Les Harrison, 93, a Pioneer Of Professional Basketball

By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
Published: December 25, 1997

Les Harrison, a professional basketball pioneer who founded and coached the Rochester Royals, a dominant team of the late 1940's and early 1950's, died Tuesday at Highland Hospital in Rochester. He was 93.

Harrison, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., coached the Royals to the National Basketball Association championship in 1951, when they defeated the Knicks in the finals.

But for owners in smaller cities -- Rochester's Edgerton Park Sports Arena held only 5,000 people -- it was almost always a struggle to survive.

''The N.B.A. was so small and operated on such a short shoestring that we won the title in Rochester and the league couldn't afford a championship trophy,'' Harrison would remember.

And there was little television revenue. Harrison would tell how in the early 1950's ''we put our worst games on because we feared that if we broadcast the best games, no one would buy a ticket. They'd all stay home and watch it for free. So what the public saw was the worst of pro basketball.''

But Harrison's Royals provided some of the best basketball, featuring slick small players -- Bob Davies, Bobby Wanzer, Al Cervi and the future Knick coach Red Holzman -- and a good big man, Arnie Risen, although they were usually beaten out by the Minneapolis Lakers and their star center, George Mikan.

Lester Harrison was born in Rochester on Aug. 20, 1904, and played basketball there at East High School. By the early 1940's he was running a strong independent squad that was sponsored by the Seagram's liquor company and Eber Brothers, a fruit, vegetable and liquor wholesaler. For a while the team was called the Seagrams, but Harrison changed the name to the Ebers because ''the Rochester newspapers were dry and would not take liquor advertising.''

In 1945, he and his brother, Jack, a lawyer who handled the team's business affairs, paid $25,000 to get a franchise in the National Basketball League, the only major professional circuit at the time.

The team, by then called the Royals, won the league title in 1945-46 and captured division championships the following two seasons.

Harrison integrated the league in 1946 by signing Dolly King, who had played at Long Island University, and Pop Gates, who had been with the all-black Rens.

The Royals joined the Basketball Association of America -- the forerunner of the N.B.A. -- in 1948. They remained in Rochester until 1957-58, when Harrison, who had turned the coaching over to Wanzer in 1955, moved them to Cincinnati. He sold the team the next season and in later years promoted college basketball in Rochester. The franchise is now the Sacramento Kings.

Fuzzy Levane, who starred at St. John's and then played for the Royals, would recall how Harrison kept a close eye on box-office potential, blending talent with ethnic appeal. Harrison recruited Levane and asked him to take a train to Rochester. ''I was supposed to meet a guy at the station who had the ticket for me,'' Levane recalled. ''The guy comes up and says, 'Are you Fuzzy Levine?' They thought I was Jewish. I was a New York player, but I wasn't Jewish. Les wanted Jewish players, and I brought him Dutch Garfinkel, who had played with me at St. John's, and Red Holzman from C.C.N.Y.''

Holzman once quipped, ''If Fuzzy's name had been Levine instead of Levane, I wouldn't be in the history books.''

Harrison was more a promoter than basketball strategist. Levane would recall how ''during timeouts, Les would shut up and the players would do the talking.''

Harrison endeared himself to his players after the games when he turned from coaching to catering.

As Levane remembered it, ''Les supplied the hot pastrami, corned beef and beers that we loaded on our Pullman cars as we traveled to the next game.''