The Highs and Lows of the NBA's Cincinnati Royals

October 30, 2018

Cincinnati Royals 1961-1962

Cincinnati’s time as an NBA city lasted 15 seasons beginning in 1957 when the Rochester Royals relocated to the Queen City. The team started as a semi-pro outfit in Rochester called the Seagrams in 1923. Changing their nickname to the Pros in 1943 (but still semi-pro), they joined the professional National Basketball League in 1945 and became the Royals. They jumped to the rival Basketball Association of America in 1948, a year before the two leagues merged to form the National Basketball Association.

As a pro outfit, the Royals were quite successful in Rochester, both on the court and at the box office. They won the 1951 championship, topping the New York Knickerbockers 4 games to 3. However, they soon became victims of their own success. While they sold out most of their home games in tiny Edgerton Park Arena, fans became irritated at the scarcity of tickets. By the time a new, larger arena was built, minor league hockey had arrived in the form of the still-popular Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.

While it may seem odd that a minor league hockey club could outdraw a major league basketball team, remember that, at the time, the NBA was not the money-printing operation it is today and was still playing in other small cities like Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and neighboring Syracuse.

In April of 1957 the team’s owners, Les and Jack Harrison, decided to move the team. Encouraged by a well attended neutral-site game the Royals had played at the Cincinnati Gardens in February of that year against the Ft. Wayne Pistons, the brothers eyed the Queen City as their team’s new home. Two of the team’s stars had played college basketball in Cincinnati, David Piontek for Xavier and Jack Twyman for UC, and they helped convince the Harrisons that Cincinnati was the right destination. A few weeks earlier, the Pistons announced they were moving to Detroit.

The nickname Royals was even more fitting in the Queen City and the team moved into the Cincinnati Gardens. While the team ended a two-year playoff drought in their new home, fans were slow to warm to them. To make matters worse, in the last game of the season, star Maurice Stokes struck his head on the court while going for a rebound in Minneapolis against the Lakers. A few days later, flying back to Cincinnati after a playoff game in Detroit, Stokes fell ill, later slipping into a coma for several weeks. Though he regained consciousness, he was a quadriplegic and would remain hospitalized until his death in 1970. Teammate Jack Twyman became his legal guardian and helped raise money for his care.

The following season, the team posted just 19 wins after which the Harrisons sold the team to a local group headed by Thomas Woods. Another 19-win season followed, but in 1960, UC star Oscar Robertson arrived. Though he captured Rookie of the Year honors, the Royals missed the playoffs, though they did manage to notch 20 more wins than the previous season.

The 1961/62 seasons found the team finishing second in the Western Division and facing the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs. The Royals fell 3 games to 1, but at last, they were headed in the right direction.

Led by Robertson and another local hero, Jerry Lucas, the team made the playoffs for the next four seasons. They failed to win a championship though. In 1966, the team was purchased by Max and Jeremy Jacobs. The 1966/67 season would see the team’s last playoff run. During that season, the team returned to playing neutral site games. Cleveland, Dayton, and Columbus all hosted games. Other cities to host the team’s home games that year were New York City, Syracuse, Memphis, and Kansas City. Playing in the latter would prove to be an omen.

Jerry Lucas was traded to the San Francisco Warriors in 1969. In 1970, Oscar Robertson was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks who immediately won the title in only their third season in the league. Meanwhile, the Royals steady decline continued.

During the 1970/71 season, the team played 11 neutral site games, six of them in Omaha, Nebraska. Before the 1971/72 season, a group from Kansas City purchased the team. At the end of the season, the team was moved to that city. Already having baseball’s Royals in town, the basketball team, playing some of their home games in Omaha, became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. After two years, they played exclusively in Kansas City and dropped Omaha from their official name.

Despite three straight playoff appearances beginning in 1978/79, the team drew poorly in Kansas City. In 1983, the team was purchased by a group from Sacramento and rumors of a move to the California capital swirled. After the team’s lease ran out in 1985, they indeed headed west.

In their first season in Sacramento they made the playoffs but exited in the first round after being swept by the Houston Rockets. That began a 10-year playoff drought. Over the years, more bad luck hit the team. Up-and-coming guard Bobby Hurley was severely injured in a car crash, while star rookie Rick Berry took his own life.

Things turned around in the late ‘90s and early 2000s as the Kings regularly made the playoffs, reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2002.

After the loss of several key players, the team’s play declined. Off the court, the team's owners, the Maloofs, were in financial trouble centered around their outside business interests. They threatened to move the team to Anaheim, Virginia Beach, or Seattle. The latter had lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, where they became the Thunder, and the town was anxious to replace them.

The Maloof’s were all set to move the team to Anaheim, but their fellow NBA owners blocked the move. The team was eventually sold to local interests led by software entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive. The team’s performance on the court hasn’t improved much since then, but with a new arena and long-term lease in place, the Kings remain in Sacramento...for now.

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