Sports Vault: Slammers fans were few in number, but at least they could always get good seats

CBA team seemed jinxed from the start

CINCINNATI -- Back in the day, the professional basketball scene in Cincinnati was, well, Slammin'.

"Let's start at the beginning," Robert McKay of Cincinnati Magazine wrote in February 1986. "Jerry Robinson, a lawyer and real estate developer, bought the (Cincinnati) Gardens in 1979. He needed an attraction to fill his arena and, encouraged by his relationship with the Xavier Muskies, he purchased a controlling interest in Lima's Continental Basketball Association franchise and relocated in Cincinnati (in 1984).

"At the time, it didn't seem like a bad idea," he continued. "The Slammers were going to present high-quality pro ball and feature local players, former college stars. Nice idea, but they ran into some snags."

Cincinnati Slammers in action.

It was the first time a professional basketball team had played in Cincinnati since the Royals relocated to Kansas City in 1972. But it was a difficult road to success.

For one, college basketball had become more popular, especially with the various ESPN networks producing multiple games from various leagues. Then the team itself was not very good and, according to McKay, there were lingering bad feelings over the departure of the Royals.

Also, in a weird twist, players' names were not sewn onto the backs of the jerseys, which made it increasingly difficult to follow the game.

"(I)t seemed like everything the team did turned sour, like they were jinxed," McKay wrote.

Many local players tried out, and the stories were the stuff of legend. One kid came down from Alaska. Another rode his bike up from Tennessee.

 

Derrek Dickey, 33, was a former Purcell and Cincinnati star who won a World Championship with the 1975 Golden State Warriors. Mark Dorris came off a 3-25 season at UC and dreamed of the NBA.

Both got cut.

There were other disappointments, too.

"Rudy Macklin, a former NBA player, did not show up at all," McKay wrote. "DeWayne Scales flunked the physical. (But) Victor Fleming and Bob Miller did make the team. Brian O'Conner, from Thomas More, also made the club."

The first player signed was former Dayton star Roosevelt Chapman.

"It feels good," he told United Press International. "I'll be close to home and there will be a lot of (NBA) scouts here watching us."

Playing in the CBA was a grind, though. As a minor league to the NBA, the talent got $400 a week, and they played 48 games a season, riding a bus to games under 500 miles away -- to Detroit, Evansville, Oshkosh, Lancaster and Louisville.

"The season began and the Slammers lost their first game in overtime. Holy omen!" McKay wrote. "Losing became a habit and the crowds were dismal. Players came and went like faded jeans at a swap meet .... On the Slammers, illness, retirement, walking out and getting the old heave-ho are often jumbled."

The coach at the beginning of the year was -- I am not making this up -- Tom Sawyer, a 31-year-old who lasted just a few months. (Perhaps he had to get back to painting that fence?) Tom Thacker, former national champion guard from UC, then moved up from assistant to become head coach. Herb Brown was hired as head coach before the 1985-86 season and led the team until it went defunct following the 1986-87 season. Through its entirety, offensive struggles made the team difficult to watch, and the revolving door of players and coaches never endeared themselves to the hometown.

Cincinnati Slammers head coach Herb Brown

"On a single day, Dec. 23, the Slammers signed (former Elder star Dan) Federmann, waived Dorris, suspended Scales, obtained the rights to (Walker D.) Russell and lost to the Puerto Rico Coquis before 545 fans in the 10,000-plus seating of the Gardens," McKay wrote.

That first season, the Slammers finished with the worst record in the league, 17-31.

Of course, there were a few bright spots.

 

The Slammers had the only female trainer in professional sports in Sue Shapiro. In 1985, they hired the first female general manager of a basketball team when they hired Linda Reed. And they still had local heroes like former Louisville guard Jerry Eaves, Middletown legend Butch Carter and Dayton star Sedric Toney. Jeff Jenkins from Xavier and Dwight Anderson of Kentucky also dropped by for a while.

Cincinnati Slammers player John Moose Campbell

"The fans may have been few in number but they dig the product," McKay wrote. "They like that funky feeling. They get good seats -- take your pick -- they get to see guys who are trying to make it big, out there struggling for all to see, and they get to flash their own freak flag."

With only a handful of fans in the arena, fans would still start the wave. And many would come dressed up like characters from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "

"It's hard not to root for the Slammers, underdogs one and all, full of hidden passions, right?" McKay wrote.

Then, by 1986, everything changed. Victor Fleming made the All-Star team. The team somehow finished with the best record in their division (33-15). And the Slammers made it all the way to the Western Division Finals, before losing to the La Crosse Catbirds, 4 games to 2.

 

It all came to a screeching halt, though, in 1986, when Robinson sold his share of the team. In fairness, his argument was that the team lost money and couldn't attract fans. Not a good business recipe.

After team owner Jerry Gordon bought Robinson's share of the team, he ended up selling to Krause Gentle, which owned a convenience-store chain. They relocated the team to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

And, like that, professional basketball was once again gone from Cincinnati.

But thanks to a resurgence of vintage websites, fans can still find jerseys and T-shirts of this team, as well as pictures and other memories when people remember Cincinnati Gardens.

And in 1999, the city was back in the pro-basketball game with the International Basketball League's Cincinnati Stuff.

But that's a story for another time.

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