Sunday Musings: From Rochester to Sacramento with love

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The celebration is one for the ages.  More than 15,000 fans show up to Cesar Chavez Park in Downtown Sacramento to rejoice.  “1985-Forever” is being burned into a giant, makeshift big screen, acting as a backdrop to a temporary stage.  The Kings were staying and a new arena would be in the works.

After hours of working the scene, I find myself at a private party across the way from the festivities.  A hidden second floor lounge at the posh Citizen Hotel is the setting.  I am well acquainted with the former-insurance-building-turned-boutique-inn, but this room must have been reserved for special occasions.

The lighting is dim and even with a sportscoat on, I feel underdressed.  A smoking jacket would have been perfect for this scene. There are rows of matching books adorning the shelves of high quality dark wood cabinets.  The bartenders are wearing bow ties and black vests.

On one side of the room,  staff members from Mayor Kevin Johnson‘s office congregate in a grouping of leather chairs.  Former-All-Star-turned-Kings-owner Mitch Richmond cozies up at the bar alongside his wife.  A small group of fans living out their sports dreams surround the couple.

There are businessmen and attorneys still dressed in their suits from work.  And then there is someone I have not seen before at these types of functions.

In a dimly lit room filled with noise and bottomless libations, the unassuming David Dworkin steals my ear.  He has a story to tell and as a historian and writer, my attention is piqued.

A lesson in history

A Rochester Royals program from the 1952-53 season. (Credit: David Dworkin)

Dworkin isn’t from Sacramento.  He currently resides some 3,000 miles away from the capital of California in Rochester, NY.  But his story takes the fight to keep the Kings all the way back to the franchise’s nexus.  All the way back to Rochester and a man he knew very well, basketball legend Lester Harrison.

If the Rochester Royals or Harrison for that matter mean nothing to you, it’s because you don’t know your Kings history.  Before the Sacramento Kings, there were the Kansas City Kings.  Before the Kansas City Kings, there were the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, the Cincinnati Royals and of course, the Rochester Royals.  It is a nomadic franchise that predates the NBA.

The Royals were part of the National Basketball League (NBL) from 1945-47 before moving over to the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1948.  The NBL and the BAA merged into a new league called the NBA on Aug. 3, 1949.

The original league consisted of 17 teams, but by the 1953-54 season, only nine remained – the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia Warriors, Minneapolis Lakers, Royals/Kings, Fort Wayne Pistons, Milwaukee Hawks, Baltimore Bullets and Syracuse Nationals.  Only the Knicks and Celtics play in their original cities.

The Waterloo Hawks, Denver Nuggets, Chicago Stags, St. Louis Bombers, Anderson Packers and Sheboygan Red Skins each lasted just one season in the newly formed league, folding after the 1949-50 season.  Basketball was a tough sell in the early years and those who survived had to fight to do so.

In 1951, the Washington Capitols closed their doors 35 games into the season, followed by the Indianapolis Olympians at the end of the 1953 season and the Baltimore Bullets 14 games into the 1954 season.  The NBA would remain at just eight teams from 1954-61 when the Chicago Packers joined the league.  It wouldn’t be until the 1970-71 season before the NBA made it back up to 17 teams.

The Rifleman

Chuck Connors in The Rifleman

The Royals were one of the lucky few.  Brothers Lester and Jack Harrison purchased the franchise in 1945 for just $25,000.  Jack ran the business side and Lester coached the team. The brothers found instant success, winning the 1946 NBL championship with the help of future Naismith Hall of Famer Bob Davies, whose banner still hangs in the rafters of Sleep Train Arena.  NFL Hall of Famer Otto Graham was also on that first team as was Chuck Connors, who went onto television fame as The Rifleman.

From 1945 to 1955, Lester Harrison acted as the owner, general manager and coach, winning the franchise’s only NBA championship in the team’s 68-year history during the 1951 season.

That team was led by Davies and a pair of Hall of Famers in big man Arnie Risen and guard Bobby WanzerRed Holzman averaged 7.3 points per game off the bench for Harrison before retiring two seasons later to begin a hall of fame coaching career.

The Royals beat the Fort Wayne Pistons 2-1 in the division semi-finals, the vaunted Minneapolis Lakers led by George Mikan 3-1 in the division finals and after going up 3-0 on the New York Knicks, Rochester held on to win the series 4-3 in a thrilling championship round.

In 1956, Harrison turned the coaching reigns over to Wanzer, finishing with a career mark of 295-181, a .620 win percentage.  Before the 1957-58 season, the Harrisons moved the team to Cincinnati and the following year sold the Royals to Thomas Woods and walked away from the NBA.

Harrison was one of eight members of the Royals franchise from the 1945-58 era that made it into the hall of fame.  By all accounts, his induction with the class of 1980, that included Jerry Lucas, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, was well deserved.

As a coach and owner, Harrison is attributed with breaking the NBL color barrier when he signed Dolly King in 1946.  He also helped to establish the 24-second shot clock, which was implemented before the 1954-55 season.  He is a legendary basketball pioneer and innovator from a period lost in time.

A family legacy preserved

Lester Harrison never married or had any children.  He died at the age of 93 in 1997 with no direct heirs, but he was very close with his cousin Barbara, her daughter and son-in-law, David Dworkin.

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Lester Harrison’s Hall of Fame Ring (Credit: David Dworkin)

In fact, when Harrison passed away, he was so close to this extended family, that he left behind his memorabilia collection to Dworkin, which included his hall of fame ring and jacket as well as plenty of old Royals collectibles.

Along with that collection of NBA history, Harrison also left behind a sense of duty to one of the eight remaining NBA franchises.

When news broke that Chris Hansen had a signed deal to move the Kings to Seattle, Dworkin was shocked like everyone else, but instantly understood what was at stake.  When an NBA team is relocated, their history moves with the franchise.

But this situation was different.  The Sacramento Kings weren’t going to become the Seattle Kings.  Instead, they were going to be reunited with their own lost history as the SuperSonics, leaving the Kings/Royals and their 68-year franchise history to be extinguished.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had to try and help.  So Dworkin called the NBA and gave them the history lesson that you are now reading.  He explained that the Kings were one of the eight remaining original NBA franchises.  That history was on the line.

According to Dworkin, the voice on the other end of the phone was unaware of the franchise’s legacy or of what was at stake, and neither was Mayor Kevin Johnson when he received a similar call.

“If the Kings moved to Seattle they would have become the Sonics which means all the history including records and retired numbers would have been gone,” Mayor Johnson told Cowbell Kingdom. “Chris Webber and Mitch Richmond’s retired jerseys would most likely have come down forever.   David more than anyone has a connection to the history of the franchise and stood up to make sure it remained intact.”

Johnson was in the midst of assembling a local ownership group to pair with his ever-expanding list of “whales” and there was room in the band for an out-of-towner with a good story.

And so Dworkin and the Harrison family, who had sold the-then Cincinnati Royals franchise in 1959, threw their hat into the ring and became co-owners of their Royals again 54 years later.

They won’t own the entire franchise like they did in 1940s and 50s and the team won’t be playing in Rochester anytime soon, but they are part of an eclectic group of owners, each with their own reason for joining the fight that saved the Sacramento Kings.

“For me, it’s a lot different than anybody else,” Dworkin told Cowbell Kingdom.  “For Vivek (Ranadivé) and those guys, they saved something for a city.  But I was able to cement something that’s important to our family.  It’s a totally different emotional attachment.”

Sacramento is not Dworkin’s town and California isn’t his home state, but the Kings are his team, both figuratively and literally. From 3,000 miles away, the Harrison family can watch a team that was once the Rochester Royals with a new sense of pride and accomplishment.

“It’s a chance to be reunited with your childhood,” Dworkin added.

Dworkin can’t wait for the 2013-14 season opener.  He plans on flying out from New York for the event.  He wants to experience the joy and excitement of 17,317 fans celebrating the unlikeliest of sports victories.

There will be tears of joy and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment for so many.  The Kings were saved.  But for Dworkin, he will walk in knowing that the Rochester Royals will live on and so will the memory of his friend Lester Harrison.

For Kings fans, “1985-Forever” is fine.  But for the Harrison family and history’s sake, “1945-Forever” is even better.

Edited on July 29 at 12:00 AM

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About: James Ham

James Ham provides coverage through news analysis and in-depth interviews with Kings players and staff. James is also one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart". James graduated UC Davis with a degree in history and is happily married with two children.