SI Vault
Frank Deford
December 09, 1968
There is no reason why the Royals should be up there battling for Cincinnati's few dollars—except five sturdy ballplayers
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December 09, 1968

Serious Contenders For A Funny City

There is no reason why the Royals should be up there battling for Cincinnati's few dollars—except five sturdy ballplayers

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It was 13 autumns ago that Oscar Robertson came to town to play basketball as a freshman at the University of Cincinnati. From the moment he arrived, Robertson was a celebrity, and if he had to share the local limelight it was mostly with a high school marvel from Middletown—Jerry Lucas. Certainly there was no competition from the Royals. They were in Rochester and did not get to Cincinnati until the following year.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the bankrupt Royals should choose Cincinnati as their next home, a solution to their problems. The National Basketball Association still honored territorial draft rights and anyone with a map could appreciate the potential of resettling along the banks of the Ohio River and holding out until first Robertson and then Lucas got out of college. Well, they got the O and Luke all right, but the results, unfortunately, were not precisely what they had hoped for. Cincinnati has never been exactly home sweet home for the Royals.

Robertson turned 30 the other day, reaching that mystic moment when all pro players automatically are ordained athletically middle-aged. For Robertson, however, the day was no more than a technical milestone. Player representative for the whole NBA, he makes something over $100,000 a year and no longer is there much contention over who is the best all-round basketball player of all time. Lucas is not quite as old as Robertson—although his inflamed knees have, in the past, placed him closer to retirement—and he does not make quite so much money, but his position is assured, too. He is the finest rebounding cornerman that the game has seen.

Robertson and Lucas are the Cincinnati Royals. Coming off its first year in seven in which it did not make the playoffs, the team began this season with its best start since 1960. Even with the most difficult schedule of the contenders, the Royals are in fourth place in the Eastern Division, only three games out of first. It is easy, in fact, to project the Royals into the lead. While Baltimore has fattened up with 11 games against expansion teams, Boston has had 10 against the relative setups, Philadelphia has had seven and Cincinnati only three.

In response to the team's comeback, Cincinnati fans have hardly trampled down the gates of the Gardens, averaging an embarrassing 4,100. The season's largest crowd—7,103—came out two weeks ago for a game against Philadelphia. "Well, yes, we did have a lot of orphans in for that one," a team official admitted. And not all the home games are even in Cincinnati, since the Royals take one-third of their home schedule to Cleveland and Omaha. And although Cincinnati tickets, at $4 tops, are—with Baltimore's—the lowest in the league, still the citizens rail at the tariff. The Royals, finally, are not carried on radio, not even FM.

It is not only the Royals that Cincinnati has chosen to ignore, of course. The Reds, the only club in baseball that possessed a surfeit of those exciting .250 hitters, had almost the worst home attendance in the National League. A first-class minor league hockey franchise folded at season's end a few years ago. College football does not go. College basketball does, but not for the front runners who gave up their season tickets the day Robertson—and presumably victory—departed.

Pro football expanded into 13 other cities before it finally agreed to take a chance on Cincy. The Bengals are all the rage in town and have clearly hurt the Royals and other athletic enterprises—not that their first-year success has been overwhelming. They do not sell out a 28,000-seat stadium. "It's a funny city," says Royals General Manager Pepper Wilson, a native Cincinnatian who is probably the best-liked executive in the NBA. "The original prophet without honor could have settled here. The best thing that ever happened to the Bengals was that they were not granted local ownership. Paul Brown's name is selling that team. An outsider. The people here have a tendency to look down on their own kind, their own people."

What appeal the Royals possess can be attributed almost entirely to Robertson and Lucas. Yet with his utter excellence in nearly every area of the game, Robertson produces a curious effect. He is so good that what, in fact, is the ultimate in style and grace appears to the average basketball fan to be only the prosaic, workmanlike effort of a mechanic. Lucas, just as textbookishly efficient as Robertson with his specialty—grabbing the ball off the backboard and getting it out to his teammates—is equally unappreciated by Cincinnatians.

Men like Coach Ed Jucker and Connie Dierking, the reconstituted pivotman who played with Robertson in college, maintain that he still occasionally can produce some new trick for them, more than a decade after they started watching him. But the moves are subtle and refined, like the one Jucker mentioned the other day: "You're allowed a step and a half after you dribble and you can do anything up to the time that you put the second foot down. Most people are finished as soon as they dribble. Not Oscar, he's just getting started. He can use that extra half step, three-quarter step—whatever it is—for a dozen things. Before he releases the ball, he's started a whole new play."

The story of Robertson's true excellence lies in the statistics. Even his most practiced observers are constantly amazed when his point total, assists and rebounds are tabulated after a game. Unlike most of the dynamic stars of the sport—people like Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry, Bill Russell and Elvin Hayes—Oscar manages to be superior in an unobtrusive, almost quiet way.

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