Their Royal Highnesses
Fifty-five years ago, the Rochester Royals were crowned kings of the NBA. Fittingly, the Royals would become the Sacramento Kings, but they have yet to reascend to the throne
As afternoon turns into evening, the wind whistles through the old park, forcing the trees to sway to its demands. A foreboding chain link fence acts as a sentinel, while gray urban sprawl glares upon the surrounding patch of green.
You look for a statue, a plaque, an old picture, something to confirm this is indeed the place where it happened. Does one exist? You manage to glimpse an expanse of grass – a couple of ball fields and a community center. But it’s as if that fence is a figurative and literal closed door to a time long since faded to sepia.
There are no vestiges of the barn-like building that once stood here, where the energetic men once ran, leaped and celebrated. It ultimately met its end by the wrecking ball, a symbol of dust, rust and neglect. But 55 springs ago, the place was alive, with spectators jamming the wooden bleachers rising from both sides, the din of screams and shouts caroming off walls and eardrums alike.
It is difficult to picture today, with laser lights, fireworks and dance teams de rigeur in the NBA experience. But in the recesses of the league’s heritage sit places like the Edgerton Park Sports Arena and the team that played there, the Rochester Royals – who for one, shining moment a half-century ago, owned the position their nickname suggested was their birthright: perched atop their throne, surveying their kingdom as NBA champions.
In some ways, April 1951 was a simpler time; in others, much more complicated. In newspaper sports sections, sleepy spring training baseball reports ran a few pages away from screams of "Truman Fires MacArthur" and "Reds Tear 15-Mile Hole in Allied Front." As the Korean War escalated and ignited fears of a third World War, a dozen men who sported purple shorts were about to go on a crusade of their own. For two glorious weeks, they carried Rochester, N.Y., on their backs on a ride that put aside the horrors unfolding half a world away.
Professional basketball was something still new on the sports landscape in 1951. Only two years earlier, the Basketball Association of America absorbed the six surviving teams from the National Basketball League and renamed the new organization the National Basketball Association. And in those early campaigns, the class of the fledgling league was the Minneapolis Lakers, a onetime NBL refugee. They boasted the 6-10 George Mikan and became the league’s first dynasty, winning five titles in a six-year span between 1949 and 1954.
The only year the championship eluded the Lakers in that run was 1951. The Royals, whose roots also grew in the old NBL, were one of the league’s early powers, and owned the third-best record in the NBA that season. Rochester was led up front by Amie Risen, a 6-9, 200-pound center nicknamed “Stilts,” along with 6-5 Amie Johnson and 6-7 Jack Coleman. The backcourt was manned by Bob Davies and Bobby Wanzer, who played at Seton Hall and averaged 15.2 and 10.8 points, respectively, in 1950-51. Among the key reserves was a guard from City College of New York named William “Red” Holzman.
“We knew we were at least the second-best team in the league most all those years,” Risen said. “Minneapolis and us were both in the same division, and unlike the Lakes and Boston Celtics series over the years, we played each other in the semifinals instead of the Finals. Minneapolis was a great team, and I could see that they were probably better than us, but we never could see it at the same time.”
Certainly not in the 1951 division finals. After dispatching Fort Wayne in the first round, the Royals ousted Mikan – hobbled by a leg injury – and the defending champion Lakers in the semis, winning the best-of-five series in four games. In Game 3, Holzman came off the bench to score 23 points, an effort that George Beahon, who covered the Royals for Rochester’s daily newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, called “the whole key to the whole playoffs.”
Next up in the Finals were the New York Knicks, who had advanced by defeating Syracuse.
“It was like every year we were a bridesmaid but never the bride,” Wanzer said. “And finally, we beat Minneapolis and then we went on and we faced New York. We always figured that the two best teams at that time in basketball were Minneapolis and the Royals. So once we were free of Minneapolis, we thought we had a cinch.”
In those days, many of the league’s smaller venues were infamous for the types of characters that defined home-court advantage. In Syracuse, a fan known as “The Strangler” would grab opposing players by the throat as they ran past his courtside seat. In Fort Wayne, an older woman by the name of “Ma” Collins was known to brandish a heavy saddlebag purse, wildly swinging it at any Pistons foe who made a mistake of getting too close.
But in Rochester, at the 4,000-seat Edgerton Park Sports Arena, partisanship was never carried quite as far. The crowd that filed into the building for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on April 7, 1951, had a more genteel air about it.
“The people there were dressed to the gills,” Risen said. “You’d see people with diamonds and fur coats sitting in the front row, some of the ladies knitting. But they were pretty basketball-minded, true fans. And the whole community was behind the team. It was ‘Our team.’ It was ‘Our Royals.’ We were invited to people’s homes after games. You felt like in winning, you truly felt like you won for deserving people, and not just for yourself.”
While they were polite to the opposition, Royals fans supported their team. Beahon said of the crowds: “There was no question who they were rooting for. There was nobody cheering for the other team. I’d say they were worth 10 to 12 points a game.”
The rows of fans cascaded like tidal waves on both sides of the floor, with walls only a few feet from both baselines.
“On one end,” said Risen, “there was just a row of chairs, and there was a double-door with a panic bar on it. I remember one night in the dead of winter we were playing a game, and Bobby Davies went under the basket, shot a layup, hit the door and ran right out into the snow.”
The Royals encountered no such problems in the first two games of the series at home. They took Game 1 easily, 92-65, as Risen and Wanzer recorded 24 and 19 points, respectively. Game 2 the next night was more of the same, as Rochester won 99-84, behind 24 points from Davies and 28 rebounds from Coleman.
Three nights later, the scene shifted to the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, but the result was no different. A few hours after MacArthur was sacked by President Truman, the Royals defeated the Knicks 78-71 and took a 3-0 series lead, thanks to 27 points and 18 rebounds from Risen.
"That Was Neat! Now Let’s Go For the Sweep!" implored a headline in the Democrat and Chronicle, which declared the Royals “off-the-board favorites to capture their first NBA crown.”
“I don’t think it was that surprising to us, really,” Risen said without the least bit of bombast in his voice. “I think we did have a superior team and we were well aware of it.”
But as quickly as visions of a championship had found their way into the Royals’ heads, they blurred just as rapidly. The Knicks salvaged Game 4 in New York 79-73, behind 22 points and 14 rebounds from Harry Gallatin; took Game 5 in Rochester 92-89 as Connie Simmons had 26 points; and then tied the series by taking Game 6 back in New York 80-73, as Max Zaslofsky led the way with 23 points.
"Once So Near And Now So Doubtful!" the Democrat and Chronicle wailed. The series was tied, and a measure of hand-wringing had replaced the celebrations of previous conquests, when the Royals “whacked each other’s bare backs, took long puffs on cigarettes and toasted one another with pop.”
“I think that we hustled the first three games and then just didn’t hustle quite as hard the next three,” Risen said. “I don’t want to downgrade their ability or anything. They played well against us, but I think we just sort of coasted too much.”
Said Wanzer: “We were a little bit leery about the last game. We weren’t down. We figured we still had the best team, but it was no cakewalk. We blew a couple of games. We should have won another game in there, but we didn’t, and we were concerned.”
It remains the only time in NBA history a team has bounced back from a 3-0 deficit to force a Game 7.
The deciding contest, on April 21, was back in Rochester, and the contest was a microcosm of the series. The Royals jumped to an early 14-point lead, but saw it erased as the Knicks forged back in front with less than two minutes to play. But with 44 seconds left and the score tied at 75, Davies was fouled by the Knicks’ Dick McGuire and sunk the two huge free throws. The Royals cemented the game “when Jack Coleman drove a cripple shot through the strings on a pass from Red Holzman with three seconds left,” according to the game story written by Beahon in the next day’s paper.
Finally, Rochester could be renamed Titletown. Davies, who finished with 20 points, was the hero of the night, along with the relentless Risen, who had 24 points and 13 rebounds in the deciding game.
“I always believe the game takes care of itself,” Davies told Elliot Cushing, sports editor at the Democrat and Chronicle. “You know the fourth phrase of The Lord’s Prayer – ‘Thy will be done.’ Well, that’s good enough for me.”
Risen finished the series with averages of 21.7 points and 14.3 rebounds, Davies averaged 17 points and 5.3 assists, Wanzer 12.4 points and Coleman 13.1 rebounds.
“When I think of the Finals,” Beahon recalled, “I think of one guy – Arnie Risen. Joe Lapchick, the Knicks coach, put three centers against Risen and Risen outplayed them all. He wore them down. He was a one-man gang and he just kept battling. At the end of the series, Lapchick, who was always a very gracious guy, said to me, ‘I would trade Madison Square Garden for one Arnie Risen.’ Which was a pretty generous quote.”
Said Risen, “I think when it was all said and done, our big men were superior. I got an awful lot of the credit, but Jack Coleman was very instrumental in it.”
There were no championship rings and no parades in Rochester, only a couple of low-key parties and a team dinner paid for by the team’s owner and coach, Les Harrison.
“Les treated everybody royally,” Wanzer said. “I remember he had a set of gold cuff links, and he promised them to me if we won. And he took them off and gave them to me.”
But the bloom would fade. Four years later, the Royals moved to a bigger home, the War Memorial Arena, but the fans did not follow them. Times were changing, people were moving to the suburbs, and Harrison was losing money. The team was sold in 1957, as the Rochesters, Fort Waynes and Syracuses were giving way to the Cincinnatis, Detroits and Philadelphias as NBA cities.
One year earlier, the Edgerton Park Sports Arena was razed, replaced by a vastness of grass. The Royals would eventually leave Cincinnati, then Omaha, then Kansas City.
In their fifth incarnation, they settled as the Sacramento Kings – who play their home games at ARCO Arena, its location a silent yet subtle reminder of the franchise’s beginnings and only NBA title. It is a building right off Interstate 5, surrounded by nothing but green fields, as far as the eye can see.
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