Remembering the Cincinnati Royals, 1979

[In the 2019 book titled Collision Course, writer William Cook examined the demise of the Cincinnati Royals, focusing on the rift between the team’s coach Bob Cousy and its star Oscar Robertson. Cousy won the battle when the team’s general manager Joe Axelson sided with the coach and unloaded Robertson. But Robertson got the last laugh when the team’s lukewarm attendance went ice cold after his departure, and the franchise relocated to Kansas City (playing some of its home games in Omaha).

Cook exchanged letters with Cousy about the move in 2015. Maybe tongue-in-cheek (or maybe not), Cousy wrote, “Let’s blame it all on Joe Axelson, he’s dead so he can’t defend himself.”

In this article, pulled from the April 8, 1979 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Axelson defended himself and the franchise’s move to Kansas City. Axelson’s perspective is interesting, though the GM botches some of the supporting details. 

For example, Axelson claimed the final straw came after watching “as exciting a game as I’ve ever seen” in which the Royals beat the Atlanta Hawks before a packed Cincinnati Gardens. He said Tiny Archibald and Pistol Pete absolutely dazzled that night, scoring 48 and 47 points respectively. Never happened. I checked.

[Correction: I was wrong, Axelson is absolutely correct. The Atlanta game to which he was referring happened during the previous 1970-71 season. Maravich went for 44 points, and Tiny topped him with 47. More than 12,500 packed Cincinnati Gardens that night, March 13, 1971. Four nights later, the Royals hosted the San Francisco Warriors and played before another anemic crowd.]

This article from the excellent Bob Hertzel, who’s now doing great things in my current home state of West Virginia, offers a telling look at why the NBA failed in Cincinnati. Axelson and others concluded in this article that the NBA was just a bad fit for Cincinnati. Cook, with the hindsight of nearly 50 years, doesn’t buy this assessment: “If Bob Cousy could have hung in there just a couple more years and Joe Axelson would have had one iota of vision, they would have had a brand-new [arena] for the Royals and a generation of thousands of new young and very enthusiastic fans that would have supported the Royals …” I’m going with Cook on this one. After all, Axelson eventually bombed in Kansas City, too.]

Sam Lacey (right) drives on Dave Cowens. Oh, what might have been.

He is the last of the species, so to speak, a fossilized reminder of a long-past era, of a day when there roamed the streets of Cincinnati these primates of gigantic proportions who resembled human pogo sticks. He is Sam Lacey, the last of the Cincinnati Royals. 

It has been forever and a day since the Royals deflated their basketballs and left for Kansas City. The last season was 1972, Sam Lacey’s second year as a pro. 

Back then they didn’t like Sam Lacey and Cincinnati, the community’s disenchantment with the franchise being reflected in its attitude toward the man. The taste that remains is bitter. Lacey was young, impressionable, a kid out of New Mexico State who was given a million or so dollars and who stepped in over his head. 

The interview with Sam Lacey was short and not sweet. The Kansas City Kings, that distant relative of the Cincinnati Royals, had just finished a day-of-the-game practice, and Sam Lacey had put his 6-foot-10 frame into a chair.

“I ain’t talking to no reporters from Cincinnati,” he said, not looking up. “Not what they did to me in that city. Not the way they treated me. You talk to Bob Cousy. He always did the talking anyway. You talk to him. I ain’t talking to no one from Cincinnati,” he said. 

“Sam,” came the answer, “I never wrote any of that stuff. All I want to hear is why you’re mad at the city. What was it?”

“Man, I ain’t saying nothing. That’s it,” he said. 

That was it. Sam Lacey remembered the days here, the rips, the shouts from the stands, his confrontations with Bob Cousy, the coach. 

“He plays defense as though it were illegal—and his brand (of defense) is,” wrote one Cincinnati reporter. “He slaps or reaches out after he has already been beaten. He gets fouls. Sam was built for the game in Indianola (his hometown in Mississippi).”

There were other phrases, Lacey once being described as a “hunch-backed oaf trying to balance himself on a beach ball.” And finally, they flat out wrote that “Sam Lacey was horrible.”

It hurt him, and he has not forgotten. He no longer is horrible. He has nine years in the league now. He knows how to play. The Kings are in the playoffs, and he is one of the reasons. 

So, Sam Lacey wouldn’t talk. Others, however, would. They are leftovers, too, from that other era. There is Joe Axelson, a man who is neither lean nor angular, the president of the club. He takes the blame for there being no National Basketball Association game in Cincinnati. 

“I failed,” he says flatly. 

He remembers the day that he was hired, when the Jacobs family of Buffalo, owners of the Royals, contacted and gave him the job. He was ecstatic. “I looked at it like this. I was sitting there in the corner of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, all basketball hotbeds. I thought I was in heaven. I failed.”

Joe Axelson tried. He tried hard to make a go of the franchise. “It is,” he admitted as he sat behind his desk in Kemper Arena, “probably the biggest single disappointment I ever suffered, not being able to make it go.”

There were so many might-have-beens, Axelson revealed. To start with, there was the draft of Sam Lacey. “You know,” Axelson said, “we drafted Lacey the next pick after Boston took Dave Cowens.”

Had Cowens been available, he would have been a Royal. He would have been available, too, had not the Celtics lost seven of their final eight to get the pick. “Cowens started contributing immediately. If there had been that immediate success with us, we might still be in Cincinnati,” said Axelson.

Joe Axelson (standing)

But it wasn’t to be. Then, there was the Oscar Robertson trade, a deal that had a souring effect on those who had idolized The Big O over the years. “We got into an ego situation,” Axelson explained, meaning the superstar player and the hard-headed, one-time superstar coach in Cousy. “I think Oscar was wrong. I think Cousy was wrong. And I know I was wrong for going with one side over the other.”

Axelson sided with Cousy in his battle with Robertson. The Big O had to go. “More bad trades are made because of personalities than any other reason,” said Axelson. 

He tried to get Gus Johnson from Baltimore for Oscar. It almost came off. Almost. “If we had completed the Gus Johnson deal, had he have come to Cincinnati, we still might be there,” said Axelson. 

But the Royals are not in Cincinnati anymore. Attendance slipped and dropped until, in 1971-72, only 126,562 people were announced as paying their way in. “If you could see the real figures, it would amaze you,” said Axelson, indicating that the house’s figures were well papered. 

“I was the reason we left town,” said Axelson. He recalled the night when the team was at home, involved in a battle for the playoffs. They had a gimmick night, a giveaway, and, as Axelson recalls, “we filled the building.” He also recalls it was “as exciting a game as I’ve ever seen. Tiny Archibald we got 48 points, I think, and Pete Maravich 47.”

Okay, thought Axelson, that should stimulate interest. “Golden State comes in next. They have an attractive team, a playoff team, and we draw maybe 4,000. The next day I went to Buffalo, to Max Jacobs and say, ‘You either have to move or sell the club.’ He tells me to start looking for a city.”

Larry Staverman, who is vice president in charge of just about everything in Kansas City, is a native of northern Kentucky, a holdover from the Royals. He knew the team was destined to fail in a different way. 

“We had shoe night,” Staverman related. “Giveaway shoes. Well, about 200 people came, got their shoes and then left, didn’t even stay for the game.”

So the Royals left, adopted a new name and went to Kansas City. Attendance picked up, doubled, but the club lost money. “Funny thing is, every year we turned a small profit in Cincinnati,” said Axelson, the result of owning the Cincinnati Gardens and the concessions.

Mistakes in Cincinnati, however, made the situation hopeless. There was Cousy and the Oscar trade and the building. 

Now, there are rumors floating around that the city again is being considered for an NBA franchise, what with the shiny new Riverfront Coliseum sitting almost idle downtown. Could the NBA make it in a different age, in a different building?

Staverman thought not. Axelson would not go so far as to say no, but he offered no optimism. One drawback both men saw was the very nature of Cincinnati itself. 

“I had one promotion, and I tried to get help from the Chamber of Commerce,” said Axelson. “I found out there was a chamber of commerce every three blocks. Here in Kansas City, when you ask someone where he is from, he says, ‘Kansas City,’ not ‘Overland Park’ or ‘independence.’ In Cincinnati, though, you ask someone, and he says, ‘I’m from Western Hills’ or ‘I’m from Cheviot.’”

Fragmentation of the population hurts pro basketball, both men agree. “You can’t get anyone from northern Kentucky to get interested in Cincinnati things,” said Staverman. “They’d rather drive to Lexington to see UK play than drive across the river to see a Cincinnati pro basketball team.”

Only baseball, a game steeped in tradition here, has been able to rally all the factions together. But, even there, the Reds draw many of their fans from outside 50 miles. “Basketball is played in bad weather, snow and sleet,” said Axelson. “You draw from no more than 30 miles away.”

So it didn’t work in Cincinnati, and the men who are left believe that it won’t work again. But it is working in K.C. “For the first time, we are on the verge of making a profit,” said Axelson. 

And, ironically, it is working because of the very things that went awry in Cincinnati. For example, Axelson again stuck his neck out and made a controversial trade, sending Nate Archibald to the New Jersey Nets. 

Instead of getting Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk, as he had for Robertson, he wound up with some draft picks, one of whom turned out to be Phil Ford of North Carolina, who is the heart of the club’s offense.   

“It is funny how things work out,” said Axelson. “We wind up with Ford. Archibald goes to the Nets, and Dr. J. gets mad and leaves the club. If Archibald and Dr. J. had been together, who knows what might have happened there. Then, Archibald gets hurt.”

So the trade works. The city supports the team. They play a couple of games in St. Louis, and that city comes out 19,000 strong. The most-critical year in the franchise works out well.  

“I’ve never been discouraged,” Axelson says. “We came here with very little fanfare. We just kinda sneaked into town late one afternoon. Just because we were here, the city didn’t owe us anything.”

Axelson worked and succeeded where he had failed in Cincinnati. And now, there remains only Sam Lacey on the court as a reminder of another day, another time, of a day when there was a game called pro basketball in Cincinnati. 

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