbus, Dayton, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Moline, Youngstown, Toledo, Warren, Kankakee and other towns of that stripe.

One of the original teams set up shop in Richmond, Ind., as the King Clothiers, who lasted only three games before moving to Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Comellos played 10 games before disbanding in 1938. So much for Cincinnati and the NBL.

Historians note that NBL players were the best to be found, but most of the markets could never have survived on a national scale. Of 35 franchises that popped in and out of the league during its 12-year history, only five remain alive in the NBA: the Lakers (who began life as the Detroit Gems and now live in Los Angeles via Minneapolis), the Pistons (now in Detroit), the Royals (now the Sacramento Kings via Cincinnati and Kansas City/Omaha), the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks via Milwaukee and St.

Louis).

The NBA's official version of history honors the BAA as its true ancestor. Formed in 1946, the BAA set up shop in the big league cities of that time -- New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

The NBL's remains merged with the BAA in 1949 to form the NBA. With marketing expectations heightened, the Royals couldn't hack it in Rochester. They were too old and slow for the 24-second shot clock instituted in 1954. They retooled but still couldn't draw 3,000 per game to a new 10,000-seat arena and moved to Cincinnati in 1957.

The story of the Cincinnati Royals is told along three axes -- one connecting the passion and compassion of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman, another connecting the egotism and splendor of Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy and the last connecting the metropolitan aspirations of two mid-sized cities in different regions, Cincinnati and Kansas City.

In Cincinnati, the Royals were distinguished as the perch from which Robertson would fulfill his greatness after a terrific career at the University of Cincinnati, guiding the Royals to the NBA playoffs during his first six seasons starting in 1961. But the team also featured Hall of Famers Twyman, Stokes, Jerry Lucas, Wayne Embry, Clyde Lovellette, Tiny Archibald and, regrettably, Cousy.

The Royals took Stokes in the first round of the 1956 draft as a power forward out of St. Francis. Destined for NBA stardom, Stokes lost his career to paralysis from injury during a game against the Lakers in 1958, the Royals' first season in Cincinnati. Twyman, another former UC great who played his entire career with the Royals, became Stokes' legal guardian. Regarded as one of the game's great humanitarians, Twyman was his angel during nasty times of racial segregation, later organizing a charity game in Stokes' honor to help NBA players of old.

The Royals began their decline after the 1966 season with Twyman's retirement and Embry's departure for the Boston Celtics. Their per-game attendance dropped from 6,329 to 4,755 in 1967. On the floor, they fell from 45-35 to 39-42 and missed the playoffs. They never again posted a winning season.

But it appeared to some that the Royals would be revived. In 1969, Louis Jacobs, who owned the Royals and the Cincinnati Gardens, turned the team over to his son, Max Jacobs, who in turn brought in General Manager Joe Axelson. On May 9, 1969, less than a week after the Celtics won their 11th NBA title in 13 years, the Royals brought Cousy out of retirement as their new coach.

On the whole, Cincinnati fans bought into Axelson's contention that the Royals needed to be rebuilt and reacted with excitement to Cousy's hiring, but speculation also began that the team would be stripped for a sale. Axelson had Kansas City connections and didn't pretend to optimism about the Cincinnati market, while Kansas City had big league aspirations. The new general manager declared no one untouchable, traded Lucas and attempted to trade Robertson, who vetoed the deal.

Season ticket sales at the Gardens increased 87 percent as overall attendance improved by 20 percent during Cousy's first season. But the situation quickly deteriorated. Cousy's arrogance rankled the players. His "Running Royals" could score with any team in the NBA, but their defense stunk and they won only 36 games in 1970.

Cousy and Robertson couldn't stand each other. Cousy had been the greatest guard in history and now it was Robertson, despite having won no championships. The Royals traded Robertson to Milwaukee for Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk. Poetically, Robertson teamed with the former Lew Alcindor to win the NBA title with Milwaukee in 1971, his first year there.

Meanwhile, the Royals continued their slide to only 33 wins in 1971, despite a good draft that brought in Sam Lacey with the fifth overall pick and Archibald in the second round. Having played some home games in other Ohio cities through the years, the Royals started playing home games in Kansas City and Omaha.

The next year, the Royals assembled losing streaks of five, eight, and 14 games on their way to a 30-win season. Before that 1971-72 season began, a group of 10 Kansas City businessmen, including Axelson, purchased the team for $5 million. Three weeks before the season ended, the new owners announced their move to Kansas City the next year. The team name would be changed to the Kings, because a new baseball club in town had taken "Royals."

Today the former Royals, as the Sacramento Kings, trail Seattle in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Meanwhile, Cincinnati watches from the outside without much interest.

After 34 years without an NBA team here, the possibility of bringing a team to town is barely whispered. Andy Furman began his talk radio career in Cincinnati by campaigning for an NBA team in the late 1980s, promoting Carl Lindner as a great candidate to own the franchise. But that crusade died long ago.

Today Lindner owns the Reds, Cincinnati has fought with a billion dollars worth of stadiums just to hold the Reds and Bengals, no plans are in the works for an NBA-style palace, no potential Cincinnati owners have stepped up and there is no groundswell for a local NBA team.

But we have televisions and a two-hour drive to Indianapolis. That's as close as we'll get to the NBA playoffs.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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