Beginnings of Basketball
Basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The sport was created to provide an athletic activity that could be played indoors in the snowy and cold New England winters. It was instantly popular. As early as 1895, the YMCA began organizing regional tournaments. The game moved quickly into high schools and colleges. Graduates sought to keep playing and this inspired the first professional league.
Organized in Philadelphia in 1898, this “National League” lasted only five years. Similar leagues, typically centered around one large city and its suburbs, sprung up and folded with dizzying quickness. With so much instability at the professional level, the sport gained the most traction, with players and audiences, at the college level.
The 1920s were dominated by independent professional barnstorming teams, such as the New York Renaissance, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the Original Celtics.
American Basketball League (1925/26-1930/31) was the first effort to reestablish organized professional league play in basketball, but it did not survive the onset of the Great Depression. College basketball, however, flourished with the first championship of national scope, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), founded in 1938, quickly followed in 1939 by the appearance of the NCAA Tournament.
Given the sport’s popularity, efforts were made to reestablish professional ball again, with the appearance of the National Basketball League in 1937. It was made up primarily of small-market teams in the Great Lakes region. Teams in Fort Wayne, Oshkosh, and Toledo dominated the early years. Significantly, the NBL broke the color line in professional sports, as several African-Americans were signed to play over the course of the 1942-43 season, among them former University of Toledo star Bill Jones. This was five years before Jackie Robinson would break the color line in major league baseball, and four years before the NFL would see its first black players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.
Basketball Beginnings in Rochester
Rochester, like other cities of its size, hosted barnstorming teams. One of the most prominent, the Seagrams, was founded in 1923 by Les Harrison and sponsored by the Eber Brothers and Seagrams liquor companies. The Seagrams twice competed at the invitational Chicago’s World Professional Basketball Tournament, in 1940 and 1941. Though they lost in early rounds both times, their invitation to the tourney was an indication of their rising national profile. The Seagrams moved into the 4,200 seat Edgerton Park Sports Arena in 1943-44, and become known as the Rochester Pros. They played against nationally known barnstorming teams, including the Harlem Globetrotters.
When an NBL expansion franchise became available, Harrison jumped at the opportunity. He purchased the franchise rights for $25,000 in 1945, transforming the semi-pro Rochester Pros to the professional Rochester Royals in the process. A local 15 year old, Richard Paeth, suggested the new moniker in a naming contest: “Webster defines Royals as ‘pertaining to a king or crown…’ What could be more fitting than this as a name for the team Les Harrison is going to send out to bring the crown to Rochester?”
The city did not have to wait long for that crown. The Royals won the NBL title in 1945-46, behind the powerful play of future Hall of Famers Al Cervi, Bob Davies, and Red Holzman. The team claimed the division title in 1946-47 and 1947-48, staking their claim to being one of the powerhouse franchises of professional basketball.
The Royals sold out their games at Edgerton, but it was a very small arena, To supplement their income, Harrison scheduled exhibition games on the league’s off days, an important source of revenue for the franchise. As Holzman recalled, “(In 1945-46) we must have played a hundred exhibition games in addition to 34 league games.” All those games pushed the club into the black, allowing Harrison to keep the club profitable.
The Birth of the NBA
Soon, the NBL faced a rival league. The Basketball Association of America (BAA) was established in 1946. The BAA was largely located in major eastern cities and most BAA franchise owners also owned hockey teams. They sought to move into basketball to keep their arenas filled on nights when the hockey team was on the road.
But a paradox emerged. The BAA possessed large arenas in major markets. The NBL, however, had the top star players of the game. The solution was clear. The BAA lured four NBL franchises to its league for the 1948-49 season, including the Royals.
Finally, the two leagues agreed to a merger. The resulting National Basketball Association (NBA) was founded on August 3, 1949.
With the merger, the two leagues combined their strengths, putting big stars in front of audiences in larger venues. The old NBL teams dominated the new NBA. The first six NBA championship titles were claimed by three former NBL teams—the Minneapolis (now L.A.) Lakers, the Syracuse Nationals (now Philadelphia ‘76ers), and the Rochester Royals (now Sacramento Kings).
The Royals won the NBA title in the 1950-51 season. The deciding Game 7 was played at home, in Rochester, on 21 April 1951, and the Royals beat the Knicks by four points, 79-75, to claim the series. This remains the only NBA title in franchise history.
The NBA achieved the milestones of major league legitimacy—including permanent racial integration in 1950, its first national television contract in 1952, and the introduction of the 24-second shot clock to speed up play in 1954—with national coverages of teams in large markets with high athletic quality.
Challenges for the Royals
But it was this emphasis on large markets that held the seeds of the Rochester Royal’s demise.
NBA rules forbid non-league exhibition games, which has been a source of much needed income for smaller market NBL teams, including the Royals. NBA rules also stipulated that the gate receipts for home games went entirely to the home team, so the small market teams like the Royals saw no financial benefit from playing in the big arenas on a road trip. Then, the NBA suffered a league-wide drop in attendance, following a major college basketball point-shaving scandal in 1951, which undermined public trust in the game at all levels.
The Royals paid attendance declined, from 79,212 in the 1915-52 season to 45,150 in 1953-54.
In 1955, the Royals moved from Edgerton to the new, bigger War Memorial, which sat 8,000. Attendance rebounded to 83,330 for the season.
But more challenges followed. The team was getting old. Al Cervi departed for Syracuse. Red Holzman and Bob Davies retired. The team faced competition in Rochester from the newly formed Rochester Americans hockey team, which quickly outdrew basketball in the War Memorial. The team’s fans were moving. Middle and upper class Rochesterians, who made up the largest proportion of the Royals fan base, were moving to the suburbs. Between 1940 and 1950, Rochester’s population grew 2.3%; the rest of Monroe County, however, grew 36.7%. Many suburbanites found the drive into the city to see the game increasingly inconvenient.
Especially when they no longer needed to make that drive to see the Royals. The biggest threat of all to the Royal’s financial stability was off the court. On the opening night of the 1951-52 season, following their 1951 NBA title, attendance at home was only 2,316. Why? For the first time, the Royals’s game was televised.
But that was only part of the story. In 1950-51, only 24% of American households owned a television. Six years later, in what would prove the Royals’s last season in Rochester, 79% of American households had a television. As Les Harrison lamented, “We played Tuesdays and Saturdays opposite Milton Berle…Attendance went down after our title year. It was just a matter of time before we had to give up.”
The End of An Era
Falling attendance resulted in Harrison’s inability to keep up with salary increases, which got into his ability to attract and retain new players. From 1951-1957, the Royals failed to make a profit, losing around $131,000. Even hosting the 6th Annual NBA All-Star Game in Rochester on January 24, 1956, a game which featured future Hall of Famers Bobby Wanzer and Maurice Stokes of the Royals, as well as Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks and Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics, could not turn things around. Harrison reluctantly made the decision to move the team, and it relocated to Cincinnati in April 1957 before finally settling in Sacramento—where the franchise remains today.
Other small market teams did the same. The Fort Wayne Pistons moved to Detroit in 1957 and the Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960.
Harrison was blunt in his assessment: “I did not want to leave Rochester. I was born and brought up here and I didn’t want to take them out of here. We didn’t have money….This is a minor league city. If they are supporting a minor league hockey team and don’t want an NBA basketball (team) they should have their head examined…They didn’t realize what a good thing they had here. That’s all. They didn’t realize it. That was something special….”
It was. It was a time when Rochester was royal.