Sports Vault: A look back at the final NBA preseason game at the Cincinnati Gardens

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Gardens always represented home for LaSalle Thompson.

Whether he was a Hyde Park Elementary School student on an ice skating field trip or later playing in high-profile basketball games as a Withrow High School standout, Thompson felt a connection to the building at 2250 Seymour Ave.

LaSalle Thompson (provided)

After all, he moved to Bond Hill in 10th grade and lived right around the corner from the Gardens.

“For us coming from Withrow -- we didn’t have a home gym,” Thompson told WCPO.com.

“We played our home games at Walnut Hills. For us, (the Gardens) was big time.”

The Gardens was also social gathering space for Thompson.

Every time he hears Parliament Funkadelic, he is reminded of a holiday dance with thousands of high school students in 1978 at the Gardens. He later watched the Sugar Ray Leonard versus Roberto Duran fight on closed circuit TV in the summer of 1980.

So when Thompson and the Indiana Pacers arrived at the Gardens to play the Houston Rockets Oct. 23, 1992, it was a homecoming for the 1979 Withrow graduate and high school All-American. He left 50 tickets for family and friends.

 

“It was the first time I played there since high school,” said Thompson, who played at the University of Texas before he played in the NBA from 1982 to 1997. “It was almost like a family reunion.”

A lack of fanfare

Preseason games in the NBA are rarely remembered and certainly even less so after 25 years. That’s especially true for the final NBA game played at the Gardens.

Former Houston forward Matt Bullard, now a Rockets' TV analyst, told WCPO.com couldn’t recall the game.

Former NBA referee Mike Mathis, a St. Xavier graduate, doesn’t remember being one of three officials for the game.

Boomer, the Indiana Pacers' mascot, rappels from the ceiling of the Cincinnati Gardens.

The Pacers’ media relations department couldn’t find any photos of the game after a search of its archives this past summer.

Maybe that’s fitting in these final days of the 68-year-old arena which is scheduled to be razed by the end of this year.

The Gardens hosted so many more significant sporting events, concerts, musicals, political rallies and faith events than NBA preseason contests.

All that will soon be left is memorabilia and the sharing of photos and memories on social media along with an online catalog of old newspaper clippings about the events the Gardens once hosted.

But the Gardens is certainly a part of the NBA's history. Even if so many Cincinnati Royals' games are a footnote today. 

In October 1992, the media landscape for the NBA was much different. The coverage for an NBA preseason game in Cincinnati was scant when compared to the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James arriving at sold-out Cintas Center in 2015.

The Royals had been gone for 20 years by the time the Rockets and Pacers arrived in 1992. Still, two NBA superstars -- Hakeem Olajuwon and Reggie Miller -- not only appeared but played significant minutes in the preseason game.

Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon after scoring against the Indiana Pacers in an exhibition game at the Cincinnati Gardens in 1992.

Pete Robinson, former president and CEO of the Cincinnati Gardens, remembers working with then-Pacers General Manager Donnie Walsh to organize the game.

"It was very cool having two of the top NBA players of the era in that game -- Reggie Miller and Hakeem Olajuwon," Robinson said. "They were arguably the top shooting guard and center in the league at the time. NBA exhibitions were always well received by the fans and many reminisced about their memories of Cincinnati Royals games at Cincinnati Gardens as well as the outstanding sight lines that the venue offered for viewing the action."

However, the fanfare didn’t quite match the stardom on the court 25 years ago. 

“I am not so certain if it was the players (appeal) as much as it was the lack of interest at the time in the league,” said area media personality Andy Furman, who has long advocated for bringing back an NBA franchise to Cincinnati.

Occasional NBA visits

Three other NBA preseason games took place at the Gardens in the 1980s, including the 1983 NBA champion 76ers against the Pistons in a preseason game, according to former Gardens spokesman Greg Waddell.

Robinson said the Gardens never prepared for the return of an NBA team to the Gardens in the 1980s or 1990s but he always enjoyed seeing the superstars that came through town.

"I remember the earlier game in the '80s featuring Philadelphia 76ers led by the great Julius Erving," Robinson said. "That was cool."

Eight years had passed (Celtics-Pistons in 1984) before the NBA returned for the Rockets-Pacers game. 

An announced attendance of 6,651 showed up for the Friday night game in late October 1992. About 5,000 tickets remained that morning.

“A crowd of 6,651 converged on ancient Cincinnati Gardens Friday night in the interest of rekindling interest in an NBA franchise,” wrote Dan Dunkin of the Indianapolis Star the following morning.

To Furman, the NBA game was a treat. He had his own sports café nearby on Montgomery Road. Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich and the players visited his establishment after the game. Furman still has a Rockets sweatshirt he received that night.

But it’s difficult to find any other mementos from that night.

The Gardens had a newspaper advertisement in late September proclaiming the NBA’s (albeit short) arrival. Ticketmaster and the Gardens box office had tickets ranging from $10 to $20.

Dave Greene, the former Cincinnati Gardens Legends Museum Historian, said he sold a poster, tickets and programs from the game in 2016.

Hakeem played like a dream

The game saw a legendary NBA player in Olajuwon put on an show.

One of the game’s most dominating centers in the fall of ’92, Olajuwon scored 30 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked five shots in 40 minutes of action. However, the Pacers won in overtime, 107-98. Detlef Schrempf had 21 points and nine rebounds. Miller had nine points.

Thompson, then in his 11th NBA year and fifth with Indiana, started and scored six points. It was the first time he returned to play in Cincinnati since Dec. 30, 1981 when he played for Texas in a game against Xavier at Riverfront Coliseum.

Thompson’s first recollection of the game at the Gardens was fittingly the fact that Oscar Robertson was in attendance.

Thompson, who averaged 22.4 points and 24.3 rebounds at Withrow, always looked up to the “Big O.”

“When I was going to Withrow, Oscar Robertson came and worked out with me a few times and gave me some great advice,” Thompson said. “He was 45 years old and destroyed everybody in the gym.”

LaSalle's homecoming

Although one may assume the Pacers played at the Gardens in order to attract a Southwest Ohio audience to its product, Thompson said the real reason for scheduling the game was much more simple.

Withrow product LaSalle Thompson of the Indiana Pacers posts up Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets in a 1992 exhibition game at the Cincinnati Gardens.

“I think they did it because I was from Cincinnati,” Thompson said. “Donnie Walsh was our GM. I was always harassing him to have exhibition games there. I think he actually did that for me -- to have the game in Cincinnati. It was close and it worked out. It was very nice of them; the Pacers would do things like that.”

Thompson, 56, enjoys recalling his basketball career. He’s in good health and enjoying life in California.

The Sacramento resident is involved with commercial lending and land development. He planned to visit family and friends in Cincinnati this fall for the first time since 2007.

“I’m proud of my whole career but I am proud of the teams we had in Indiana,” he said. “We had good teams. I’m proud of the fact I always played on teams that got along and cared about each other even when we were down. That was always a blessing.”

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