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Relocated NBA Teams: The Rochester Royals

The Rochester Royals were a professional basketball team that played in the NBL and NBA from 1945 to 1957. The NBA’s Sacramento Kings can trace their roots back to this team, which was one of the first teams in the NBA. The Rochester Royals were formed in 1945 through a merger of two semi-professional teams, the Rochester Seagrams and the Rochester Pros. Long term team owner Les Harrison took great financial risk including mortgaging his house for $25,000 to facilitate operations of the new team. The name Royals was picked out of a fans contest which was won by Richard Paeth, a fifteen year old boy. In his essay, Richard saw the Royals as a fitting name for a team Harrison would be Sending out to bring the crown to Rochester.

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Largely due to Harrison’s clever man management and recruitment policies, the Seagrams maintained an impressive on-court performance in both the NBL and the NBA, despite commanding a somewhat smallish financial capacity and following. They finished second or higher in their division throughout their existence. In addition to that, they won one NBL title and an NBA championship. They won the NBL championship in their very first year in competition, effectively justifying the prophecy put forward by their moniker.

The 1951 NBA championship is undoubtedly the pinnacle of their achievements. With a roster boasting names such as Bobby Wanzer, Arnie Risen and Bob Davies, the Seagrams sped to a customary playoff berth after finishing second in the Western Division. They then ran over the Fort Wayne Pistons and New York Knicks in the playoffs to reach the Finals. Rochester would throw away a three game series lead to the Knicks forcing a game 7. They however won that in dramatic fashion thanks to two free throws by Bob Davies that broke a 75-75 tie with 40 seconds left. From the resulting tip (the rules were different then), a Jack Coleman lay-up put the Royals 79-75 ahead to seal the title.

In Les Harrison, the Seagrams had one of the most respected owners. Harrison, who had owned the Pros along with his brother Jack almost singlehandedly ran the Seagrams including coaching and scouting for talent through much of its time in Rochester. With his excellent scouting capabilities and large network of personal relationships, he was able to bring a pool of talented players to Rochester. A case in point is the acquisition of Andrew Levane in 1945. Levane was serving in the Coast Guard at the time and Harrison saw him playing for a service team, immediately hiring him for the Royals. Harrison’s friendship with a Seton Hall ballplayer landed him a referral for Davies who in turn helped him sign Bob Wanzer. The last member of that remarkable trio, Arnie Risen was signed from Indianapolis for $25,000, well below what his talents warranted.

Why the Rochester Royals were Relocated

Following the merger between the BAA and the NBL, the newly formed NBA became a hybrid of financially oriented franchises from the largely Eastern based BAA and community oriented franchises from the Mid-West based NBL. It soon became clear that the NBA would be pursuing the BAA’s model with big stadiums, large fan base and substantial financial outlays. One of the first policies passed by the NBA was restriction of exhibition games which had been a major source of revenue for NBL teams. Teams would also keep all gate collections from home matches which meant that teams with small stadiums were disadvantaged. These policies badly affected former NBL teams and small team towns, the Royals included. The Royals’ success in earlier years also contributed to the team’s undoing. As their stars began to age, they were unable to hit the highs of previous years. Attendance reduced steadily in the 50’s and it was obvious to Harrison that the NBA had outgrown Rochester, whose population was steadily declining as residents migrated to suburbs of larger cities. He eyed Cincinnati, with the 14,000 seat Cincinnati Gardens looking like an ideal home. Having agreed a deal with Cleveland and Cincinnati municipal officials, Harrison announced the relocation on April 4, 1958. The team retained the name “Royals” as it still fit Cincinnati’s nickname, Queen City.

Rochester Royals Notable Players

Bob Davies F 1945-1955
Arnie Risen C 1948-1955
Bobby Wanzer G 1947-1957
Jack Twyman F 1955-1957
Maurice Stokes F 1955-1957
Red Holzman PG 1945-1953
Arnie Johnson C 1948-1953
Jack Coleman C 1949-1956
Jack McMahon G 1952-1956
Odie Spears G 1951-1955
Dick Ricketts F 1955-1957
Art Spoelstra C 1954-1957
Richie Regan G 1955–1958

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