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Omaha Hoops History
NOTE: This is a guest article from Friend of the Program Paul Putz who has been around these parts before. Dr. Putz is a historian and serves as Assistant Director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor University. Follow him on Twitter @p_emory.
There is exactly one NBA team that has called at least five cities home: the Kings, who have resided in Sacramento, Kansas City, Omaha, Cincinnati, and Rochester.
Of those five cities, Omaha is the outlier. Perhaps it doesn’t even count, since Omaha never had exclusive claims to the Kings, but instead shared the team with Kansas City from 1972 until 1975.
And yet, as a native Nebraskan who spent a decade living in Omaha, I can confirm that those three years in the early 1970s counted to us. Nebraska may be a football state, but that simply means that we basketball junkies find each other more easily. And if there happens to be an old-timer in the mix, there’s a good chance that the conversation will turn at some point to those three years in the early 1970s when Omaha (sort of) had a big-league basketball team.
As we continue Pro Hoops History’s irreverent celebration of 72 years of the NBA, it’s only fitting that we pay our respects to the Kings’ Omaha years. Let’s do it Q&A style.
Omaha had an NBA team? How did this even happen?
First, let’s not overlook Omaha’s original foray into professional basketball: the Omaha Omahawks (yes, you read that correctly) of the short-lived Professional Basketball League of America (PBLA). Centered around George Mikan’s Chicago Gears, the PBLA launched in 1947, lost the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $6 million dollars in the span of three weeks, and promptly shut it all down.
The PBLA disaster led the Chicago Gears to close shop and George Mikan to end up on the Minneapolis Lakers—if you subscribe to this newsletter, you know the rest of that story.
Omaha’s experience with professional basketball in the 1970s was a level up from the days of the Omahawks, but it ended up being transitory as well. Put simply, Omaha was a short-term solution to a problem faced by the Kansas City ownership group that purchased the Cincinnati Royals (changing their name to the Kings so as not to cause confusion with the baseball Royals). In 1972, as the Kings moved to Kansas City, their future home court, Kemper Arena, was under construction. Meanwhile, Municipal Auditorium, where Kansas City could play most of its home games, was not available for all 41 games required by the NBA schedule.
Although its population ranked 41st in the US at the time—with about 100,000 fewer people than Cincinnati, and 150,000 fewer than Kansas City—its location a couple hours up the Missouri River from Kansas City meant that it could at least be a makeshift sidekick for a couple years. It also had an auditorium that could match up reasonably well with most NBA and ABA teams at the time, and it had some experience with professional basketball. From 1968 until 1972, the city hosted 11 games for the Cincinnati Royals, and there had also been discussions about moving the ABA's Miami Floridians to Omaha for the 1972 season
Omaha was never going to a permanent solution, but it could serve as a second home for the Kings while Kemper Arena was under construction. And so it did. For three seasons—from 1972 through 1975—the Kansas City-Omaha Kings officially claimed two homes, allowing Omaha to host 15, 14, and then 11 games.
Were the Kings any good during their Omaha years?
They had their moments.
The 1972-73 season was disappointing. With head coach Bob Cousy at the helm, the Kings tallied 36 wins and 46 losses. The next year was even worse. Cousy resigned in November and the team ended up with a 33-49 record.
Although Cousy later claimed that "our team was so bad in those days, we were just trying to get through the season," what happened after he left suggests otherwise. With Phil Johnson taking charge, in 1974-75 the Kings went 44-38 and earned a trip to the playoffs, losing in the first round to the Chicago Bulls.
The fiery Johnson led the league in technical fouls and won coach of the year honors for his efforts. But while Johnson did help to improve the Kings defensive performance, he also had several talented players on his roster, led first and foremost by Nate “Tiny” Archibald.
It was because of Archibald that Kings fans in Omaha could count on witnessing basketball greatness, no matter the team’s record. In 1972-73 Archibald delivered a truly historic season. On a team with no defense (last in the NBA in defensive rating, defensive field goal percentage, and rebounding), Archibald brought the offense. He became the only player in NBA history to lead the league in both points per game (34) and assists per game (11.4) in the same season. Archibald also led all NBA players in minutes per game (46), field goal attempts per game (26.3), and free throws made and attempted per game.
His historic season caught the eye of the national sports press, including the New York Times, which described Archibald's game as similar to "the roadrunner in the cartoon who goes beep-beeping under and around the legs of anybody who gets in his way on the way to 2 points."
For such a high-volume scorer, Archibald maintained an impressive 48.8 field goal percentage. Perhaps most remarkable were the 46 minutes per game he played. No NBA player since has ever played more than 44 minutes per game (Allen Iverson in the 2001-02 season reached the 43.7 mark). In today's load management era, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a player would ever approach Archibald's time on the court. The fact that Archibald did it while still producing offense at an efficient rate makes it all the more extraordinary.
And perhaps short-sighted on Bob Cousy's part. The next season, Archibald battled a variety of injuries that limited him to only 35 games.
Archibald won first-team all-NBA honors for his efforts during the 72-73 season and finished third in MVP voting (Dave Cowens was the winner). He would also earn 1st-team all-NBA honors for the 1974-75 season, giving Omaha fans a front-court seat to the peak years of one of the NBA’s most innovative and brilliant offensive players.
Complementing Archibald, the Kansas City-Omaha Kings had big man Sam Lacey patrolling the paint. Lacey, whose #44 was eventually retired by the organization, is still the franchise leader in total games, blocks, steals, rebounds, and fouls. At times he could be a frustrating player, a center who showed flashes of brilliance but never consistently reached the heights of the elite pivots of the 1970s. Bob Cousy described him as "not a great center, but an adequate one who at times rises to greatness."
Cousy likely underplayed Lacey’s performance. As just one example of his potential, Lacey held Bob Lanier to 10 points while dropping 28 points and 24 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons in one 1972 matchup. And he could fill the stat sheet in a way that would warm the hearts of modern-day fantasy basketball nerds. The NBA did not keep track of steals and blocks until the 1973-1974 season, but from 1973 through 1977 Lacey averaged over 1.5 steals and 2 blocks a game. He also demonstrated a passing ability rarely found in big men, averaging over 4.7 assists six times in his career.
Lacey ended his playing days with the Kings with averages of 11.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game. His inconsistency cannot be denied, with a field goal percentage that fluctuated wildly, going from a low of 40.1% all the way up to 50.2% (and everywhere in between). But he also had some of his best years during his time in Omaha, including earning his lone All-Star appearance in the playoff year of 1974-75.
Along with Archibald and Lacey, that year’s Kings team featured guard Jimmy Walker (Jalen Rose’s father), who poured in 16.7 points while shooting an efficient 47.5 percent. At small forward, rookie Scott Wedman immediately became a fan favorite. Wedman was a health nut, a vegetarian and weight-lifter before it was cool, who also developed a deadly mid-range jump shot.
The Kings may not have been championship contenders during their time in Omaha. But they were usually competitive. And they gave Omaha basketball fans a chance to see some of the unique individual talents of the 1970s.
OK, we know about Archibald and Lacey. What about the Kings’ wierdos?
I’m glad you asked. Here’s one for you: the 1974-75 Kings had two future NBA coaches on the bench in the little-used Mike D’Antoni and Rick Adelman, who combined for 17 minutes and 4 points per game.
There were other oddities as well. Small forward Tom Van Arsdale was the captain of the Kings in 1972 when they arrived in Kansas City/Omaha. A three-time All-Star who had averaged twenty points a game in the previous four seasons, his numbers declined drastically in 1972, eventually forcing the Kings to trade him in February for bruiser John Block.
Van Arsdale was a classic "good numbers on a bad team" guy. He averaged over 18 points a game seven times in his twelve-year career, yet he never played on a team that had a winning record. Perhaps his greatest basketball legacy was the fact that he had a twin brother, Dick, who also had a twelve-year NBA career. When Dick's Phoenix Suns came to Omaha in January of 1972, the Kings drummed up interest in the game with a "twins-get-in-free" promotion. Twenty-one sets of twins reportedly took advantage of the offer.
The power forward position was particularly dreadful for the Kings during their Omaha years. In 1972-73, the team was forced to give substantial minutes to the oldest player in the NBA, 39-year-old wonder Johnny Green, who averaged nearly 20 minutes a game. Known as "Jumpin' Johnny Green," the 6'5 veteran retired after the 1972-73 season.
The Kings also gave court time to Toby Kimball, a career journeyman and a flatfooted, balding, 6'6 forward with few offensive skills. Kimball managed to attract a cult following largely out of sympathy for his unfortunate looks. Although Kimball averaged just 9 minutes a game for the Kings, the Omaha World-Herald reported that an 88-member group called the "Toby Kimball Movement" routinely made the trip from Kansas City to Omaha to "spur on their hero with air horns, cymbals, duck calls and plenty of lung power."
The Toby Kimball Movement died after the 1972-73 season when the forward signed with Philadelphia. And two years later, after the 1974-75 season, Omaha was dropped from twin-billing with Kansas City, although it did receive the parting gift of six Kings games for the next three years.
The decision to drop the Omaha name was expected, and Omaha’s leaders seemed to take it in stride. "I think a city our size is fortunate to get an NBA schedule of any degree,” Omaha civic leader Johnny Rosenblatt said at the time. “We have the opportunity to see the greatest basketball played in the country with no investment other than the purchase of tickets."
Rosenblatt was right about that. The experience may have been short-lived, but for Omaha's residents in the 1970s the Kings provided an unprecedented opportunity to see the best athletes in the world. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pete Maravich, and Wes Unseld all took the floor at the Civic Auditorium. Even better, Kings' fan got to see a hall-of-famer of their own in Tiny Archibald. And they had an interesting supporting cast to root on, including forgotten almost-stars like Sam Lacey and Jimmy Walker, solid role players like Scott Wedman and Nate Williams, and future NBA coaches like Mike D'Antoni, Matt Guokas, and Rick Adelman.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the NBA will ever make its way to Omaha again.
Yet, if you ask some of Omaha’s old-timers, they'll still talk about the time that Tiny Archibald sped past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sinking a game-winning layup while drawing a foul against the Milwaukee Bucks.
And Omaha also has this: Of all the cities that have claimed the Kings as their own, none boast a better home winning percentage (.675) than Omaha.