CINCINNATI — As the Cincinnati Gardens faces likely demolition, two of the biggest names to ever call it home looked back at their time playing in the arena.
Basketball Hall of Famer and University of Cincinnati legend Oscar Robertson played for the Cincinnati Royals at the Gardens from 1960 until he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks at the end of the 1969-70 season. Fellow Hall of Famer and Middletown High School product Jerry Lucas was with the Royals from 1963 until being traded in the 1969-70 season.
Lucas played at the venue at various stages of his career.
“I have very fond memories of my high school games,” Lucas said. “My thoughts and memories really begin back in high school for the Gardens.”
Lucas played hundreds of games at the Gardens with the Royals, but the atmosphere of the Middletown-vs.-Hamilton games evokes special memories. Two of those regular-season games are among the largest crowds in Gardens history. The Jan. 17, 1958 game drew 13,649, while the Feb. 10, 1956 game drew 13,167.
“It was really electric,” Lucas said. “There was so much excitement. It was one of those special rivalries. Middletown and Hamilton in those years bounced back and forth winning the state championship for quite a while. And so it was very, very electric and exciting. (Fans) came from all over and different states to watch that game. There was a huge amount of interest.”
Lucas said it was unique to play high school games and later NBA games at the Gardens.
“I had quite a history with the Gardens there before playing with the Royals,” Lucas said.
Robertson's first experience at the Gardens was in his college days. Playing for UC, Robertson remembers facing the University of Dayton at the Gardens to satisfy the home-and-home obligations.
“It was an arena," he said. "I don’t think it was that great of an arena. But it was a very nice arena for the time that we played there.”
As he reflects on his NBA days at the arena, he didn't see it as the same sort of hallowed place as Boston Garden or Madison Square Garden.
“It filled a purpose for us and for a lot of people, I am sure,” Robertson said, adding that there wasn't much of a home-court advantage at that time.
“It was a nice arena for what we had at the time,” he said.
“It was a good arena," Lucas said. "I enjoyed playing there. It was a great place to play basketball.”
Lucas said he doesn’t remember returning to the Gardens after his playing days. He was traded to the San Francisco Warriors early in the 1969-70 season. The Cincinnati Royals played their final game in March 1972 before leaving town and becoming the Kansas City-Omaha Kings the next season. By that time, Lucas was with the New York Knicks.
Both legends said they are surprised the Gardens has lasted as long as it has. Robertson said the locker room space and parking lots are inadequate.