CINCINNATI -- Christmas has always been Rick Barry’s favorite holiday.
So it only seems fitting that one of the most memorable nights of his basketball career happened 50 years ago this Sunday at the Cincinnati Gardens.
Barry scored 50 points for the San Francisco Warriors in a 124-112 win over the Cincinnati Royals in front of 6,172 fans on “Family Night” at the Gardens Dec. 25, 1966.
Barry’s 50 points is still the most by an NBA player for a winning team on Christmas Day. He still takes a great deal of pride in his career including that game.
It is the third-highest total for an NBA player on Dec. 25. Wilt Chamberlain had 59 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in a 136-135 double overtime loss to the New York Knicks in 1961. Bernard King had 60 points for the Knicks in a 120-114 loss to the New Jersey Nets in 1984.
Barry, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, always had confidence in his game, regardless of the situation. He had plenty of respect for the Royals' Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas but knew what he was capable of doing.
“The Royals never had anybody who could guard him,” former beat reporter Jim Schottelkotte told WCPO.com.
Barry scored 50 or more points six times during that 1966-67 season, including 57 against the Royals in late October at the Gardens. He is the only player to lead the NCAA, NBA and ABA in scoring. He scored more than 25,000 points in his pro career.
“There is no such thing as a lock-down defender,” Barry told WCPO.com last week.
“I hear that mentioned by sports analysts and I am thinking, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ If I am on my game nobody is going to stop me unless somebody is blocking all my shots and that’s not going to happen. So all a good defender can do is make you work harder. If you are on and things are rolling for you that night and you get into a so-called proverbial zone, things go for you.”
Barry, 72, lives in Colorado Springs and spends winters in Florida. He feels blessed to have his health and family. His friends Craig Sager and Nate Thurmond died this year. He has a gracious perspective on life.
Barry doesn’t recall much about his Christmas performance 50 years ago. He believes Lucas guarded him that night. It was a long time ago to remember too many details.
Barry was a 22-year-old forward in his second season in the NBA. He was selected to his second NBA All-Star game Christmas Eve -- a game in which he won MVP honors in front of the home fans at the Cow Palace in January.
As a rookie, Barry's first All-Star Game in January 1966 had a unique moment at the Gardens.
He actually fouled out when he was called for a charge in the lane as the referee claimed he tried to move the 7-foot-1, 275-pound Chamberlain out of the way with his left arm. That’s a moment that still makes Barry incredulous to this day.
His only other Cincinnati memory from early in his career occurred a month before his first All-Star game. He saw the James Bond movie “Thunderball” on Christmas Eve. On Christmas, he scored 22 points against the Royals at the Gardens.
“I was all excited because I was a big James Bond fan,” Barry said. "...Maybe I had a little 007 agent in me the next day.”
A different era
This Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers will host the Golden State Warriors in the NBA’s marquee Christmas matchup for the second straight year on national television.
Commercials and social media offer plenty of hype about the Christmas Day schedule. Fans have salivated for this matchup since the NBA schedule was released in the summer.
The ratings will certainly speak for themselves. This is the ninth consecutive year that five games will be nationally televised.
This year also marks the 69th time the NBA has played games on Christmas Day, starting with the 1947-48 season. NBA games were first televised in 1967 and the tradition continued throughout the decades.
But the Warriors-Royals game from Christmas 1966 wasn’t televised. It was only heard on WCKY radio.
“It was a totally different world we played in,” Barry said.
The Cincinnati television schedule was dominated with holiday-themed shows that night: The Ed Sullivan Show was on at 8 p.m. on Channel 9 while “The F.B.I." series was on Channel 12 and the sitcom “Hey, Landlord” was on Channel 5. The only sports programming was a Canadian Football League matchup between Winnipeg and Edmonton at 2 p.m. on Channel 5.
“Back then, Channel 5 would pick up a few (Royals) games during the season, but those were usually ones played at locations such as Dayton where the Royals took some of their home dates in those days,” Gardens historian John Perin said.
The Gardens, built in 1949, likely didn’t have many holiday decorations around the building for that Christmas night game (8 p.m. tipoff) in ’66.
In so many ways, it was just another game.
But the Royals did promote a family discount for the game. The main photo of the Cincinnati Post’s sports page Dec. 24 showed the Engelharts, a family of 10 that said it would attend the Christmas game.
The Royals had a ticket deal where dad pays full price (either $3.50, $2.50 or $1.50) and “mom and the kiddies get in for 50 cents apiece.”
The family promotion started in 1958 and lasted at least through 1968. A newspaper advertisement bore a smiling Royals globe logo with a Santa beard on Dec. 19, 1968.
“For a perfect wrap-up to the holiday season, why not see the Royals in action at Cincinnati Gardens on Christmas night. Lots of free gifts, goodies and surprises in store from Santa Claus, too!”
Lucas, the Middletown High School legend, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, remembers eating a meal with his family and enjoying the opportunity to play Dec. 25 in his career.
“At first it seemed kind of very unusual (to play on Christmas),” Lucas told WCPO.com. “But I ended up enjoying it and everybody else did. I think all the fans did too. It was a little diversion from Christmas morning and all that so it was a good thing.”
Just a memory
The Gardens is in its final days.
The old barn sits quietly on a teeth-chattering Sunday afternoon a week before Christmas. The doors are chained off from entry. The wrecking ball will appear in early 2017.
The Royals are a distant memory. And so are many of the countless other sporting events, concerts, rallies, shows and competitions.
The Gardens didn’t host any Christmas Day events in the past 35 years. The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority closed on the property in July. The plan for the property is light manufacturing.
The final NBA Christmas game in Cincinnati occurred 45 years ago. The Boston Celtics defeated the Royals 99-94, and in what is now a historical footnote, Bob Cousy coached the Royals for their final season in Cincinnati.
But at one time the NBA on Christmas was an annual tradition in Cincinnati.
The only time the Royals didn’t play on Christmas was its first season in 1957. The first of 14 consecutive Christmas games at the Gardens started in 1958; it was also the first “Family Night” promotion.
“Enjoy the game and be home before 11,” an advertisement in 1958 promised. “Give the youngsters an exciting special Christmas night they’ll never forget.”
The Royals had a 9-5 record on Christmas during the franchise’s time in Cincinnati. But, the Royals could never get past the Celtics. Lucas and Robertson were eventually traded.
The franchise moved after the '71-72 season and became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1972-73. The team was known as the Kansas City Kings from 1975-85 and later became the current Sacramento Kings.
The NBA has never returned to Cincinnati in December.
And soon the Gardens, like its long-ago Royals heritage, will be just another ghost of Christmas past.