Shatel: Reminiscing on Kansas City-Omaha's defunct NBA franchise 50 years later – Omaha World-Herald

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“OMAHA?!!!”
My Kings story doesn’t take place at 19th and Capitol. Or the Crossroads Mall, where Tiny Archibald went shopping one time.
My Kings story unfolded in Kansas City, Mo., in the fall of 1972, my ninth grade year. It was the day my dad came home and said, “Guess what I got today?”
“What?” I said half-excitedly.
“Season tickets to the new NBA team coming to Kansas City.”
I was pumped. I had just fallen in love with basketball. And while the NBA was a niche sport back in the early ’70s, it was my niche.
I knew all the players. Jerry West. Wilt. Clyde Frazier. John Havlicek. Lew Alcindor. Connie Hawkins. And my favorite, Dave DeBusschere.
And now they were all coming to my city. First up: West and Wilt and the defending NBA champion Lakers.
Wait. What?
That’s when dear ol’ Dad informed me the first game would take place in Omaha.
In fact, 15 of the Kings’ 41 home games would be played in that city to the north.
A 1972 Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball practice featuring Don Kojis, John Mengelt, and Nate Archibald (with ball). 
Omaha? How could they? I was not happy.
I smile about that memory now.
Meanwhile, at about the same time 50 years ago, three hours to the north, Steve “Mouse” Allen and Bill Hargens were plotting a major break-in.
Allen was a sophomore at Omaha South, Hargens a freshman at Ryan. The two chums had an idea: go watch the Lakers’ shoot-around at the Civic Auditorium the day of the first game.
A sign at the Civic Auditorium announcing the Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball team opener in 1974. 
So, on the morning of Oct. 11, 1972, Hargens called Omaha South and pretended to be a family member informing the school that Allen would not be present. Then, Allen called Ryan High and reciprocated for his buddy Hargs.
The two were giddy as they took a bus downtown and walked to the Civic Auditorium around noon.
They went in and got near the basketball court when a member of the Kings stopped them. Sorry, you can’t go in there.
“We walked around the other way,” Allen recalls. “And this guy who looked familiar asked us what we were doing. We said we came to watch the Lakers practice.
“He said, ‘Come on in.’
“It was Jerry West.”
Fifty years later, Allen can’t forget what happened next.
“I remember Wilt walking in late, and he was complaining about somebody waking him up to go to practice,” Allen said. “Then he and Gail Goodrich started playing H-O-R-S-E for $20 a shot.
“Then, they let one of us take a shot. I don’t remember who. It wasn’t even close. It was just unbelievable to see these guys up close.”
It was absolutely unbelievable. But it happened.
Fifty years ago this month, the NBA came to Omaha.
Can you imagine that today? Steph Curry and LeBron James and Joel Embiid making regular stops at the CHI Health Center?
We would need an owner to fork over at least $1.5 billion for the team. And fans to pay ticket prices that average well over $100 per ticket — for 41 games.
It won’t ever happen. But once upon a time, it did. For three years, from 1972-75, the Kings played 15 games a year at the Civic Auditorium.
Detroit Pistons’ Bob Lanier, left, goes after Kansas City Kings’ Otis Birdsong, right, with the Kings’ Bill Robinzine in the background, during an NBA game on Feb. 2, 1979 at the Kemper Arena. 
Three glorious years.
That was a prehistoric NBA. Pre-Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. It was a blue-collar NBA, buried beneath baseball and football and boxing. The league had one game televised per week, on Sunday afternoon.
Limos and suites? While in Omaha, the Kings sometimes stayed at the Granada Royale hotel, near 72nd and Cedar, and took a city bus to the games.
NBA games were played in older, small arenas or civic centers. That meant the fans were close to the action and players.
And memories.
I asked readers to send me their memories and keepsakes from those Kings days. They sent photos of pennants and programs and posters.
This has been like opening up a time capsule.
The best part was having my own memories rush back, of Municipal Auditorium in KC and waiting by the ramp to the visitors’ locker room to grab autographs from West, Frazier and Oscar Robertson.
And, of course, Toby Kimball.
Pete Watters owns the Zoo bar in Lincoln, an iconic blues and live music bar.
But 50 years ago, he was a kid from Bellevue trying to throw perfect passes to JoJo White.
I met Watters at the Zoo a few weeks ago. He grew up going to Kings games. He told the story of the night Pete Maravich scored 24 points in the first quarter and turned the Omaha crowd into New Orleans Jazz fans.
Watters brought a lost treasure: his “Kings Ballboy” plaque with the photo of him and NBA legend Bob Cousy, the Kings’ coach.
That first year in Omaha, to drum up local interest, the Kings had a drawing where local kids could be the team ball boy of the game.
Watters’ mom had sent in his name, and he won — for the Valentine’s Day game against the Boston Celtics.
First, that meant showing up to the first practice to meet Cousy. But Watters remembers meeting someone else that night.
“Wilt Chamberlain was sitting there, and we started talking,” Watters said. “He’s asking me about school, just the coolest guy in the world.
“Jerry West told him the bus was leaving and Wilt said, “Nah, I’m going to stay here and talk to Pete.”
Watters returned on Feb. 14 for his ball boy game. It was a big night. Paul Silas, the former Creighton star, was back in town with the Celts.
Boston came out for warm-ups. Watters began rebounding and throwing passes to White, the all-star guard who was drilling long shots.
“I reached out and grabbed a ball and fired it as hard as I could to the top of the key,” Watters said. “Just then, John Havlicek walked right in front of it.
“It hit him in the head, knocked him down to his hands. JoJo said, “Oh, (bleep).’ Everybody started laughing. And John Havlicek looked at me and just shook his head.
“I was kind of ruined for the rest of the night.”
Take a look at the Nebraska men’s basketball players selected in the NBA draft.
Ivan Gilreath’s favorite player was George “Iceman” Gervin.
After Gervin and San Antonio played in Omaha, Gilreath and a friend waited for an hour outside the Civic to get a glimpse of him.
“Finally, he came out in a gorgeous fur coat and saw us and said, “What’s up, little brothers?” Gilreath wrote. “We walked with him two blocks to the Red Lion and he said, “Be cool, ya.”
“It was a tremendous experience. I bought his iconic poster sitting on ice cubes and have it on my wall to this day.”
Joe Foreman: “I still have two pieces of KC-Omaha Kings memorabilia hanging on the wall of my office. After the Kings came to Omaha, my parents bought my brother and I matching bedspreads with all the NBA logos on it. I loved that bedspread.”
Mike Owens: “I grew up in KC, came to Creighton in 1971. A high school buddy of mine (Mark Huppe) was the Kings’ equipment manager.
“One morning he called me from the team hotel (Hilton) and said Nate Archibald wanted to go shopping before that night’s game.
“So I picked him up in my 1967 VW Beetle and we went to Crossroads Mall for a couple of hours. No one there had a clue who Tiny Archibald was. Good thing Sam Lacey didn’t go because he never would have fit in my car.”
One reader sent a photo of an old KC-Omaha Kings program, including a story with some fascinating nuggets about Omaha’s history with the NBA.
According to the story, J.J. “Jake” Isaacson of Mid-America Expositions put together the first game — a charity exhibition between Boston and St. Louis in 1964.
The game drew 5,542, so the NBA sent a regular-season game to Omaha in 1965.
Later, Isaacson got the Cincinnati Royals to play three games in Omaha in 1966-67.
Then things got really interesting.
On Dec. 3, 1970, Isaacson, Omaha Mayor Eugene Leahy and Charlie Mancuso, who was in charge of the Civic, made a proposal to San Francisco Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli to move the team to Omaha.
Mieuli was interested enough to visit Omaha and study the potential. But he ended up staying and renaming his team “Golden State.”
Can you imagine the Omaha Warriors?
Omaha’s name was out there. The owner of the San Diego Rockets looked at Omaha before relocating to Houston for $5 million.
That sent Mancuso to Miami to make a pitch for the Floridians of the American Basketball Association. But a blizzard put that on hold.
In 1970, a major blizzard occurred the night of a Lakers-Royals game at the Civic. Still, 8,156 fought clogged streets to get there.
The Royals’ Joe Axelson was impressed.
The 1972-73 Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball team. 
When the Royals decided to move to KC in 1972, they needed an alternate city. Kansas City’s auditorium wasn’t available for all 41 dates.
That’s how the Kings came to Omaha.
The Kings did well in Omaha, averaging 5,159 in their three years. In February 1975, a record 9,728 saw the Kings play Boston.
By then, KC’s new Kemper Arena had opened in 1974-75 and the Kings said goodbye to Omaha. They were here temporarily until Kemper was built.
As a gesture, the Kings agreed to play six games in Omaha if the city could sell 3,000 tickets to each game. That arrangement lasted until 1978.
Six years later, in 1984, and with NBA popularity on the verge of exploding, the Kings left Kansas City for Sacramento.
Joe Keenan remembers Kings radio announcer Dom Valentino’s signature call (“Stops. Pops. Good!”). He remembers Archibald and Lacey and Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.
But mostly, he remembers his dad.
Keenan’s dad wasn’t a Kings fan. But he agreed to take his son to a game at the Civic. One problem: the blizzard outside. The father called off the game.
Keenan said he pouted and moped enough that his mother convinced his dad to take him anyway.
“When we got to the game, I got a complimentary basketball,” Keenan wrote. “The first time I used it outside, it went lopsided and the air valve popped out.
“I never told my dad about the ball falling apart, because to this day I understand the hardship that he went through for me to get that stupid ball.
“He passed away a few years later when I was 14. I will always think fondly of what he did for me that night.”
Joe Pane: “Two things stick out of all the memories. One was Wilt Chamberlain, standing next to my brother, who was a ball boy. His head wasn’t even to Wilt’s waist.
“The second was Connie Hawkins and his athleticism. The man’s hands were huge. When he held the ball it looked like a tennis ball. He’d pass the ball like a pitcher throwing home.”
Mike Abramson: “The NBA was not like it is today. It felt more like a college game. The players were accessible for the most part. Most were accommodating.
“However, there was a time I waited with other kids outside the Boston Celtics locker room for John Havlicek. All the other Celtics signed but Havlicek ran out yelling at us if we wanted his autograph, you could write the Boston Celtics.
“There was a huge crowd and he was wearing a white trench coat. Somebody pushed me into his back and I accidentally drew a black line down the back of his coat. To me, that was better than the autograph.”
Thank you, Mama’s Pizza.
The Omaha restaurant has a framed display of Kansas City-Omaha Kings memorabilia, programs and photos.
The original Kansas City-Omaha Kings logo, 1972. 
It’s the only place I could find in the area with evidence that the NBA once played here. There used to be a giant logo on a wall in the Civic, but the historic arena is long gone.
The NBA was here for only three years — essentially a loaner until KC’s arena was built. But it’s part of Omaha’s sports history.
An amazing and important part. Some of the game’s all-time greats played here.
Generations of Omahans have no idea the NBA played here. As one reader said, young folks are incredulous when they see the KC-Omaha pennant on his wall.
There should be something. A display at the CHI Health Center. A street sign. A mural somewhere.
The Kings led to the CBA’s Omaha Racers. Now, the Creighton Bluejays and their 17,000 fans are our basketball franchise. Now, Omaha sends players to the NBA.
Once upon a time, the NBA sent players here.
Today, the Kings live in the memories and stories of the generation that lived it. I couldn’t get to all of the stories. There are so many good ones.
That generation won’t always be here to tell them.
It’s an amazing story, one that should be told forever.
Marcus Zegarowski (2021)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 49 overall
Team: Brooklyn Nets
Khyri Thomas (2018)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 38 overall
Team: Detroit Pistons (through the Philadelphia 76ers)
Justin Patton (2017)
Drafted: 1st round, No. 16 overall
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves (through the Chicago Bulls)
Doug McDermott (2014)
Drafted: 1st round, No. 11 overall
Team: Denver Nuggets
Kyle Korver (2003)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 51 overall
Team: New Jersey Nets
Rodney Buford (1999)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 53 overall
Team: Miami Heat
Chad Gallagher (1991)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 32 overall
Team: Phoenix Suns
Vernon Moore (1985)
Drafted: 3rd round, No. 58 overall
Team: Washington Bullets
Benoit Benjamin (1985)
Drafted: 1st round, No. 3 overall
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Greg Brandon (1984)
Drafted: 10th round, No. 219 overall
Team: Seattle SuperSonics
Daryl Stovall (1982)
Drafted: 10th round, No. 207 overall
Team: San Diego Clippers
George Morrow (1981)
Drafted: 8th round, No. 182 overall
Team: Boston Celtics
Kevin McKenna (1981)
Drafted: 4th round, No. 88 overall
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
John Johnson (1979)
Drafted: 7th round, No. 144 overall
Team: Denver Nuggets
Rick Apke (1978)
Drafted: 3rd round, No. 58 overall
Team: Washington Bullets
Doug Brookins (1975)
Drafted: 9th round, No. 160 overall
Team: Washington Bullets
Ralph Bobik (1974)
Drafted: 5th round, No. 76 overall
Team: Phoenix Suns
Gene Harmon (1974)
Drafted: 6th round, No. 107 overall
Team: Boston Celtics
Joe Bergman (1971)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 31 overall
Team: Cincinnati Royals
Cyril Baptiste (1971)
Drafted: 1st round, No. 3 overall*
Team: San Francisco Warriors
*—Baptiste was drafted in the NBA’s Hardship Draft for underclassmen
Joe Bergman (1970)
Drafted: 7th round, No. 104 overall
Team: San Francisco Warriors
Bob Portman (1969)
Drafted: 1st round, No. 7 overall
Team: San Francisco Warriors
Wally Anderzunas (1969)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 25 overall
Team: Atlanta Hawks
Wally Anderzunas (1968)
Drafted: 6th round, No. 70 overall
Team: Detroit Pistons
Tim Powers (1967)
Drafted: 6th round, No. 65 overall
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Neil Johnson (1966)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 15 overall
Team: Baltimore Bullets
Elton McGriff (1965)
Drafted: 12th round, No. 93 overall
Team: St. Louis Hawks
Paul Silas (1964)
Drafted: 2nd round, No. 12 overall
Team: St. Louis Hawks
Dick Harvey (1960)
Drafted: 10th round, No. 71 overall
Team: Minneapolis Lakers
Ed Cole (1955)
Drafted: 4th round, No. 29 overall
Team: New York Knicks
[email protected], 402-444-1025, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH
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Sports columnist
Tom is The World-Herald’s lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he’s covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.
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A 1972 Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball practice featuring Don Kojis, John Mengelt, and Nate Archibald (with ball). 
A sign at the Civic Auditorium announcing the Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball team opener in 1974. 
The 1972-73 Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball team. 
The original Kansas City-Omaha Kings logo, 1972. 
Detroit Pistons’ Bob Lanier, left, goes after Kansas City Kings’ Otis Birdsong, right, with the Kings’ Bill Robinzine in the background, during an NBA game on Feb. 2, 1979 at the Kemper Arena. 
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