Professional basketball fans in Ohio have one “home team” to root for: the Cavaliers. But for more than a decade starting in the late 1950s, there was a pro team in Cincinnati, too.
The Cincinnati Royals had three things going for them. (1) They had a brilliant team name, (2) one of the best players in the game in Oscar Robertson, and (3) briefly Hall of Fame forward Jerry Lucas was also on the roster.
While the Royals did make the NBA Playoffs a few times (hard not to with The Big O and Lucas on the court), ultimately they fell out of favor with fans and relocated. The franchise still exists today, albeit in an unlikely location.
Before The NBA & Move To Cincy
To understand the Cincinnati Royals you have to go back to upstate New York to Rochester, a city that sits smackdab between Syracuse and Buffalo on Lake Ontario. How old is Rochester? So old that it is named for a fella named Nathanial Rochester, who dodged British musket fire in the American Revolution. The city became famous in the early 20th century as the home to the Eastman Kodak Company, an early “Silicon Valley,” but instead of being built on microchips and tech startups, it was darkroom chemicals and camera equipment.
In 1945, Leo and Jack Harrison, a brother duo who loved hoops, founded a pro team in Rochester and gave it the imaginative name “Pros.” Within two years, the siblings had helped shepherd a merger of two leagues to become the nascent National Basketball Association. The Harrisons were forward thinkers. They signed the first African-American to play in the NBA, and in 1951 the Rochester squad, by that time dubbed the Royals, won the 1951 NBA title.
Few people outside of his grandchildren remember Leo Harrison, but he was an important figure in the nurturing of the NBA, and he was later elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
An NBA title couldn’t disguise the fact that Rochester was a pretty darn small town for an NBA team, and in 1957 the franchise moved to Cincinnati. The primary reason for the move seems to be that a favorable lease was secured to play home games at famed Cincinnati Gardens — an impressive venue that featured six iconic marble athletic statues at its entrance. The team may have also been lured by the talent at local colleges. That soon proved to be important to team success.
Territorial Picks In The Queen City
The Royals were perfect for “The Queen City,” and in their first years in Cincinnati, the franchise was popular. At the time, Cincinnati did not have a football team, and college basketball was wildly popular, especially once Robertson arrived on campus at the University of Cincinnati in 1957. The Bearcats made five consecutive trips to the Final Four starting in 1959 and won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1961 and 1962.
Before Robertson, the Royals had another Cincinnati star in Jack Twyman, who was an NBA All-Star in the first few years the franchise was in Ohio. But they got their biggest prize with The Big O when the star guard declared himself eligible for the 1960 NBA Draft. At that time the NBA allowed teams to make one “territorial pick” in each draft, meaning the Royals could claim Robertson as their own, which they did.
How great was Robertson? The 6-foot, 5-inch guard was the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season. He was a 12-time All-Star and an 11-time member of the All-NBA Team. He won an MVP Award, and in college, he led the nation in scoring not once, not twice, but three times. The award given to the best player each year in college hoops is named for him. He was also dynamic and flashy. An entire generation of young kids who followed basketball in the late 1950s and 1960s grew up wanting to shoot, dribble, and pass like Oscar.
The Royals added Lucas in 1963, a talented forward who had starred for Ohio State. The year after Lucas signed, ticket sales doubled for the Cincinnati. The team also improved by 13 wins and advanced to the second round of the NBA Playoffs, where it was defeated by the Bill Russell-led Celtics. Three times in the 1960s with Robertson and Lucas on the roster, the Royals were vanquished by Boston in the playoffs.
Moves West, Then Farther West
At the end of the 1960s, saddled with debt, the new owners of the Royals started to trade off their stars, and in 1967 they even began playing some home games in Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton, to attempt to drum up support for the sagging franchise. But the die was cast, and in 1971, negotiations began between the league and team owners to relocate or sell the team. Finally, with Robertson and Lucas long gone, the team was sold prior to the 1972-73 season and was transferred to Kansas City.
Even that move proved to be shaky. The new owners demanded that the season be split between two homes: Kansas City and Omaha. That arrangement lasted three seasons before they settled on Kansas City, renaming them the Kings.
In Cincinnati, the team had fashioned a catchy logo — a basketball with a beaming smiley face and a crown on top. The use of “Kings” in Kansas City continued to pay homage to the franchise roots. For 13 seasons the franchise called Kansas City home (even making the playoffs five times), until it moved once more to sunny Sacramento prior to the 1985-86 season.
To this day, the Sacramento Kings carry remnants of the Cincinnati Royals — the royal nickname, the purple/blue team color, and a penchant for disappointment in the playoffs. Though they’ve been a member of the NBA since the beginning, the Kings (Royals 3.0, if you will) have never hoisted the title since that long-ago season in Rochester. In some ways, the stint in Cincinnati was the best in history given the Hall of Famers (Robertson and Lucas) and the glory that accompanied their college careers in Ohio.
Ohio sports has a lot to celebrate, present and past, but the Cincinnati Royals should also be remembered for their important role in fueling the love affair the state has for basketball.
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