Whatever Happened To ... The Rochester Royals?
Democrat and Chronicle by Alan Morrell June 8, 2014
Now that the National Basketball Association is preparing to crown its annual champion, it's a good time to remember the Rochester team that won it all more than 60 years ago.
The Rochester Royals captured the 1951 NBA title by knocking off the New York Knicks in the finals after defeating their longtime nemesis, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Fort Wayne Pistons in earlier rounds. Led by future Hall of Famers Bob Davies, Bobby Wanzer, Al Cervi, Red Holzman, Arnie Risen and owner-coach Les Harrison, the Royals were one of the league's top teams during its nascent years.
Ultimately, Rochester wasn't big enough to support an NBA team, and the financially strapped Royals left town after the 1956-57 season. For that one year, though, the Royals were kings of the court.
In a February 1990 Democrat and Chronicle story, Scott Pitoniak recalled how the game was different then. Players typically played beneath, not above the rim, and the two-handed set shot and layups were more common than the gravity-defying moves displayed by today's players. Pitoniak quoted Risen, the star center, who said the bottom line was still the same.
"People can debate all they want about how the game's changed and how the players have improved, but they can't debate the fact that we once were world's champions," Risen said. "They can't take that away from us. We're part of history."
Formed in 1945, the Royals originally played in both the old National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America and won the NBL title in their inaugural year. The style of play wasn't the only thing different from today's game. Most of the players then were white, but the Royals were pioneers in integrating pro basketball.
The team signed a black player, William "Dolly" King in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. According to a 1986 Democrat and Chronicle story by Jim Myers, the Royals were one of only two teams to sign a black player to a "big-time pro contract," and the reception was not always welcome.
During a playoff game in Fort Wayne, Ind., that 1946-47 season, fans and players mercilessly taunted King, Myers wrote. The Royals got some revenge by winning the final game of the series at home, "fueled with the indignation over the insults directed at King two days earlier," Myers wrote.
"The Democrat and Chronicle called the game, won by the Royals, 76-47, 'a triumph for American sportsmanship,' " Myers wrote.
For most of their tenure, the Royals played in the 4,200-seat Edgerton Park Sports Arena. Fans decked out in their best attire packed the cozy arena, which was a far cry from the palaces where today's players play. Those intimate surroundings, which included exit doors behind one of the baskets, led to some memorable incidents, as Pitoniak noted in the 1990 story.
"There was one game … when I scored, and my momentum carried me through the exit," Pitoniak quoted Davies as saying. "I wound up in a snow bank, and the door slammed shut. I was out there for two or three minutes before anybody realized that we were playing down one man."
The Royals moved to the larger, brand-new Rochester War Memorial for the 1955-56 season and hosted the sixth NBA All-Star Game in 1956. But their time in the Flower City was drawing to a close; the team moved to Cincinnati and later to Kansas City-Omaha before winding up as the Sacramento Kings. The Rochester team remains the only one in franchise history to win the NBA championship.
In 1990, the Rochester Press-Radio Club named the Royals the city's "Pro Sports Team of the Century." NBA officials finally got around to honoring the team; there were no championship trophies or awards or parades during those early years.
Rochester has had several pro basketball teams since then, including the RazorSharks, who are still playing. That NBA championship squad, though, remains dear to many. As Mike McAlary wrote in a 1982 Democrat and Chrronicle story, when the franchise was known as the Kansas City Kings, "They trace their roots back to Rochester. This is their hometown. They just grew up and left it."