Saturday, March 13, 2021

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Les Harrison for Moving the Rochester Royals to Cincinnati

March 13, 1957: The Rochester Royals beat the St. Louis Hawks, 104-99 at the Rochester Community War Memorial Arena, or "The War Memorial" for short, in Rochester, New York. The Royals got a balanced attack: Bob Burrow scored 19 points, Maurice Stokes 17, Jack Twyman 15, Art Spoelstra 14, and Tom Marshall and Dave Piontek 10 each. This overcame 22 points by the Hawks' Ed Macauley.

It was the Royals' last game of the regular season, and, at 31-41, they had the worst record in the NBA, so they didn't make the Playoffs. So this would be the last game they ever played. 

The team was founded by the brothers Lester and Joseph Harrison, known as Les and Jack, and entered the National Basketball League for the 1945-46 season. At first, they played at the Edgerton Park Arena. In that 1st season, the Royals won the Championship of that Midwest-based league, and reached the Finals in each of the next 2 seasons, but lost.

The Basketball Association of America was founded for the 1946-47 season, based mostly in the Northeast. In 1949, the NBL and the BAA merged to form the National Basketball Association, which dates its founding to the 1946 formation of the BAA. The Royals joined, and won the Championship in 1951, with "Lucky Les" (who had starred as a player at East High in Rochester) as head coach, defeating the New York Knicks in 7 games.
Among the Royals' players were Basketball Hall-of-Famers Bob Davies, Bobby Wanzer, Al Cervi, Arnie Risen, Pop Gates, Alex Hannum, and future Knicks coach Red Holzman, who was elected as a coach, but was also a very good player, making 2 All-NBL Teams before the institution of the NBA All-Star Game in 1951. Les Harrison has also been elected to the Hall, in the Contributor category.
Bob Davies. He had starred at Seton Hall,
and a banner honoring him hangs
at the Prudential Center in Newark.

In 1955, the Royals moved to the 11,000-seat War Memorial. Among the construction workers was Robert Morella, who became one of the most popular professional wrestlers of the 1960s and '70s, under the name Gorilla Monsoon. Like the Philadelphia and Baltimore Civic Centers, it had a horseshoe-shaped seating area with a stage at one end.

Like the Baltimore version (now the Royal Farms Arena), but unlike the Philadelphia version (demolished to make way for a hospital), it still stands, under the name of the Blue Cross Arena It serves as the home of one of the most historic minor-league hockey teams, the Rochester Americans. It is also the home of the Rochester Nighthawks of the National Lacrosse League. 
For a while, on a court named for Les Harrison, it hosted the minor-league Rochester Razorsharks. Since 1963, it has hosted the Kodak Classic, an annual college basketball tournament founded by Les Harrison, and named for the photography company that put Rochester on the world's map.

But the arena no longer hosts professional basketball. After the 1956-57 season, the Harrison brothers moved the team to Cincinnati. Cincy is known as "The Queen City of the Midwest," so the name "Royals" still fit.

The experiment didn't work. The Royals got to the NBA Eastern Conference Finals in 1963 and 1964, but not to an NBA Finals, unable to get past the Boston Celtics. In 1966, the Harrisons sold the team to another pair of brothers, Max and Jeremy Jacobs. Jeremy would later buy the NHL's Boston Bruins. In 1972, the team was moved to Kansas City, which already had a baseball team called the Royals, so they became the Kansas City Kings.

In 1985, under yet another owner, they moved again, becoming the Sacramento Kings. In the 21st Century, there were threats to move to Anaheim and Seattle, before the Golden 1 Center was built, to keep them in California's capital.

To this day, the Kings hang a banner with the name "ROCHESTER," the NBA logo (the silhouette of Jerry West), and the legend "WORLD CHAMPIONS 1951" -- even though that was 70 years and 3 cities ago. That 70-year drought is easily the NBA's longest. And it's actually 4 cities, if you count the fact that the team was actually the Kansas City-Omaha Kings from 1972 to 1975, playing some home games in Nebraska.

Whether they should have stayed in Cincinnati, or in Kansas City, or in Omaha, is each a discussion for another time. But maybe leaving Rochester set them on a path to moving around, and to failure: In the 64 years since leaving Rochester, they have won just 9 Playoff series (and haven't even made the Playoffs since 2006, the NBA's longest current drought), and have never made the NBA Finals. They reached the Conference Finals in 1963 and 1964 in Cincinnati, did so in 1981 in Kansas City, and have done so in 2002 in Sacramento. That's just 4 trips to the NBA's round of 4 in 70 years. That's pathetic.

Should they have left Rochester?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Les Harrison for Moving the Rochester Royals to Cincinnati

5. Seagram. The liquor producer had sponsored Les' 1st pro basketball team, and also sponsored the Royals at first. But they did not support his wish to take them into the larger league that was formed with the NBL-BAA merger. Had they stuck with him, the team might have lasted longer.

4. Television. Seeing Major League Baseball games on TV helped to kill the Negro Leagues and devastate the minor leagues. That didn't affect the NBA much, since there was almost no overlap in season.

But the rise of TV did give people a reason to stay home during basketball season. What's more, unlike MLB, boxing, horse racing and (eventually) the NFL, in the 1950s, the NBA didn't handle TV well. You'd think it would, since the court was small enough for cameras to easily follow. (Horse racing was then popular on TV because, despite having the largest "field," the horses were all bunched together, making for easy camera work.) Games were locally broadcast, but not nationally, and the teams just didn't get enough revenue from it.

3. The NBA. Like the NFL, it had started in smaller cities in the Northeast and the Midwest, and all those cities would turn out to be to small to keep the league going, and would lose their teams, except for Green Bay, Wisconsin.

There were 4 teams that didn't even survive the 1st BAA (NBA) season of 1946-47: The Pittsburgh Ironmen, the Cleveland Rebels, the Detroit Falcons and the Toronto Huskies -- and those were all big cities at the time. By the dawn of the 1950-51 season, Providence, St. Louis, Washington and even Chicago had lost their teams. The next season, Indianapolis followed. And the original version of the Baltimore Bullets, NBA Champions in 1948, folded early in the 1954-55 season.

The Royals/Kings aren't the only team that has made several moves. One of the charter BAA teams was the Buffalo Bisons. They didn't even make it to the New Year in that 1st season, moving to Moline, Illinois, next-door to Rock Island, and across the Mississippi River from Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa. They became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. (The region is now known as the Quad Cities.) They only stayed until 1951, became the Milwaukee Hawks, and then moved again in 1955, becoming the St. Louis Hawks, the team the Royals played in their last game in Rochester. In 1968, they moved again, becoming the Atlanta Hawks.

The Royals weren't even the only team moving in 1957: The Fort Wayne Pistons moved to Detroit. (As with the Royals, the name made even more sense in their new city than in their old one.) In 1960, the Minneapolis Lakers, winners of 5 titles, moved to Los Angeles.

In 1961, an expansion team called the Chicago Packers began. After 1 year, they became the Chicago Zephyrs, probably because Chicagoans didn't want to root for a team called the Packers. In 1963, they became the new Baltimore Bullets. In 1973, they moved to Washington. In 1997, the Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards.

So the moving of teams wasn't something the early NBA establishment frowned upon. They would have been more surprised if the Harrison brothers had tried to stay in Rochester. Especially when there were other options.

2. Cincinnati. At the time, it looked like a good market. Between the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, it had proven itself to be a good market for college basketball. There wasn't much competition: The overlap with baseball's Reds was minimal, since the NBA Playoffs had yet to extend into May; and there was no professional football team, just UC.
Cincinnati, circa 1957

On February 1, 1957, the Royals had played a regular-season game in Cincinnati, at the Cincinnati Gardens. Two of the Royals' players, Jack Twyman and Dave Piontek, were Cincinnti natives, and suggested the game. Playing games at neutral sites, in order to build up NBA fandom in places where the league didn't have teams, was fairly common in those days before a national TV contract would make such games unnecessary.

The Royals beat the Pistons, 96-80. The Gardens was roughly the same age and size as the War Memorial: It was relatively new, opening in 1949; and seated 10,000, slightly less. It, too, had the horseshoe shape with a stage at one end. The game was a sellout, unlike most of the Royals' games in Rochester.
At the time, Cincinnati was home to about 500,000 people. Today, it's only a little over 300,000, thanks to "white flight." And with just 2.8 million people, it's one of the smallest metropolitan areas with a major league team in any sport.

And the city did lose the Royals in 1972. Despite the building of the Riverfront Coliseum in 1975, the NBA has never returned. The Gardens was torn down in 2018, and the Coliseum, now the Heritage Bank Center, has had minor-league hockey as its main program for most of its history.

1. Western New York State. While Cincinnati's population has shrunk significantly, Rochester didn't have a whole lot of people to lose. Even in 1957, it was home to only about 330,000 people, a little more than Cincinnati has now. Today, despite a reputation for scientific research, and for being the basis of the city of Port Charles on the ABC soap opera General Hospital, Rochester has barely over 200,000 people, with a metro area less than half the size of Cincinnati's, at 1.1 million.
A recent photo of downtown Rochester

This is matched by the other cities in Western New York. Syracuse lost the NBA's Nationals in 1963, becoming the Philadelphia 76ers. Like Rochester, Syracuse has a longtime team in minor-league hockey, the Syracuse Crunch. Both cities also have long had teams in baseball's Class AAA International League, the Rochester Red Wings and the Syracuse Chiefs. But not in the major leagues in either sport.
Frontier Field, home of the Rochester Red Wings since 1996

As stated earlier, Buffalo had already lost the BAA's Bisons in 1946. Buffalo also had a team called the Buffalo Bills in the All-America Football Conference from 1946 to 1949, but when the NFL took 3 teams from the AAFC, they took the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Colts and the San Francisco 49ers. It became known as "The Screwing of Buffalo."

Buffalo would gain the AFL's version of the Bills in 1960, and the NBA's Braves and the NHL's Sabres in 1970, the same year the Bills became part of the AFL-NFL merger. The Braves would move in 1978, and are now the Los Angeles Clippers. And the Bills and Sabres have both faced the possibility of having to move. Today, both are still struggling, despite both being owned by billionaires Terry and Kim Pegula.

Remember the movie It's a Wonderful Life? George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), operator of a building and loan association, is shown what his New York State hometown of Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never been born.

He sees that the company his father had founded had gone out of business, because George wasn't there to save it; the low-income housing George had built wasn't built; Henry Potter, the miserable old man who controlled everything in town but the building and loan, had changed the town's name to Pottersville; and, like an organized crime boss, he let other businessmen do what he pleased, so long as he got his cut.

And what businesses were doing well? Bars and casinos. The very things that, today, are pretty much the only businesses doing well in New York State, thanks to the local Native tribes getting casino licenses. In 2009, at the depth of a recession, a New York Times writer pointed this out, and contrasted it with the housing market that George Bailey once ran. The writer concluded that, for the sake of the future of the State of New York, the kindhearted Bailey was wrong, and the old bastard Potter was right. (And you thought the Times was a liberal newspaper.)

Put simply, New York State, from the capital of Albany on west through Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, simply can't support major league sports in the modern era.

VERDICT: Not Guilty. If Les Harrison (1904-1997) and his brother Jack hadn't moved the Royals when they did, they would have had to do so eventually. If they had sold the team, to take the decision out of their hands, no matter how committed the new owner(s) would have been to the city, the move would still have to have happened.

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