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Omaha Magazine

When We Were Kings: Remember when Omaha had an NBA team?

Oct 19, 2020 04:45PM ● By Brad Dickson
Kansas City-Omaha Kings poster

Photography Contributed

I was thinking about some of the cities with the greatest NBA traditions. Places like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Omaha.  

Even the most diehard NBA fan may not realize it, but Omaha, a town better known for steakhouses, Warren Buffett, and “horizontal sleet,” once had an NBA team. It actually shared a team with Kansas City, a city better known for professional baseball and football, and for erecting fountains everywhere—including in front of mortuaries and inside dental offices.   

This is the story of how Omaha landed an NBA team, made a go of it, and then lost the team. The Kansas City-Omaha Kings were a thing from 1972 to 1975. It was the old Cincinnati Royals franchise that changed its name from Royals to avoid confusion with the Kansas City baseball organization. Big mistake. Management would’ve been better off sticking with Royals and selling tickets to confused fans thinking they were going to see a young George Brett.

The Royals left Cincinnati due to attendance woes after the team traded superstars Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson. Back then fans showed their quiet disapproval by not buying tickets. Fans today would react by lighting their Royals jerseys on fire in front of the arena and then backing over them in Humvees. 

The plan was for the Kings to play their games in Kansas City. But there was a problem. Municipal Auditorium held a little over 7,000 fans. (This was long before the groundbreaking San Diego Chargers decided to play home games at a soccer stadium that’s only slightly larger than a commercial airline toilet.) Additionally, the arena wasn’t available on enough dates. A bigger venue with an open schedule was needed, so the franchise looked north and settled for Omaha and its 9,300-seat Civic Auditorium, which was normally available on nights when Creighton didn’t play a home game and professional “rassler” Baron von Raschke was not defending his world title.

The Royals had been playing occasional exhibitions in Omaha that had gone well enough that the city got the nod. 

Beginning with the 1972-1973 season when the Kings played 15 “home” games in Omaha, and extending through the 1974-1975 season when they played 12 “home” games in Omaha, Omaha had an NBA team it could be proud of. Well, sort of. 

The goal was to play 12 to 15 games in Omaha each season until construction on the larger Kemper Arena in Kansas City was completed. It was like telling a girl you’d date her until the girl you really wanted became available.

You would think the players would have hated the arrangement with a passion. Imagine NBA players today climbing into a bus and riding four hours up Interstate 29, checking into a hotel in downtown Omaha and playing a “home” game at an arena with which they were generally unfamiliar?

However, the record shows the team actually seemed to favor Omaha with the Kings going 36-46 overall in the 1972-1973 season but 10-5 in Omaha. In 1973-1974 the Kings finished 31-51 overall but were a respectable 7-8 in Omaha. In 1974-1975 the Kings finished 44-38 overall and made the playoffs, but were an even more impressive 10-2 in Omaha. Long bus rides seemed to agree with the players. 

Of course today the whole concept seems weird. But remember, this was the '70s when weird was in. If you don’t believe me Google “wide belts” “bell bottoms” and “rotating disco balls.” Google “ABBA.” Google “mood rings.” See what I mean?

It could have been worse. The initial strategy of the 10 businessmen who purchased the team in 1972 was to move from Cinci and split home games between K.C., Omaha, and St. Louis, which would’ve led to a lot of morning calls to the hotel front desk asking “What city am I in today? Oh, wait, I see an Arch out the window.”     

I was a young, wide-eyed Omaha kid when the Kings first came to town. I envisioned myself as a future NBA player seeing as how I was about 6 feet tall in grade school. (Little did I know that I’d basically stopped growing). However, I was so thin that sometimes on windy days I’d be seen blowing down the street. (I was once blown out of my chair when the classroom air conditioning kicked on.) I practiced hoopin’ in the driveway and attended most of the handful of NBA games per year of Omaha’s NBA team.

It was a big deal to me because there simply were not major league professional sports in town. The closest we came was when the Civic hosted, in May 1972 (a good year for Omaha sports), a world heavyweight championship fight featuring local fighter Ron Stander of Council Bluffs vs. reigning champ Joe Frazier, who was undefeated at the time. Stander was known as the “Bluffs Butcher” and Frazier was “Smokin’ Joe.” In an outcome that surprised nobody Frazier defeated Stander when the fight was called after the fourth round. If I remember right Stander, known for suffering bad cuts, came into the ring bleeding after opening a gash putting on his robe. 

The Kings were more entertaining. The franchise had an incredible player at the time, the shy-off-the-court, self-effacing Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who, according to the NBA, led the league in scoring and assists in 1972-1973. He is still the only player to ever do that. Archibald was an amazing presence with blinding speed and quickness who specialized in beating the other nine guys down court. 

Generously listed at 6’1”, 150 pounds, Tiny was about the size of one of Shaq’s knuckles. 

Archibald put up over 26 shots per game in 1972-1973, a Kobe-like assault on the basket. He also averaged 46 minutes per contest which basically meant if, say, he lost a finger or his eyeball fell out, he was probably staying in the game.  

The team was fun to watch because in addition to Archibald putting up shots at the same rate a T-shirt gun spits out souvenirs, Milwaukee Buck Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coming to town occasionally, and you can’t beat that. Abdul-Jabbar’s petulant, whiny attitude was fun in a twisted sort of way since it contrasted so much with the bonhomme of the young Kings. 

Fun to watch is not the same as proficient and the Kings were last in the league in defense and rebounding. Back in 1972-1973 the cast of The Partridge Family could have out-rebounded the Kings.     

The Kings did have a charismatic, talented 6’10” young man named Sam Lacey out of New Mexico State who was known to come up smiling after diving for loose balls. This was an era when salaries were lower and the referee’s whistle was not considered a call to arms.    

The 1972-1973 Kings had a coach people may have heard of—Bob Cousy. There was also a rookie guard named Mike D’Antoni and a small guard named Jimmy Walker who, it turns out, was not the “Dyn-o-mite!” comedian. (Cousy resigned in November 1973 and was replaced by Phil Johnson.) 

The Kings also had a player named Mike Ratliff whose mushroom Afro was basically taller than any building in Omaha at the time. Archibald could have fit inside Ratliff’s hair during fast breaks. 

In 1972 Omaha’s Civic Auditorium was known mostly for hosting the aforementioned Creighton basketball games and pro wrestling cards. Also Ringling Bros. circus acts and boat, sport, and travel shows featuring water-skiing squirrels. (I’m not making that up.) Going from a water-skiing squirrel to hosting NBA games was heady stuff.  

After struggling the first two seasons in town, the 1974-1975 edition of the Kings, led by Archibald’s 26.5 points per game and Lacey’s 14.2 rebounds, made the playoffs. By now the roster, in addition to D’Antoni, also included a young Rick Adelman who mostly rode the bench. 

Not only was Omaha kind of/sort of home to an NBA team but it was now a good team. Omahans got excited at the prospect of hosting a playoff game. They even had illusions of the city becoming a future NBA hotspot. They figured their loyalty and decent attendance figures would possibly make the owners keep the name “Omaha.” Heck, the NBA had gotten almost as popular here as slow pitch softball and Go Big Red underpants. This would put Omaha on the map, figuratively and literally—since I have seen maps from that time where we were omitted.

However, it was not to be. Kansas City got the home games in the Western Conference semi-finals series vs. Chicago, which the Kings lost four games to two. Kemper Arena was finally completed and the team dropped Omaha. Just like that. Even though all of this was well-telegraphed, it still felt like a slap in the face. It was like giving a kid a puppy for a couple years and then taking it away.  

In retrospect, it was no surprise the team pulled out. Attendance in Omaha, while decent, was certainly not great. The Fickle Kings started out as the Rochester Kings in 1945, moved to Cincinnati for the 1957-1958 season, bolted for Kansas City-Omaha in 1972, dropped Omaha in 1975 and then left Kansas City for Sacramento in 1985. The team tried to leave Sac Town for Seattle in 2013, but the NBA rejected the move. The Kings have spurned more people than Taylor Swift.

The biggest impact of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings was probably that groundwork was laid for middle-aged guys to win bar bets with younger dudes that, “Omaha once had an NBA team.” 

I’ll always hold dear my memories of Omaha’s vastly entertaining NBA team, especially Tiny Archibald dribbling around Abdul-Jabbar and Lacey smiling and talking to fans in the middle of a game. Floor-level seats were affordable and lines to purchase tickets were usually short.  

After the Kings left, Kansas City never again had an NBA team. And Omaha has never had another major league professional team. 

This article first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.

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