David Dworkin was pumping gas recently at a Rochester-area service station when a person began razzing him good-naturedly about his Sacramento Kings warmup jacket. Dworkin smiled and decided this would be a good opportunity to give the heckler a hoops history lesson.
“You know this team,’’ Dworkin said, pointing to the Kings logo on his chest, “is originally from Rochester? And the guy’s like, ‘What?! No way! Get out of here!’ I explained how the Kings used to be the Rochester Royals and how we won an NBA championship here back in 1951. It took a while, but it eventually sank in. He realized I wasn’t trying to pull his leg. He said, ‘Wow, I never knew that.’ ”
Through the years, Dworkin has encountered numerous disbelievers in Rochester and beyond. And that’s both sad and understandable given the team left town 66 years ago. The good news is that starting Saturday evening, history lessons about Rochester’s ‘Royal’ basketball lineage should receive a boost when the Kings tip off the playoffs at home against the Golden State Warriors in a nationally televised game. It’s been a long time coming for Sacramento, which hasn’t been to the playoffs in 16 years.
For Dworkin and his wife, Wendy, the snapping of the drought is even more special, given their financial and familial ties to the team.
Ten years ago, they became part owners of the Kings, and the main impetus was their desire to preserve connections to Rochester and Les Harrison, the late Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Famer who founded and coached the team decades ago when it was based in the Flower City. Wendy’s mother, Barbara, was Harrison’s cousin. Neither Les, nor his brother or sister ever married or had kids, so when he died in 1997 he bequeathed his belongings, including his Hall of Fame ring, jacket, and artifacts to Wendy and David.
Even before they were contacted about investing in the team, they had sought to reconnect the Kings to their roots. David noticed Sacramento’s media guide had scant mention of Rochester, so he contacted the team’s public relations department, and began providing the Kings not only with photos and information, but also artifacts that could be displayed in the Golden 1 Center, the team’s home arena.
In 2012, the franchise was put up for sale, and there were strong rumors it would be moved to Seattle and renamed the Supersonics, after the Emerald City’s original NBA team. This prompted David to contact the NBA office because the name change would seemingly cut the last remaining ties with Rochester. Later, a group hoping to keep the team in Northern California contacted the Dworkins to see if they would be interested in investing as minority owners. They were, and Sacramento’s NBA team and Rochester’s basketball legacy wound up being preserved.
Harrison undoubtedly would get a kick out of this year’s high-scoring, highly entertaining team, which surprised most prognosticators by earning a third seed – ahead of the Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, and Los Angeles Clippers in the West.
“It’s nice to finally be part of the NBA conversation again; to be relevant and have a higher profile,’’ said Wendy, who, with her husband, is a partner in LLD Enterprises, a Rochester-based real estate investment firm. “A nice off-shoot of this is it has given us an opportunity to tell more people about Les and his accomplishments. He deserves that.”
Indeed, he does. Harrison played a pivotal role in helping launch the NBA, which today boasts a global following that’s exceeded only by soccer. In 1946 – a year before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier – Harrison helped integrate professional basketball by signing Dolly King, an African American star out of Long Island University.
King and other Black players Harrison subsequently signed were forced to endure severe hardships because of racism. Some restaurants on the road refused to serve people of color, but Harrison, a Jew who faced considerable anti-Semitism, refused to kowtow to bigotry. There were stories of him and his entire team eating together in kitchens because Blacks were not allowed to eat in public dining rooms. Harrison insisted his players – whites and Blacks – be treated equally, not segregated, regardless of prejudiced edicts.
“He said, ‘If we are going to play together, we are going to eat together, too,’ ’’ Wendy said. “I can’t imagine the ugliness he and his players had to put up with. It took courage, but Les stood his ground.”
Harrison also threw full weight behind Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone’s idea of a 24-second shot clock, which ultimately saved the NBA.
Flagging attendance during pro basketball’s infancy, when the league was considered an afterthought, contributed to the Royals departure to Cincinnati following the 1957 season. Fifteen years later, they became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings and in 1975 they dropped the Omaha part of their name. In 1985, they moved to Sacramento.
Interestingly, the franchise’s professional roots can be traced back to 1923, a year after Harrison graduated from East High School, and began playing, coaching, and performing administrative tasks for the Rochester Seagrams, which became the Eber Seagrams, the Pros, and then the Royals in 1945. Not only are the Kings celebrating their centennial, they’re also celebrating the fact they are the oldest professional basketball franchise in existence.
This season, the team began a tradition of lighting four purple laser beams pointing skyward outside the Gordon 1 Center following wins. Rabid Kings fans love the ritual, and “Light the Beam!” has become a familiar chant during games.
This new tradition blends nicely with old ones. The banner boasting Rochester’s championship – the only NBA title in franchise history – hangs from the rafters. It, along with the Dworkins, are ties to a rich and long basketball history 3,000 miles to the east.
“It’s been surreal,’’ said David, who will be in Sacramento Saturday night with Wendy and their kids. “We’ve been the butt of jokes for too many years. But those days are done. We have an exciting team, a winning team, a playoff team.”
A team that maintains a ‘Royal” hoops connection to an NBA pioneer and its city of origin.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.-