Their first arena in Rochester, N.Y., was so cramped that players who ran out of bounds sometimes stumbled into a concessions area – or through the exits. After moving to Cincinnati, the team had to play a crucial game at a college gym because its arena was booked for the circus. The roof collapsed on their Kansas City arena during a heavy storm, forcing them to relocate for part of a season to a building half the size.
Then there was the rainy Sacramento night, at Arco Arena in 1989, when the team’s owner climbed into the rafters to patch a leak during a game.
The Sacramento Kings have played home games in nine arenas, in five cities, since they were founded as the Rochester Royals in 1948. It probably comes as no surprise that arena No. 9 – Golden 1 Center, where the team plays its first regular-season home game Thursday night – is the nicest of them all.
Packed with amenities, and with a price tag of $557 million, Golden 1 Center is expected to spark a prosperous new beginning for a wandering franchise that has often struggled financially. At the very least, it will be worlds away from the glorified barns that the Kings have called home for the majority of their 68 years.
Three of the team’s former arenas are gone for good, and one faces the wrecking ball next spring. The Kings’ most recent home, now known as Sleep Train Arena, will likely be torn down some day as well.
The old buildings had stories worth telling. Kemper Arena in Kansas City won architectural awards, even if fans mostly stayed away. Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Neb., where the Kings played a few dozen home games in the 1970s, hosted one of the most electrifying debates in American political history. The first Arco Arena in Sacramento made waves in the sports world as the first NBA building named for a corporate sponsor.
And the franchise’s first arena in Rochester helped get the NBA off the ground.
The Royals were charter members of the NBA, a ragtag outfit with teams in places like Fort Wayne, Ind. Rochester’s arena was appropriately humble: Edgerton Park Sports Arena, built in 1892 for a reform school for troubled boys, with just 4,200 seats.
Forget about luxury suites. Players sitting on the team benches had to crouch down “so the fans could see over them,” said former Rochester resident Barry S. Martin, a retired judge who lives in Sacramento. “It was dark, the sight lines were poor.”
It certainly was cozy. Martin, who recently published a biography of early Royals star Bob Davies, said the court was smaller than the NBA’s regulation 94 feet by 50 feet. Players who ran or got pushed beyond the end line sometimes wound up in a hot-dog stand. If that happened at the other end, and the double doors behind the basket weren’t locked, Martin said they could find themselves outside the building.
“It’s hard for us to imagine, but that was professional basketball,” said Rebecca Edwards, a historian at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “That was the NBA.”
NBA history was made at Edgerton on Oct. 31, 1950. On that night, a black man named Earl Lloyd played for the visiting Washington Capitols, becoming the first African American to appear in an NBA game. Remarkably, only 2,184 fans attended, and Lloyd’s milestone generated little of the fanfare that Jackie Robinson created when he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
“The NBA did not have a large fan base, so no one paid attention,” Edwards said.
The Royals’ crowning moment at Edgerton came April 21, 1951. The team edged the New York Knicks in Game 7 of the finals for the franchise’s lone championship.
Within three years, the team was in a tailspin and fans deserted them. Moving in 1955 to a larger arena, the new War Memorial, failed to revive attendance. A game against the St. Louis Hawks in early 1957 drew just 1,837 fans, and few in Rochester protested when the club moved to Cincinnati the following season.
“The owner was losing money; he had to do something,” Martin said. “And the NBA wanted bigger markets; they didn’t want teams in cities like Syracuse and Rochester.”
The 11,000-seat Cincinnati Gardens was one of the nation’s largest arenas back then. But it wasn’t much of a home. Built for $3 million in 1949 to accommodate minor-league hockey, the Gardens rarely sold out for the Royals and was half full for their first home game. Even in good years, when the Royals were led by legendary Oscar Robertson, they were often overshadowed by the University of Cincinnati’s team.
A playoff game in 1963 against Boston might have been the low point. The Royals’ owner had already booked the Gardens for the Shrine Circus, forcing the team to play at Xavier University’s 4,000-seat fieldhouse. The Royals lost the game, and eventually the series.
They’re hardly the only NBA franchise to suffer such an indignity. When the Golden State Warriors won the title in 1975, they had to move their finals games from Oakland to San Francisco’s Cow Palace over a scheduling conflict. But the Cincinnati snafu seemed to cement the Royals’ second-class status.
“It’s like they thought the team would never get that far,” said Cincinnati sports historian John Perin. “It’s still something that’s tossed around; it’s still mentioned.”
The team moved to Kansas City in 1972 and agreed to play about a third of its home games in Omaha, three hours north. The Kansas City-Omaha Kings – renamed to avoid confusion with baseball’s Kansas City Royals – again found themselves in less-than-ideal surroundings. Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City seated just 7,316 fans, while Omaha Civic Auditorium held just 9,300.
Omaha’s arena, built in 1954, “wouldn’t compare to anything today,” said Omaha television sports anchorman Ross Jernstrom, who went to games as a kid. “It was pretty archaic-looking.”
The Omaha building’s claim to fame was in politics. It hosted the 1988 vice presidential debate, an event that went down in history when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen told Republican Dan Quayle he was “no Jack Kennedy.”
The Kings became strictly a Kansas City team after the 1974-75 season, although they played several more games in Omaha and a few in St. Louis in the ensuing years. The rechristened Kansas City Kings got a new venue, the $22 million Kemper Arena near the old stockyard district.
With an initial seating capacity of 16,785, Kemper showed plenty of promise – and style. It was the first major building designed by noted German architect Helmut Jahn. Its signature feature: The giant trusses built to hold up the roof, normally found inside the building, were planted on the outside. The effect was “a robust exoskeleton,” said Elizabeth Rosin, a Kansas City preservationist.
Kansas City residents shrugged. Kemper was half empty for the first Kings game in November 1974. The NBA was still a comparative weakling in American sports, and the Kings were an afterthought in a town ruled by baseball and pro football.
It didn’t help that the team had to play much of the 1979-80 season in old Municipal Auditorium after the roof collapsed on Kemper during a heavy rainstorm. The accident was blamed on a flaw in the roof’s design and faulty construction.
Once again dogged by financial issues, the Kings relocated to Sacramento in 1985. Compared to Kemper, their new home at Arco Arena was far less grand, a temporary $10 million affair built on a warehouse site in Natomas. But Sacramentans showered the Kings with affection they’d never experienced elsewhere. All 10,333 seats were filled for the Oct. 25, 1985, opening-night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The team sold out every home game in its three years at the original Arco, and the streak continued after the team moved into “Arco II” in November 1988.
The Kings’ $750,000-a-year naming rights agreement with Atlantic Richfield Co. was a first for the NBA. Caught flat-footed, the league rushed to develop guidelines to avoid antagonizing other NBA sponsors. While Arco’s logo could be displayed in the building, only the phrase “Arco Arena” in plain lettering was allowed on the basketball floor, where it would be visible on TV (The rules have since been relaxed).
The second Arco Arena, built for $40 million about two miles west of the original, seemed like a state-of-the-art building when it opened. It had 30 luxury suites to cater to the upper crust. Its seating capacity, originally 16,517, was expanded to 17,317, making it the most spacious arena in franchise history to that point.
But Arco II got off to an ominous start. On March 1, 1989, a little more than halfway through the first season, rain started leaking through the ceiling during a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, causing a 40-minute delay. Managing general partner Gregg Lukenbill climbed out onto a support beam, about 85 feet above the court, and stretched a banner beneath the ceiling to catch the water.
Lukenbill, however, couldn’t fix Arco’s most enduring problem: It was economically obsolete as soon as it opened. As the Kings were moving into Arco, the Detroit Pistons opened the 21,000-seat Palace of Auburn Hills. The $90 million venue featured 180 luxury suites, an unheard-of figure and six times as many as Arco.
The Palace set the standard for a new era of arena construction. Teams began building arenas with more seats and, just as important, a higher percentage of seats devoted to suites and other forms of premium seating.
Arco, with only 6 percent premium seating, was left at an economic disadvantage. Lukenbill and the owners who followed him, Jim Thomas and the Maloof family, complained for years they couldn’t compete financially in the modern NBA. The team nearly left town twice during the Maloofs’ tenure.
“Sacramento had one hand tied behind its back from the beginning,” said Dennis Howard, a finance professor at the University of Oregon and an expert on stadium economics.
Golden 1, built by Vivek Ranadive’s ownership group with a $255 million public subsidy, was designed to remedy the old arena’s shortcomings. Although the total seating capacity of 17,500 is among the NBA’s smallest, the new arena includes 34 suites and 48 mini-suites. About 14 percent of the seats are premium seats, more in line with NBA standards.
After 68 years in the wilderness, the Kings have landed on a more equal footing with big-city teams.
“I think this building is spot-on for them,” Howard said. “It sounds like they’re finally getting to where they need to be. In terms of maximizing revenue opportunities, they got it right.”
All the Kings’ palaces
Edgerton Park Sports Arena, Rochester, N.Y. Capacity: 4,200. First game: Beat Indianapolis Jets, 69-58, on Nov. 6, 1948. Status: demolished in late 1950s.
Rochester War Memorial. Capacity: 8,000. First game: Lost to New York Knicks, 100-98, on Nov. 5, 1955. Status: still in use, called Blue Cross Arena.
Cincinnati Gardens. Capacity: 11,000. First game: Beat Syracuse Nationals, 110-100, Oct. 26, 1957. Status: scheduled for demolition in spring 2017.
Omaha Civic Auditorium, Omaha, Neb. Capacity: 9,300. First game: Lost to Los Angeles Lakers, 129-94, on Oct. 11, 1972. Status: demolished August 2016.
Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. Capacity: 7,316. First game: Beat Detroit Pistons, 113-100, on Oct. 14, 1972. Status: still in use.
Kemper Arena, Kansas City. Capacity: 16,785. First game: Lost to Boston Celtics, 102-99, on Nov. 10, 1974. Status: Renamed Mosaic Arena, set to be redeveloped as community sports facility.
Arco Arena (I), Sacramento. Capacity: 10,333. First game: Lost to Los Angeles Clippers, 108-104, on Oct. 25, 1985. Status: converted to an office building.
Arco Arena (II)/Power Balance Pavilion/Sleep Train Arena, Sacramento. Capacity: 17,317. First game: Lost to Seattle SuperSonics, 97-75, on Nov. 8, 1988. Status: likely to be demolished eventually.
Golden 1 Center, Sacramento. Capacity: 17,500. First game: San Antonio Spurs, Oct. 27, 2016.
Note: The score of the first game at Arco Arena (I) and the building’s current status were corrected on Wednesday, Oct. 26.
Sources: Sacramento Kings, Bee research