A mere 72 years and three cities ago, the Rochester Royals, great grandfathers of the current Sacramento Kings, won a Game 7 over the New York Knicks, 79-75, to become champions of the known basketball world.
It remains the only NBA title for a franchise that has been a league staple since the 1949 merger, which combined the Basketball Association of America with the National Basketball League to form what we know as the National Basketball Association.
The franchise has moved continually west, perambulating from Rochester to Cincinnati to Kansas City (and, briefly, Omaha, as well), and finally, in 1985, to Sacramento, where its parched fans are enjoying their first playoff run since 2006.
That one title was definitely hard earned. It is the only NBA Finals in which a team cruising along with a 3-0 series lead found itself facing a seventh game. Oh boy, with a minute and change left, it was tied at 75.
But then Rochester stalwart Bobby Davies, a four-time first-team All-NBA luminary, received the benefit of the doubt on a classic block/charge collision with New York’s “Tricky Dick” McGuire.
George Beahon of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle recorded it for posterity as follows: “Davies, blond-shocked veteran of six seasons with the RR men, stepped up to the free throw line with the decision hanging in the balance, calmly poured in a brace of points that snapped a 75-all deadlock, and broke the Knicks.”
Red Holzman — yup, that Red Holzman — eventually dribbled the clock down before feeding Jack Coleman for a ceremonial finale.
Rochester owner Lester Harrison, who also happened to be the coach, later lamented his personal euphoria was short-lived.
“We had one good year when we won the title. We figured we’d made a little money that year, but when we were through we had lost a couple of thousand dollars. We didn’t make any money. We kept hoping it would get better ... it was losing for everybody all the time.”
Five years later, Harrison, who also controlled the arena in which his Royals played, would be on the losing end of a rather crucial negotiation, sending his coveted spot in the 1956 draft to Boston. In return, Walter Brown, who owned the Celtics and the Ice Capades, gave dates of the latter to his Rochester counterpart.
Harrison finally gave up in 1957, moving the team to Cincinnati. Nobody was going to beat the Celtics in those days, but the Royals were building something fairly promising when hit with an unspeakable tragedy. All-Star Maurice Stokes, a multiskilled forward best described as Elgin Baylor before Elgin Baylor, sustained a brain injury from a fall during the final game of the 1957-58 season, leaving him permanently paralyzed with what was diagnosed as encephalopathy. All-Star Jack Twyman became Stokes’s legal guardian, and their relationship was later made into the 1973 movie “Maurie.”
But for Bill Russell & Co., the Cincinnati Royals might have hung a banner or two in the ‘60s. They did, after all, have Oscar Robertson, as well as such notables as Twyman (who averaged 31 points per game in 1959-60), Wayne Embry, Arlen Bockhorn, Adrian “Odie” Smith, and Jerry Lucas.
They certainly gave it a go in 1963, pushing the Celtics to a Game 7 in the Eastern Division finals. But Sam Jones hit them with 47 points in a 142-131 Boston triumph. Bob Cousy, in his farewell season, also came up big that evening with 21 points and 16 assists.
The Celtics became entwined with this franchise a second time in 1969. Cousy, only weeks into his role as coach of the Royals, decided to unretire and activate himself. The ever-resourceful Red Auerbach utilized the fact that he still held Cousy’s playing rights, not granting Cousy his wish until he received compensation.
The return was a mini-disaster, lasting seven games. Bill Dinwiddie, the player Auerbach extorted from the Royals, played 61 forgettable games in his Boston career.
Phase III in this franchise’s existence began with the move to Kansas City and, yes, Omaha, in 1972. The team split home games between the cities for three years, much to the dismay of the players and coaching staff, I’m sure.
By far the artistic highlight of this slice of franchise history was the spectacular play of Nate “Tiny” Archibald, the 6-foot — don’t let anyone tell you anything else — southpaw dynamo who in the ‘72-73 season became the first player to lead the NBA in both scoring (34.0) and assists (11.4).
The Kansas City run was basically pretty blah, peaking in 1981 when a team featuring Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, and Phil Ford, coached by Cotton Fitzsimmons, defeated Portland and Phoenix before losing a five-game series to Houston in the Western Conference finals.
Chapter Four began in 1985 with yet another relocation, this one to Sacramento. In their first 13 years playing in the California state capital, the closest they came to a .500 season were a pair of 39-43s in ‘95-96 and ‘96-97. If I’m not mistaken, one national magazine published an article identifying them as the league’s most forgotten franchise.
It’s a circumstance current fans can relate to. After a terrific run from 2001-02 through 2004-05, during which they averaged 55 wins a year, they had not enjoyed a winning season since 2005-06.
The one brush with true greatness came in 2002, when a Kings team led by Chris Webber and Vlade Divac went head to head with the mighty Lakers, losing a seventh game in overtime a step shy of the Finals. Amid some concerns over the officiating, the Kings must always live with a 16-for-30 showing from the foul line in the most important game in their Sacramento existence.
The last 16 years have been dreadful. Until now. This team went 48-34 while leading the NBA in scoring with 120 points a game. Finally, there has been something to cheer about.
Oh, yes, the phenomenon known as “Light The Beam” has given them an identity. After each win, a buzzer sounds and a 300-watt laser beam is launched. Corny? Maybe. But no city reveling in a rendition of “Sweet Caroline” during a baseball game has room to talk.
Whatever transpires in this Warriors series, you have to think a team with a relatively young nucleus featuring Domantas Sabonis (26), De’Aaron Fox (25), Malik Monk (25), and Kevin Huerter (24) ought to be around for a while.
Anyway, I’m sure all those old RR men are enjoying it up there in that Sports Bar In The Sky.
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.