Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The NBA Comes to Omaha

Recently, a small-to-moderate number of eyes, all of them bleary from tuning into the late NBA playoff games, turned towards Sacramento, wondering if perhaps the Kings would be taking their talents (and terrible chemistry, coachability, and cohesion) to Seattle.  I, for one, didn't care one way or another. But if the Kings had ended up heading north, I would have felt no pity for Sacramento...after all, what goes around comes around.

There is no NBA franchise that has spurned more cities than the Kings. They began as the Rochester (NY) Royals in 1948, before moving to Cincinnati in time for the 1957-58 season. They ditched Cincinnati for Kansas City-Omaha in 1972 (changing their name to the Kings along the way), and then dropped Omaha in 1975. Ten years later Kansas City got the boot too, and since 1985 the Kings have found their home in Sacramento. 

As a resident of Omaha and an NBA junkie, I've always been fascinated by the fact that, for three glorious years, my city had joint custody of an actual NBA team. This post is for myself and for the tens of other NBA fans in Omaha (I think I've met all of you): a brief history of that time our mid-level Midwestern city kind of had an NBA team of its own. 

I. - The Move in and the Move Out
Professional basketball in the 1970s bore little resemblance to the well-oiled mass-marketed machine that is the NBA today (thank you Bird/Magic and Jordan for that). That's not to say there were not supremely talented players to see. Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar patrolled the paint, Walt Frazier and Tiny Archibald added flash from the perimeter, and John Havlicek and Jerry West were in their prime, to name just a few recognizable names. Yet the NBA, competing with its upstart rival, the ABA, until 1976, had not yet emerged as a dominant force in the national sports consciousness. As evidence, look no further than the television broadcasting contracts handed out to the NFL, MLB, and NBA in 1970. While football earned $22 million per year and baseball clocked in at $16 million, the NBA drew only $1 million per year from ABC.  

It was within this somewhat unstable environment that the Kansas City-Omaha Kings came into existence, replacing the franchise formerly known as the Cincinnati Royals. The move west from Cincinnati was certainly not without warrant. For five straight years, the Royals ranked dead last in the NBA in attendance, and in the first three of those five seasons, the great Oscar Robertson was suiting up. So when a group of ten businessmen from Kansas City decided to buy the Royals, there was really nowhere for organizational support to go but up.

Originally, the new owners had kicked around the idea of having a tri-city franchise based out of St. Louis, Kansas City, and Omaha. That ridiculous plan never reached fruition (which is actually kind of surprising, given the prevalence of harebrained ideas that did come to pass in professional basketball in the 1970s), but the Kansas City-based ownership group still had a problem: the future home of the Kings, Kemper Arena, was under construction for two more years, and their temporary home court in Kansas City, Municipal Auditorium, was not available for all 41 home games required by the NBA schedule. Enter Omaha. 

In 1970 Omaha was the 41st largest city in the US, with about 100,000 fewer people than Cincinnati (the 29th largest) and 150,000 fewer than Kansas City (the 26th largest). By itself, Omaha was probably not going to carry an NBA team. But its location a few hours up the Missouri River from Kansas City meant that it could at least be a makeshift sidekick for a couple years. Interestingly, Kansas City's management sold the dual-franchise shtick as if it was permanent. Joe Axelson, the King's GM, went even further. "This is definitely a two-city franchise," he said, before spewing utter bullshit. "Actually, Omaha is the proven NBA city. Kansas City is the chance city in this arrangement."

Axelson was referring to the fact that dating back to 1968 Omaha had hosted 11 Cincinnati Royals games, averaging just over 5,000 per game in attendance (numbers which, if extrapolated over a full season, would have placed them a measly 13th out of 17 teams in attendance). In that sense, Omaha did indeed have more experience than Kansas City, although calling it "proven" was quite a stretch. Clearly, though, Omaha did have an appetite for basketball, and more importantly, it had an auditorium which could match up reasonably well with most NBA and ABA homes. There had reportedly even been discussions to move the ABA's Miami Floridians to Omaha for the 1972 season. Fortunately for Omaha, that deal did not go through...getting fifteen games a year of Tiny Archibald for three seasons was a much better deal than 41 games of the entire nondescript Floridian roster for any amount of time (The only interesting player on their roster was 12th man Walter Piatkowski, who was interesting not for his actual minimal playing time, but only because he became the father of future Nebraska Cornhusker star and NBA sharpshooter Erik Piatkowski).
Despite Axelson's public comments, Omaha's city leaders must have known that the clock was ticking on their fifteen minutes of NBA fame. They ended up getting co-billing for three years, along with 15, 14, and then 11 home games, until Omaha was dropped from the team name prior to the 1975-76 season. As a token of goodwill (or guilt), Kansas City allowed the Kings to play six games in Omaha for three more seasons before Omaha's run as a pseudo-NBA city finally came to a close. In the end, the one lasting national image of Omaha's dalliance with the Kings is a microcosm of the whole experience...the October 15, 1973 cover of Sports Illustrated (see above) featured a shot of Nate Archibald driving past a defender, with the the word "Omaha," fittingly, in the background.

II. The 1972-73 Season

The Kansas City-Omaha era began on October 11, 1972 in Omaha's City Auditorium against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. A near-capacity crowd of 9,000 watched the Kings get eviscerated by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Pat Riley, and co. The final score, 129-94, was a harbinger of the mediocrity to come that year. 

There was a bright spot throughout the 36-46 season, though, and it came in the form of left-handed point guard Nate "Tiny" Archibald (see highlights for yourself here). On a team with no defense (last in the NBA in defensive FG%) and no rebounding (last in the NBA in rebounding), Archibald at least made for an entertaining offensive attraction. He became the only player in NBA history to lead the league in both points per game (34) and assists per game (11.4) in the same season. Archibald also led all NBA players in minutes per game (46), field goal attempts per game (26.3, a number so high that only one time in his career has Kobe Byrant attempted more shots per game), and free throws made and attempted per game. His historic season caught the eye of the national sports press, including the New York Times, which described Archibald's game as similar to "the roadrunner in the cartoon who goes beep-beeping under and around the legs of anybody who gets in his way on the way to 2 points." 

For such a high-volume scorer, Archibald maintained an impressive 48.8% field goal percentage. Perhaps most remarkable were the 46 minutes per game he played. No NBA player since has ever played more than 43.7 minutes per game (Allen Iverson in the 2001-02 season reached the 43.7 mark). For comparison's sake, the minutes per game leader this year in the NBA was Luol Deng, who averaged 38.7 minutes. In today's micro-managed NBA, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a player would ever approach Archibald's time on the court. The fact that Archibald did it while still producing offense at an efficient rate makes it all the more extraordinary. And perhaps short-sighted on head coach Bob Cousy's part. The very next season, Archibald dealt with a variety of injuries that limited him to only 35 games.

A graphic from the Omaha World Herald the day before the King's 1972 season-opener in Omaha.
Van Arsdale was traded later that year to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Archibald won first-team all-NBA honors for his efforts in the 72-73 season and finished third in MVP voting (Dave Cowens was the winner). He would win two more 1st-team all-NBA awards with the Kings before bouncing around the league for a few years. He ended up landing with the Celtics in 1978 where his career had a renaissance of sorts, even though it never quite reached the heights of individual brilliance achieved in 1972-73. Over the span of his five years with the Celtics, he was awarded 2nd-team all-NBA honors once and made three all-star game appearances. His time in Boston culminated with an NBA title in 1981.

As historic as Archibald's season was in 1972-73, there were other Kings players who suited up and played as well. Small forward Tom Van Arsdale was the captain of the team and a three-time all-star who averaged twenty points a game in the previous four seasons. His numbers declined drastically in 1972, eventually forcing the Kings to trade him in February for bruiser John Block in an attempt to shore up their rebounding. Van Arsdale was a classic "good numbers on a bad team" guy. He averaged over 18 ppg seven times in his twelve-year career, yet he never played on a team that had a winning record. 

Perhaps his greatest basketball legacy was the fact that his twin brother, Dick, also had a twelve-year NBA career. Dick's game was similar to that of Tom's, except for the fact that along with doing everything that Tom could do, Dick was a more efficient shooter who passed twice as often and also had a reputation for good defense. When Dick's Phoenix Suns came to Omaha in January, the Kings drummed up interest in the game with a "twins-get-in-free" promotion. Twenty-one sets of twins reportedly took advantage of the offer. 
Taken from the Omaha World Herald. Notice that Walt Frazier is specifically talking
about Dick Van Arsdale, and only throws in Tom's name as an afterthought,
probably because he is speaking with a reporter from Tom's city.
Although Cousy experimented with a number of starting lineups, after the Van Arsdale trade he usually went with a lineup that had Archibald at PG, the steady Matt Guokas (later the coach of the 76ers and Magic) at SG, 2nd-year professional defender/fouler Nate Williams at SF, rookie Ron Riley at PF (he lasted only four seasons in the NBA, shooting a paltry 41% from the field), and Sam Lacey (more on him below) at center.  

The power forward position was particularly dreadful for the Kings, which explains why the oldest player in the NBA, 39 year old wonder Johnny Green, averaged nearly 20 minutes a game. Known as "Jumpin' Johnny Green," the 6'5 veteran retired after the 1972-73 season.

The dearth of quality power forwards led not only to the trade of Van Arsdale for John Block, but also to the availability of playing time for Toby Kimball. Kimball was a career journeyman, a flatfooted, balding, 6'6 forward with no offensive skills who still managed to win over the fanbase with his hustle. He averaged 9 minutes a game for the Kings, yet the Omaha World Herald reported that an 88-member group called the "Toby Kimball Movement" routinely made the trip from Kansas City to Omaha to "spur on their hero with air horns, cymbals, duck calls and plenty of lung power."

At center, the beloved 6'10 Sam Lacey was in the third of his eleven seasons with the Kings. Lacey, whose #44 was eventually retired by the Kings, is still the franchise leader in total games played and in total rebounds. He was at times a frustrating player for coaches, a big man who showed flashes of brilliance but never reached the heights of the elite pivots of the 1970s. Bob Cousy described him as "not a great center, but an adequate one who at times rises to greatness." Still, you could do much worse than having Lacey patrolling the paint. As just one example of his talent, Lacey held Bob Lanier to 10 points while dropping 28 points and 24 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons in one 1972 matchup. His numbers for the 1972-73 campaign (13.5 ppg, 11.8 rebounds, 47.4% FG) were not outstanding, but were certainly more than respectable.

The NBA did not keep track of steals and blocks until the 1973-1974 season, but Lacey's stats (1.5 steals, 2 blocks a game) from 73-77 would probably have been similar in the 1972-73 season. Lacey also demonstrated a passing ability rarely found in big men, averaging over 4.7 assists six times in his career. Yet, his inconsistency cannot be denied. He field goal percentage in his prime fluctuated wildly, going from a low of 40.1% all the way up to 50.2% (and everywhere in between). For better or for worse, even though he was paired with brilliant guards who always outshined him (first Archibald, then Phil Ford) Sam Lacey WAS the most consistent face of the Kings throughout the 1970s. He ended his playing days with career averages of 10.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game. 

III. The 1973-74 Season

Kansas City-Omaha's second season featured personnel upheaval combined with more of the same mediocrity. Bob Cousy resigned as coach in November, later recalling that "our team was so bad in those days, were were just trying to get through the season." Such claims perhaps do not do justice to the level of talent on the Kings. They were certainly not championship contenders, but they did have some intriguing talent. In fact, the very next year, new coach Phil Johnson led the Kings to a 44-38 record and a trip to the playoffs. But more on that later.

The Kings of 1973-74 were hurt first and foremost by injuries to Tiny Archibald, who had problems with his Achilles tendon for most of the year.  Replacing Archibald's shot attempts was Jimmy Walker, former Providence star and the 1st pick of the 1967 draft (and absentee father of Jalen Rose). Walker had fallen out of favor with the Rockets, who traded him to the Kings for the comparatively-pedestrian Matt Guokas. With the Kings, Walker's offensive prowess provided a fan-friendly alternative to Tiny Archibald's brilliance. He averaged 19.8 points and 4.2 assists for the year, shooting a respectable 46.8%. The trading card below appropriately sums up the 1973-74 Kings:

Two rookies who joined the Kings in 1973 saw extended minutes: power forward Ron Behagen and point guard Mike D'Antoti. Both players were out of the NBA by 1980 (there's a "seven-seconds-or-less" joke here somewhere), but they averaged around twenty minutes a game for the Kings in 73-74. D'Antoni averaged about 4 points and 2 assists per game in a backup guard role, shooting only 40.2% in the process. The 6'9 Behagen averaged 11 points and 7.1 rebounds for the year, but shot only 43.2% from the field and provided no shot-blocking presence despite his 6'9 frame. Behagen's claim to fame today is the fact that he was the guy from Minnesota who stomped on the head of Ohio State center Luke Witte after Witte had been incapacitated by a knee-to-the-groin in the infamous 1972 brawl between Ohio State and Minnesota (Behagen's stomp comes in at about the 30 second mark in the video). 

IV. The 1974-75 Season

The swan song of the Kansas City-Omaha experiment turned out to be surprisingly successful. Phil Johnson, who had taken over as coach after Bob Cousy's resignation, won NBA coach of the year for his efforts in orchestrating an 11 game turnaround. Johnson had a fiery coaching style, leading the NBA in technical fouls during the 1974-75 season. Although he never again had a winning record as an NBA head coach, he settled into a very successful role as Jerry Sloan's top assistant for the Utah Jazz beginning in 1988. Johnson stayed by Sloan's side to the end, electing to resign in February 2011 when Sloan resigned

For the first time in their three seasons in Omaha, the Kings' starting five remained intact for the entire year. It featured Tiny Archibald and Jimmy Walker together in the backcourt, an offensive juggernaut that any NBA city would be proud to watch on a regular basis. Archibald averaged nearly 27 points a game (shooting 45.6%), while Walker poured in 16.7 points (shooting at an efficient 47.5% rate). Rookie Scott Wedman, who took over the starting small forward role, immediately became a fan favorite. Wedman was a health nut, a vegetarian and weight-lifter who also developed a deadly mid-range jump shot. Over this thirteen-year NBA career, the 6'7 Wedman averaged 13.2 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 48.1% from the field. In his rookie campaign, Wedman provided much-needed rebounding from the wing (6.1 a game) and also dropped in 11.1 points.  

The frontcourt was policed by Sam Lacey and Ron Behagen. Somehow, the two tallest players on the court for the Kings also managed to be the least efficient scorers. Behagen made only 39.9% of his field goal attempts, while Lacey connected on 42.7% of his. Unlike Behagen, Lacey did contribute in other ways though. He pulled down 14.5 rebounds, dished out 5.3 assists, had 1.7 steals, and blocked 2.1 shots per game. If fantasy basketball were around in 1974-75, Lacey would have been a top-15 fantasy player. 

After winning 44 games in the regular season, the Kings could not get past the Chicago Bulls, losing in six games in the first round. Even so, Omaha's final season as a pseudo-NBA city was a success. In games that the Kings played in Omaha that year, they held a 9-2 record. In fact, of all the cities that have claimed the Kings as their own, no city boasts a better winning percentage than Omaha. The Kings won .675 of their games at the City Auditorium in Omaha (in that same three year span, they won .554 of their games in Kansas City). 

The experience may have been short-lived, but for Omaha's residents in the 1970s the Kings provided an unprecedented opportunity to see the best athletes in the world. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, Pete Maravich, and Wes Unseld all took the floor at the Civic Auditorium. Even better, Kings' fan got to see a hall-of-famer of their own in Tiny Archibald. And they had an interesting supporting cast to root on, including forgotten almost-stars like Sam Lacey and Jimmy Walker, solid role players like Scott Wedman and Nate Williams, and future NBA coaches like Mike D'Antoni, Matt Guokas, and Rick Adelman. 

It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the NBA will ever make its way to Omaha again*. In some ways, though, it probably makes the memories of rooting on the Kings in Omaha in the early 1970s that much more special. Ask some of the old-timers, and they'll still talk about the time that Tiny Archibald sped past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sinking a layup while drawing a foul to win a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. The hazy and nostalgic memories of days gone by are sometimes more powerful than present-day reality. 

Just don't say that to Seattle.

*the same day I posted this, rumors were swirling on Twitter that Omaha was on "the list" (whatever that means) as a companion expansion franchise to join Seattle if the NBA chooses to expand. The source of the rumor was a dude with 300 followers, so I'm not sure how valid it is. But perhaps Omaha has a better shot at an NBA team than I originally thought. Or perhaps that's just wishful thinking.


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