The Cincinnati Royals were Ohio’s first team to play in the National Basketball Association. They played fifteen seasons in the NBA, from 1957 to 1972. The Cincinnati Royals are today known as the Sacramento Kings.
The Cincinnati Royals were originally called the Rochester Royals. The Rochester version of the team had remarkable success, 1945-1954, which included the 1951 NBA title. With pressure on owner Les Harrison to relocate to a larger city in the mid-1950s, the Royals moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in April, 1957. Their team colors were Blue, White and Red. The team logo was a smiling basketball face wearing a crown. Their home arena was the 14,000-seat Cincinnati Gardens.
The team’s local connections were a big reason for the move. All-Star Jack Twyman had starred at the University of Cincinnati. In addition to Twyman, 6’ 8 powerhouse Maurice Stokes was also a Royals All-Star. Stokes had been the 1955-56 NBA Rookie Of The Year and was the first black NBA superstar.
For the 1957-58 season, their first in Cincinnati, the Royals signed another big star, Clyde Lovellette, and hopes that first year were high. Injuries and military service in the backcourt slowed the team in the second half, however. In March, 1958 star Stokes suffered a head injury, which was then aggravated by a plane flight during the NBA playoffs. Bedridden, he never played again. The team was devastated by the event.
After two 19-win terrible seasons, the declining franchise was literally saved from folding by the arrival of territorial pick Oscar Robertson. The legendary Robertson immediately became the core of a new team that slowly rose to NBA contender by 1963. In the 1963 playoffs, the third place Royals shocked second-place Syracuse in the East playoffs, and took a 2-1 lead over champion Boston in the East Final.
But an ownership dispute that week had a circus in the Cincinnati Gardens. Arena boss Louis Jacobs, the team’s new owner, hadn’t expected the team to defeat Syracuse. Cincinnati then played two home playoff games at tiny Schmidt Fieldhouse, lost their momentum, and then lost to Boston in seven games.
The team had a poor track record signing draft picks, including Ohio phenom Jerry Lucas. After waiting a year, Lucas joined the club for the 1963-64 season and the team surged to the second-best record in the NBA. Cincinnati, which had declining attendance for the first three Robertson teams after his big rookie year, also surged to the top of the league there as well. The team won the season series with Boston, 7-5, but suffered injuries in the 1964 playoffs and could not finish the job. Management had also traded away some key reserves that year.
Robertson was rated by many as the finest single player the game had ever seen. The strong 6’ 5 star was a tremendous passer and willing scorer. He was undoubtedly Cincinnati’s court leader. Lucas, playing both starting power forward and reserve center, was also named First Team All-NBA with Robertson. He was a legendary rebounder. Wayne Embry, Twyman and Adrian Smith all were named NBA All-Stars at one point or another with the above two.
But the Royals could not defeat the legendary Boston teams or the Philadelphia 76ers with Wilt Chamberlain, who were just as good. They also played in the East Division. Had they played in the weaker West, where Baltimore played for three years, the Cincinnati Royals likely would have made the NBA Finals. Their best season may have been the 1965-66 campaign, where they had the best record in the NBA into February, and also hosted the 1966 NBA All-Star Game. In the 1966 playoffs, they again had the early lead on Boston, 3-1. But again they lost a third series to their rivals. Three veterans left the team after that series and the team declined.
1966-1969, owner Louis Jacobs moved ten of their home games per season to Cleveland Arena, where his Emprise Corporation had concession contracts. Robertson and Lucas still starred, and college legend Ed Jucker was brought in to coach. Adding All-Star Tom Van Arsdale, the team made a final run at the playoffs during the 1968-69 season, but again fell short. Frustrations with the team were high at that point. Robertson seemed distracted by his role as President of the NBA Players Union. Lucas seemed distracted by his business ventures, which made him an off-court millionaire.
In 1969, the elder Jacobs had passed away and his young sons, Jeremy and Max took over. Neither knew a thing about basketball, just hot dogs and popcorn concessions. They hired unknown Joe Axelson to be their new General Manager. Robertson later said ‘ Axelson didn’t know a basketball from a pumpkin ‘. The trio then waved a big pile of cash to woo Bob Cousy as coach. Cousy didn’t like the city, but took the money.
While Axelson began a plan to move the team to his hometown of Kansas City, the team was gutted. Robertson and Lucas were traded, both then winning NBA title rings in other cities. Cousy’s eye for talent nabbed and developed Nate Archibald and Norm Van Lier. Van Lier was later traded to Chicago. The Royals ultimately got little in return for Axelson’s personnel moves, and the team slowly sank to the bottom of the league.
Cousy created interest by playing himself in November, 1969 for a stretch of games. The 41-year old hadn’t played in the NBA for six years, but did sell a few more tickets with the brief stunt. The rigid 1970-71 NBA playoff format actually allowed Cincinnati to contend for a playoff spot. The league had expanded to four little divisions at two teams each for the playoffs, regardless of record. At 33-49, they missed the playoffs out of the new Central Division by just four games.
After the 1971-72 season, the now-laughingstock was sold to Kansas City owners. Axelson was among that group. At his insistence the team also later played home games in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Cincinnati Royals had several Hall Of Famers in Stokes, Twyman, Lucas, Robertson, Embry and Archibald, and were very serious NBA title contenders in their best days, a fact some have forgotten. The team left town a 30-52 doormat.
In February, 1996 four former Royals were named among the 50 Greatest NBA Players: Robertson, Lucas, Cousy and Archibald. None wore Royals colors at the ceremony.
In the total 1189 games the team played as the Cincinnati Royals they won 555 games and lost 634 games.
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