We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.
Picture, if you will, a crowded basketball arena in Western New York. It is the dead of winter, a snowy evening in the late 1920’s. Fans smoke cigarettes and cigars and, because it is Prohibition, sneak hard spirits from pocket flasks.
In between puffs and nips, they shout encouragement as well as slander to players on both sides. Imagine, though, a quiet gripping the crowd as one sharp-shooting guard, after weaving through an intricate series of moving and stationary picks, receives a pass from a teammate. From the deep, right-hand baseline corner, the dead-eye fixes his black-canvass, rubber-soled shoes on the scuff-stained floor, rotates the leather-laced ball until the feel is right, and then releases it with two hands, pushing it out and upward, creating an arcing trail through the smoke-soaked air. He and everyone in the place watch as the orb succumbs to gravity and descends like a comet, making reentry at the center of an iron rim looped by tight twine.
The place erupts, the player raises his arms in triumph, but also makes the mistake of backpedaling one step too many in celebration. His back collides with an unlocked side door. It opens as he crashes through, and automatically closes the moment he passes into the outside environs. He lands, and momentarily disappears, into a snowbank. He sits for a moment, somewhat amused and freezing. Inside, the game rages on, four against five.
If you can see, hear and smell that sporting scene in your mind, which, by some historical accounts, actually happened, then you can understand the Rochester Seagrams. They were a semi-professional team founded by a visionary hoop fanatic named Les Harrison. As the team’s name suggests, one of their sponsors was the Seagrams Liquor Company. They barnstormed for years, until, in 1945, Harrison scraped together $25,000 to purchase a franchise in the fledgling National Basketball League. Harrison’s NBL team became the Rochester Royals, and their home court was Edgerton Park Sports Arena, with a seating capacity of about 4,500.
The Royals were one of the best teams in the NBL, winning the league’s first championship in 1946. They had an interesting, eclectic mix of multi-tasking athletes, such as Otto Graham, who also played quarterback (and made the NFL Hall of Fame) for the Cleveland Browns, and Chuck Connors, a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs, who after sports turned to Hollywood and television and landed the lead role in the ABC hit series, “The Rifleman.”
The next year, the Royals failed to defend their crown, but did make history by breaking the color line in the NBL, giving a contract to an African American player by the name of William “Dolly” King. This was before the Brooklyn Dodgers did the same for Major League Baseball with Jackie Robinson.
In 1951, the NBL, awash in debt, merged with another league, the BAA, also in bad economic shape, to form what is now the National Basketball Association. And that year the Royals, owned and coached by Harrison, and led by stellar guard play from Bobby Davies, Bobby Wanzer, and Red Holzman, later a legendary coach for the New York Knicks, won the first-ever NBA championship.
And that was that when it came to the franchise capturing titles – be it in Rochester, or next in Cincinnati, where the Royals, floundering financially in a small market, relocated in 1956.
The Cincinnati Royals were a middling to good team for many years, thanks largely to the extraordinary skills of Oscar Robertson. The “Big O” played his college basketball for the Cincinnati Bearcats and led the squad to several final four appearances, but no national championship. After being drafted by the Royals in 1960 with a signing bonus of $33,000, Robertson became an instant star, if not the best player in the league. His acumen and effort kept the team on the winning side of the margin for many years. But by the late 1960’s they had fallen into the also-rans, and fan support for the Royals had diminished. To drum up interest, they hired a 41-year-old Bob Cousy, the leader of many Boston Celtic championships, to serve as player/coach. But it did not help. In 1972, the team, in search of revenue, packed its bags once again and headed to Kansas City, Missouri.
Renamed the Kansas City Kings (the change from Royals was done so as not to confuse them with the MLB Royals), the team hoped to gain a wider audience by playing games in Kansas City and Omaha. They would have been better off fielding better squads. Mostly they stunk and would have been irrelevant save for the herculean performances of one of the smallest players in the league, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, a Bronx-born, blink-quick lefty, a score-first point guard who was also a savant passer. So good was Tiny at both skills that he became the first player, in that first season in Kansas City – Omaha, to lead the league in points and assists.
By 1985, Tiny was gone from the Kings, and they were on the move again, this time to Sacramento. It was a good choice. The city has been good to the team, the fans loyal and loving, despite many a poor year on the court. But by the mid- 90’s, their perseverance was rewarded with some of the most exciting teams in league history. These Kings teams played an inspirational, fast-paced brand of basketball that blended the street game with exacting execution. With stars such as Chris Webber and Vlade Divak and Jason “White Chocolate” Williams in the fold, they were, between the years of 1998 to 2004, considered the “Greatest Show on the Court.” Still, they never made it a league finals, never hoisted a championship as did their long-ago organizational ancestors did that first year of the NBA’s existence.
After that run of brilliance, the Kings fell back to the pack, and sometimes lower. Issues with the arena they played and concerns about revenue had them, once again, at risk of being moved. But in 2013 a new ownership group, headed by Vivek Ranadive, bought the team for a then-record $534 million dollars. This cemented the team in place, and served as a foundation, or springboard, for a revitalization in enthusiasm and an upgrade in arenas. They now play their home games at the Golden One Center with a seating capacity of more than 17,000.
The team, today, is valued at $1.775 billion.
So you see how the ball bounces, don’t you? In a tiny gym or a huge one, dribbled by a player making pocket change, or one making millions, from town to town, city to city, region to region, country to country. What starts as a trickle can end in a torrent. Life moves and changes, moves again and changes again. As the old saying goes, the journey in life is everything.
Imagine that. Then go shoot some hoops.