The onsite exhibition focuses on the history of the Rochester Royals, which are one of the NBA’s original eight teams. Today’s Sacramento Kings are the inheritors of the Royals’ legacy, including their NBA crown in 1951.
The display narrates basketball’s history from its earliest days when the game 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. Naismith, who was characterized as “divinity-school graduate, muscular Christian and drum major for clean living,” posted his original regulations, the most important document from the game’s history. The original rules are to hoops “what the 95 Theses are to Protestantism—the source of it all.”
The exhibition’s focus is the Rochester years, specifically 1945-57, though the game was played in the city earlier than that. One of the most prominent teams, the Seagrams (also spelled Seagram’s), 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. 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 teams, including the Harlem Globetrotters. In short, Rochester, like other cities of its size, hosted barnstorming teams.
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.
Soon, the NBL faced a rival league. The Basketball Association of America (BAA) was established in 1946. The BAA was primarily 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.
The Royals won the NBA title in the 1950-51 season. The deciding Game 7 was played at home, in Rochester, on April 21, 1951, when the Royals beat the Knicks by four points, 79-75, to claim the series. Even with a championship title, the Royals struggled financially. NBA rules forbid non-league exhibition games, which had been an important income stream for small market teams, including the Royals.
In 1955, the Royals moved to the new War Memorial, which sat 8,000. Attendance rebounded to 83,330 for the season. But the team faced increasing competition from the newly formed Rochester Americans hockey team, which quickly outdrew basketball in the War Memorial. In addition, 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. Perhaps 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’ game was televised.
In 1950-51, only 24% of American households owned a television. Six years later, in what would prove the Royals’ 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.”
In April 1957, the Royals moved to Cincinnati, where they remained until 1972. They moved to Kansas City in 1972, and the name of the franchise was changed to the Kings, to avoid confusion with major league baseball’s Kansas City Royals. The team remained there until 1984. They opened the 1985-86 season in their new home in Sacramento, and they have been there ever since.