Saturday, December 29, 2012

Kings Without A Throne

I’ve taken yet another trip back in the past during my latest pet project, as I’ve been compiling a data base on the history of the Kansas City Kings bassit-ball franchise the last couple months. It’s easy to think of the Kings as a losing team, but looking back, I’d forgotten that they were indeed a very competitive squad for about a four-year span in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Unfortunately, unstable ownership and an inept front office doomed that team to infamy and they wound up moving to Sacramento, California in 1985, only to repeat many of the same mistakes they made here, and they may well be on the move once again pretty soon to Seattle. So, here’s a little tribute to K.C.’s lone NBA franchise that spent 13 seasons here…

Kansas City was actually intended to house one of the original American Basketball Association teams in 1967, but at the last minute, they pulled up stakes and landed in Colorado to become the Denver Rockets and are now known as the Nuggets. Five years later, the Cincinnati Royals were struggling both at the box office as well as on the court, and opted to move west. The team had already relocated once before, having started in the ‘50s in Rochester, NY (also known as "Royals"), and Kansas City was their first choice, but there was one little problem. Even though Municipal Auditorium was/is a venerable basketball venue, availability was a major issue for sizeable hunks of the season because of events like the Ringling Bros. circus and the Ice Capades, et al, and various annual conventions and trade shows the building also hosted in its exhibition hall (in the days before Bartle Hall opened next door), as well as concerts and operas that were staged in the adjoining Little Theater and Music Hall. Kemper Arena was still two years away from opening as well, and there were no other suitable venues in Kansas City to house the team on nights when The Aud was booked, apart from perhaps The American Royal Arena where the Kansas City Blues minor league hockey team played, but it only held about 5,000 fans, well below NBA standards.

Royals ownership took a cue from several ABA clubs who during the early ‘70s were "regional" franchises, staging their home games in multiple cities, like the Carolina Cougars (Greensville/Raleigh/Charlotte/Winston-Salem), Virginia Squires (Norfolk/Hampton/Richmond/Roanoke) and Texas Chaparrals (Dallas/Lubbock/Ft. Worth), so they decided to play about a third of their home games three hours away from K.C. in Nebraska at Omaha's 10,000-seat Civic Auditorium. Bad idea. Kansas Citians were none too crazy about having to share their NBA team with another city and it speaks volumes that the first game in Kings history took place in Omaha instead of Kansas City on October 19, 1972. This team got off on the wrong foot with this town and never fully righted itself in the 13 years it spent here. And, oh by the way, the top six smallest regular season home crowds in K.C. Kings history were in Omaha.

There was also another little problem: Kansas City already had a baseball team called the Royals (as did Omaha, K.C.'s minor-league AAA affiliate), so the basketball team was re-christened the "Kansas City-Omaha Kings". The team kept its basic color scheme of blue and white with red trim, merely altering their script name "ROYALS" into "KINGS", and also retaining their rather unique uniform feature from the Cincinnati days of placing the player’s surname BELOW the numbers on the backs of their jerseys (see left). The Cincinnati Reds also did this in the early ‘50s and the Royals co-opted this look for themselves and were the only NBA team to do so, although it’s common practice in the WNBA today and practical, since many female players have long hair, ponytails or dreadlocks that would shroud their name anyway. The "Kansas City-Omaha" moniker only lasted three seasons before it was shortened to just plain Kansas City Kings in the summer of ’75, following the team’s first season at Kemper Arena. 
Even with the truncated name, the team continued to play half-a-dozen games each season in Omaha through 1977-78, in part because Kemper was tied up for most of November every year with the annual American Royal Rodeo and most of March with the annual NAIA and Big 8 basketball tournaments. The Kings’ front-office didn’t have a clue how to market this team and were totally out-of-touch with their own fan base, and just when Kansas Citians thought they finally had the team all to themselves in ‘78, the Kings’ brain-trust came up with the not-so-bright idea of farming out some home games to St. Louis, of all places. And not just ANY home games, mind you, but major draws like Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, Kareem and Magic’s "Showtime" L.A Lakers, as well as Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers. True, the Kings threw fans a bone by televising these games (as well as most of the Omaha games) back to K.C., but Kansas City already has a bad enough inferiority complex when it comes to St. Louis, so to have its NBA team playing to sometimes-packed houses in its arch-rival city against the league’s marquee franchises three or four times a season was just insulting and ultimately another nail in the team’s coffin. Oh, and then the roofed caved in—literally—at Kemper Arena on June 3, 1979 (see above), necessitating their temporary move back to Municipal Auditorium for two-thirds of the 1979-80 season. It wasn’t until 1980-81—nine years into their existence—that the Kings first played their entire home schedule in Kansas City in their actual HOME at Kemper.

NOTE: The NBA itself wasn’t exactly helpful in promoting the Kings, either. Their Sunday afternoon TV coverage on CBS in the mid-to-late ‘70s included numerous "regional" telecasts featuring the Kings, but we rarely ever got to see our own team on TV, not even during road games because they were almost always blacked-out locally.

On the court, the Kings were a mixed bag. In their first season, the Kansas City-Omaha Kings were actually quite respectable, all things considered. Even though the roster was comprised mostly of holdovers from Cincinnati, the Kings seemed like an expansion franchise, but didn’t play like one, finishing 36-46, and they actually rose above the .500 mark midway through the season before a 7-game losing streak did them in.  Guard Nate "Tiny" Archibald had a ridiculously good year, setting team scoring records that still haven’t been broken and even landing on the cover of ‘SI’ (see left). Veterans like Matt Guokas, Sam Lacey, Nate Williams, Otto Moore and Jimmy Walker rounded out the roster in those early years, and rookies like Ron Riley, Mike Ratliff and Ken Durrett showed promise. Durrett, in particular, had the look of a star early on until he tore up a knee and was never the same afterward. The team slipped badly in ’73-‘74, leading to head coach Bob Cousy’s dismissal midway through. Cousy was a bit too arrogant to be a coach anyhow, and was replaced eventually by Phil Johnson, who led the Kings to their first playoff berth in ’74-’75. Three poor seasons ensued, Johnson was let go, then "King" Cotton Fitzsimmons took over as head coach in 1978, and he turned this team around in a hurry. The Kings raced to their first and only Midwest Division championship in 1978-79, led by fan-favorite Scott Wedman and rookie Otis Birdsong. Rookie Phil Ford out of North Carolina joined the Kings for the 79-80 season, and the Kings somehow muddled through their tenuous home court situation while Kemper Arena was re-roofed, going an impressive 21-7 at Municipal Auditorium in the interim before returning to the stockyards in February, 1980. That brief stint at "The Aud" also featured the infamous night when Darryl Dawkins of the 76ers shattered the backboard and scared the crap out of late Kings forward Bill Robinzine, who was directly underneath it and wound up picking shards of glass out of his hair for a week afterwards. The Kings finished with a winning record again that year, and just two games behind the Milwaukee Bucks in 2nd place in the Midwest Division.

Another problem that plagued the Kings was playing on the road. There were certain road venues this team couldn’t win at to save their souls, regardless of the quality of the competition at the time.  The MECCA in Milwaukee (4-24), Detroit’s Cobo Arena (3-14), the Philadelphia Spectrum (4-16) and even HemisFair Arena in San Antonio were all houses of horror for K.C., but the two worst of all by far were Portland's Memorial Coliseum and the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles.  K.C. (and/or Omaha) went 5-27 in Portland in the regular season, which included losing streaks of 13 and 9 games, but ironically, the Kings won the two playoff games they played there.  As for L.A., beginning in 1974, the Kings went on an ignominious road losing streak vs. the Lakers that lasted well into the ‘90s that turned out to be an NBA record for most consecutive losses at a road venue. Granted, the Lakers were always a top-flight team, but surely the Kings should’ve gotten lucky and won there now and then. They came very close on a few occasions at the Forum, but the only other time the Kansas City Kings ever won again in the City of Angels was against the Clippers at L.A. Sports Arena.

The postseason was usually most unkind to the Kings also, as they were one-and-done the first three times they made the playoffs (once to Chicago and twice to Phoenix), but the 1981 playoffs were another story.   Following a mediocre 1980-81 regular season in which they went 40-42 and barely snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, the Kings shocked the Portland Trail Blazers in a three-game mini-series for their first playoff series win (winning two games ironically at the aforementioned Memorial Coliseum), then followed that up with a seven-game triumph over the Phoenix Suns in the second round. The Kings were one series away from making the 1981 NBA Finals, but ran out of gas and lost to the Houston Rockets in five games.  Oddly enough, the 1982-83 Kings finished eight games OVER .500, but failed to make the playoffs—go figure.  Even so, the 1980-81 postseason was still considered a triumph—far and away the high-point of Kansas City Kings history—and fan interest in the team was at its apex.  Instead of capitalizing on their good fortune and building on it, they pissed it all away. Oh, and then along came this indoor soccer team you’ve heard me talk about…

Just when it looked like the K.C. Kings had a solid nucleus of a team that might rule the ‘80s, general manager "Clueless Joe" Axelson traded away Birdsong and Wedman and others and got bupkis in return for them via trades and/or the draft (Leon Douglas, Hawkeye Whitney, Brook Steppe, anyone?). Lacey was nearing the end of his career, Ford underachieved and the team was never quite the same after that, even after they brought in talented players like Reggie Theus, Joe C. Meriweather, Mike Woodson, Larry Drew and Eddie Johnson. The Kings only made the postseason one other time during their existence in K.C., a quick three-and-out against the Lakers in 1983-84 and fan interest dwindled, despite the efforts of their avid fan club, the "Backcourt Boozers". Again, the front office didn’t have a clue how to market the team, and totally failed to capitalize on the bounce they got from that ’80-’81 playoff run, let alone the resurgence in the NBA’s popularity caused by the emergence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the early ‘80s, and later Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, etc. Had MJ and those other guys come along a little sooner, who knows what may have happened here?

Meantime, the Kansas City Comets of the Major Indoor Soccer League hit town in 1981-82 and were an instant sensation, blowing the doors off the Kings in terms of attracting big crowds and leading their own league in attendance in 1982-83, selling out 15 of 24 home dates—downright unfathomable for a sport which theretofore had precious little history here. The stodgy Kings were too old-school to learn from the marketing wizardry of the Comets’ brilliant front office Leiweke brothers (Tim and Tracey) and I truly feel this led to the Kings’ downfall and eventual exit from this city. Kansas City is most definitely a basketball town—there’s too much heritage and history with all the Final Fours and NAIA Tourneys we’ve hosted here to deny that—so there’s no good reason an NBA franchise couldn’t thrive here, but the Kings managed to find a way not to. It just felt like the front office never truly gave a damn about their fans, and that WE owed it to THEM to attend their games. No big surprise that the city didn’t put up much of a fight to keep the Kings during their lame-duck 1984-85 season before they bolted to Sacramento to play in a renovated warehouse. Long about the time the NBA’s next season in KC would’ve begun, the Royals won the World Series, and the Comets were still packing Kemper, thus the Kings were already long forgotten, and they haven’t been terribly missed since then.

After the Kings’ departure, Kansas City spent one season in the minor-league Continental Basketball Association when a team called the Sizzlers played at Municipal Auditorium in 1985-86, but interest in them was tepid at best, and they moved west just like the Kings did—to Topeka. Over a decade ago, the Kansas City Knights were members of the hap-hazard and totally disorganized ABA 2000, a league in which franchises came and went at the drop of a hat on a weekly basis, playing their home games in high school gyms, YMCAs, playgrounds, parking lots, etc., and the Knights usually played to 15,000 empty seats at Kemper. And really, that’s been the extent of professional basketball in this town to date. The advent of the Sprint Center five years ago raised the possibility of the NBA (or even the Kings franchise itself) returning to downtown KC, but that seems to be nothing but false hope, and the University of Kansas men’s basketball team continues to serve as Kansas City’s ersatz "pro" basketball team. As for the Kings, one can’t help but think "what might’ve been", if they’d had some solid ownership and competent people running the team—they coulda been a contender...