From The Vault: The Cincinnati Royals had some of the NBA's biggest stars, but hard luck, too

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CINCINNATI – March Madness means rooting for Xavier and UC and your other favorite teams far and near, and that used to include the NBA Cincinnati Royals.

Yeah, we used to have an NBA team. That's lost on a lot of Tri-Staters today, and it's no wonder. The  Royals played their last game here 44 years ago – on March 23, 1972  - and they never won a division title or reached the NBA Finals in their 15-year run.

The Royals were, unfortunately, Cincinnati's hard-luck team before the Bengals came along.

But their names are legendary in Cincinnati sports lore.  Led by Oscar Robertson, one of the NBA's all-time greatest – if not the greatest -  the Royals put seven Basketball Hall of Famers* on the court at Cincinnati Gardens at one time or another.

Local fans had the good fortune to watch the Big O, Jerry Lucas and Jack Twyman on the same team for three seasons (1963-66) battling the giants of basketball – Bill Russell and the Celtics, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor of the Lakers, Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors (and later the Lakers).

It was the Golden Age of hoops in Cincinnati, with Robertson and Twyman first starring at UC, Lucas coming from Middletown High School and UC going to five straight Final Fours, winning two straight titles and losing No. 3 in overtime. Xavier won an NIT title and a few years later a Musketeers guard named  Steve Thomas averaged 30 points per game and twice won all-America honors. But Thomas ripped up his knee and had to quit.

The Royals migrated here from Rochester, New York, in 1957 as part of the western movement of pro teams in the late '50s. When Twyman, who started his pro career in Rochester, found out the owners wanted to move, he suggested Cincinnati as a new home.

The Royals made the playoffs in their first year in Cincinnati, but the team almost fell apart after Maurice Stokes' paralyzing injury at the end of the season. Twyman, though, pulled them together and, in a remarkable act of compassion, took Stokes' care upon himself when team ownership balked.

You might remember Twyman and Stokes from the movie "Maurie." Or you might know the story. Stokes, a 6-7 Royals star,  fell and struck his head after pursuing a rebound in the last regular-season game of 1958. After playing in the first playoff game,  Stokes suffered a seizure on the flight home.  For 12 years, Twyman made sure Stokes got proper medical treatment, raised funds for his  care and even became his legal guardian. Stokes died in 1970.

Twyman carried the team through two disastrous 19-win seasons after Stokes' injury. Twyman became only the second NBA player to average 30 points per game in 1959-60.

The Big O arrived the next season and took some of the load off Twyman, averaging 30+ points per game in his first two years. The NBA had a territorial draft at the time, and that's how Robertson and Lucas ended up with the Royals..

Robertson had been the greatest college basketball player ever. A muscular 6-5 guard who could leap out of the gym, he was the most prolific scorer in NCAA history (33.8  points per game) and a fearsome rebounder (15.2 per game).

Robertson turned the Royals into winners in his second season (1961-62) and they went to the playoffs for another four years.

Robertson' second season was the greatest one-man show in NBA history. He averaged a triple-double with double figures in scoring (30.8),  rebounding (12.5) and assists (11.4). No NBA player has done it since, although Robertson nearly did it the next three years.  He had 41 triple-doubles in 72 games in 1961-62  – an NBA record. By comparison, Michael Jordan had 28 in his whole career. Robertson had 181 in all – also an NBA record.

Robertson and the Royals might have won several NBA titles in the '60s except for Russell and the Celtics. Boston had a dynasty, winning every championship from 1959 through 1969 except one.

During their five-year playoff run, the Royals had the second-best record in the NBA (55-25) in 1963-64 and finished second to the Celtics in the Eastern Division three times. But the Celtics also eliminated them from the playoffs three times.

The Royals had the Celtics on the ropes in the 1965-66 playoffs after winning two games in Boston and taking a 2-1 lead. But the Celtics came back on the way to the eighth straight NBA title.

After that, the Royals' history sounds a little like the Reds' of late. They had two straight losing seasons and went into a "rebuild."

They brought in a new coach - Bob Cousy, the Celtics'  Hall of Fame  guard - and Cousy and Robertson clashed. The Royals traded Lucas, then 30,  just four games into the 1970-71 season. He played five more seasons and won an NBA title with the Knicks.

Robertson, 31, was traded to Milwaukee after the 1970 season and combined with a second-year center named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win an NBA ring in his first year with the Bucks. Robertson played four seasons in Milwaukee before retiring.

After the Big Three were gone (Twyman retired in '66), the Royals drafted a new star in electrifying guard Nate "Tiny" Archibald, who became a Hall of Famer himself. But none of the players they got for Robertson  (Flynn Robinson, Charlie Paulk) or Lucas (Jim King, Bill Turner) added to the victory total or the attendance, and the Royals never made it back to the playoffs.

On March 4, 1972, the Royals owners made announcements here and in Kansas City that they were going to sell the team to a Kansas City business group. The Royals general manager, Joe Axelson, told the KC audience that it was a good basketball town and Cincinnati was not. 

The Gardens, off I-75 in Bond Hill, wasn't easy to get to and it wasn't in an entertainment district where most arenas are now. Besides, attendance had been falling since the team dumped its stars. Only 4,022 loyalists showed up for the final home game  - a 132-114 victory over the Baltimore Bullets on March 23, 1972.

The team owners, brothers Max and Jerry Jacobs (they also owned the Gardens), didn't sell the Royals after all, but moved it to Kansas City anyway. They played games there and in Omaha, Nebraska, until a new arena was built mainly with public dollars. The Jacobs moved the team to Sacramento in 1985. It still hasn't won an NBA title.

There was no support for a publicly funded arena in Cincinnati in 1972. At the time, hockey was the up-and-coming thing. A new minor-league team, the Swords, had just started  sharing the Gardens with the Royals. A local ownership group headed by Bill DeWitt Jr., set out to build Riverfront Coliseum in expectation of getting an NHL franchise. They didn't, so they joined a new competing league, the World Hockey Association, instead.

Ron Grinker, a well-respected Cincinnati attorney and sports agent, tried to drum up support for buying an American Basketball Association team and moving it here. He said he thought he had a deal to buy the Floridians, a Miami-based team, but it fell through and the Floridians folded.

"I don't think people realized what they've lost," Grinker said about the Royals' departure. "Maybe this is the kind of shock people need to bring new interest to the city."

But Cincinnati never got behind a pro basketball movement. By then, the Bengals had started playing in 1968, Riverfront Stadium had opened and the Big Red Machine had already been to a World Series in 1970. Hockey was here and more hockey was coming.

The Kentucky Colonels ABA team occasionally played games at Riverfront Coliseum, and a minor-league team, the Slammers, played at the Gardens from 1984 to '87. But basketball salaries had increased so much you needed an owner with deep pockets, and nobody was forthcoming.

Andy Furman, a local PR guy and sports talk host, tried to get the basketball rolling again and again in the 1980s and '90s. The Cavaliers and Pacers brought some exhibitions games here, but only to expand their TV and ticket  markets. Over time, Riverfront Coliseum – now US Bank Arena - became too small, old and outdated to host an NBA team.  And in more recent years, Xavier's and UC's success has made this a college basketball town.

No, the NBA isn't coming back. But it was fun while it lasted.

* The other Hall of Famers who played for the Royals in Cincinnati had short stints with the team. They were Stokes and Clyde Lovellette (1957-58) and Guy Rodgers (1967-68), At age 41, Cousy came out of six years of retirement in 1969-70 and played 34 minutes in seven games. He scored five points.

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