Pravin commented earlier this week on my treatise on New York State sports fandom with a great question on basketball in Western New York:
And where does basketball fit into all of this? Is there a particular team that people in Western New York prefer to root for? I’d imagine that the Knicks–not even factoring in their past seven seasons of futility–represent everything that upstaters hate about downstate. There is the connection between the old Buffalo Braves and L.A. Clippers, but not even the most ardent fan of the A.B.A. would retain that kind of loyalty.
Now, I have been in quite a few relationships in my day, including some of those of the on-and-off, back and forth, toxic variety. (Who hasn’t in their day? The degrees of severity vary, but everyone’s had at least one.) But none come close to the toxic back and forth relationship that professional basketball has had with my home region of Western New York. Professional basketball took Western New York and toyed with its emotions – “You want an NBA Championship? Here you go. Oh, wait – you aren’t “big enough” to support professional sports! Sorry, let’s move the team away.” – until a whole generation and their children decided enough was enough, and ceased following the NBA all together.
Professional basketball of the CBA, ABA, and NBA variety has awarded six franchises to the Western New York area since 1925. It began in 1925, when the Buffalo Bisons and Rochester Centrals started play in the American Basketball League. Both franchises were short lived – the Bisons lasted one season and Centrals lasted until 1931.
Rochester would get another stab at a professional basketball team in 1945 with the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League. The Royals – still spoken about in Rochester to this day – were very successful, winning the National Basketball League regular season and championship titles each year from 1945-57. Due to a series of league mergers, the Royals found themselves in the NBA in 1948. They maintained their success, winning the 1951 NBA Championship over the NY Knicks – a victory which some Rochestairans (my father among them) still hold near and dear to their hearts, ingraining a dislike of the Knicks to their kin. Despite continued competitiveness, the Royals moved to Cincinnati in 1957, with the NBA claiming that Rochester was not considered “major league” enough to continue supporting a team. (And Cincinnati is?) The franchise eventually ended up the Sacramento Kings.
Meanwhile down the Thruway, the Nationals had called Syracuse home since 1939. Originally an independent team, the Nationals joined the National Basketball League in 1946. After the series of league mergers that took place in the late 1940s, the Nationals became members of the NBA in 1949. The Nationals made the NBA Playoffs every year of their membership (1949-63), winning the NBA Championship in 1955. Despite their massive success, in 1963 the Nationals franchise was purchased by brothers who wished to move the team to Philadelphia in an effort to replace the recently departed Warriors franchise. Yet another NBA Championship winning team had left Western New York for a more “promising” location.
The NBA would give Western New York one more franchise – the Buffalo Braves, who were part of the 1970 expansion of the league. Playing at the old Aud, the Braves struggled for a few years until finally earning a playoff spot in 1974, losing to the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals. The Braves made the playoffs for the two following seasons. In 1976, the team’s ownership, lead by founding owner Paul Snyder, started shopping the Braves around to cities in Florida, claiming that Buffalo was a “hockey town” who couldn’t support the team. The City of Buffalo (rightly, in my opinion) put up a significant fight, and got the Braves to agree to a multi-year lease at the Aud. However, a clause in the agreement gave the owners an escape option if ticket sales fell below a set amount. So what happened during the next two seasons? The team tanked, trading its best and most popular player, Bob McAdoo. Ticket sales dropped due to the poor performance, and the agreement with the Aud could be voided. In 1978, the team’s leadership, then lead by John Y. Brown Jr. (who would soon become Governor of Kentucky), switched teams with then Celtics owner, Irv Lavin. Brown had a hand in the very successful Celtics, and Lavin, in the Braves, had a team that he could now move to his home state of California. The Braves became the San Diego Clippers. Western New York had lost their third NBA team in nearly twenty years.
Rochester tried two times after the loss of the Royals to reestablish a professional basketball team in their city. The Rochester Colonels played eight games in the Continental Basketball Association in 1958 – a fact largely unknown until three years ago, when Rochester sports historian brought their existence to light. In 1977, the Rochester Zeniths joined the All-American Basketball Alliance, eventually moving to the Continental Basketball Association. Attendance for the Zeniths was some of the highest in the CBA. Although winning the league championship twice and making the playoffs in every year of their existence, the franchise would fold due to financial issues in 1983. (In a random note, in researching this post, I realized that as a teenager, I taught the Zenith’s founding owner’s daughter dance. It’s a small, small world. My parents bought TVs from him, I taught his daughter dance, and his wife made my solo costume one year. Why didn’t anyone bring this up earlier?!)
Rochester is still flirting with professional basketball – they are currently home to the Rochester Razorsharks, who have spent time in both the Premier Basketball League and American Basketball Association, setting attendance records and winning championships in both. (Using my analogy, one could say that Rochester is that girl who, despite having finally broken up with a guy, keeps semi-stalking him, hanging out with his friends, and dating guys that look just like her ex. Yep, Rochester is that crazy girl. Gotta love my hometown.)
Essentially, Western New York and professional basketball had a toxic relationship in the 20th century. Despite success on the court and fan support, the NBA told Western New York three times that they weren’t a large enough market to support a basketball team. Back and forth, the cities of Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse kept showing support and fandom for basketball, and the NBA kept breaking their hearts by allowing their teams to move.
Professional basketball had little influence on me and my friends growing up in Rochester in the 1980s and 1990s – we had no team to idenitfy with, and our parents were still bitter over what happened in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. This is why I say Western New Yorkers could care less about the NBA. The NBA showed that it never cared about them, so why should a Western New Yorker return the favor?*This post was written with the help of research from Wikipedia, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, and my own recollections of hearing about all of these teams from relatives and others.