In the early 1960s the National Basketball Association was not the draw it is today. That was a time before 24-hour sports coverage and billion-dollar television contracts. Many NBA teams were struggling to simply stay afloat.
Two NBA teams eager to increase their fan appeal were the Detroit Pistons and the Cincinnati Royals. The Royals later moved to Kansas City and changed their name to the Kings. Today the franchise is located in Sacramento.
The powers that be for the Royals and Pistons put their fingers on a map looking for a mid-point between the two cities, discovered Lima, and decided a game played here had the potential to create new fans for both teams. With that in mind, they scheduled a regular season game for Feb. 12, 1964, to be played at Lima Senior High School’s gymnasium.
I was a sophomore in high school at the time and attended the game with my dad. I remember exactly where we sat that night: north side bleachers, west end, rim high. The chance to see two of my early basketball heroes, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas, captured my imagination.
The Royals were enjoying one of their most successful seasons and in the midst of a 12-game winning streak. The Pistons were struggling and would end the season with only 23 wins, good for last place in the Western Division. In the game, Cincinnati ran away from Detroit 147-121. The two-team total of 268 points was the most scored in an NBA game that season.
My overwhelming memory that night was how Oscar Robertson controlled the game. He dribbled the ball to the short left baseline about 15 feet from the basket. If guarded by only one defender, Oscar faked his opponent off his feet and then dropped a shot softly into the net. When the Pistons responded with double teams he found his open teammate with a perfect pass. Oscar’s stat-line that night was 38 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists. By the end of the game every person in Lima Senior’s gym was mesmerized by Robertson.
There were three players who competed that night whose careers I followed closely:
Many fans from my generation will mention Robertson when selecting the greatest players of all time. He was Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and LeBron James all rolled into one player. Because he played in a different era and professional basketball did not enjoy the spotlight it does today, Robertson is often overlooked by today’s generation. That’s a mistake.
Years later, while working as a coach at the Five Star Basketball Camp, I heard one of Robertson’s teammates tell a great story about him. Adrian Smith, who played with Oscar for eight seasons, was selected to play in the 1966 NBA All-Star Game.
In the locker room before the game, Robertson bet the other All-Stars that Smith would be the MVP of the game. Smith was a surprise selection and least likely person to gain that honor, so the bet was eagerly accepted by many of the players.
That night, Robertson spent the game setting up Smith for shots. Smith responded with 24 points and was named the MVP. His reward was a brand new Ford Galaxie convertible. Smith didn’t reveal what Robertson’s take was on his bet, but claimed it was much more than the worth of a brand new car.
Every young basketball player in Ohio in the 1960s revered Lucas. His high school career in Middletown was legendary. He was the most decorated high school player in Ohio history until LeBron James burst on the scene. Lucas then led Ohio State to its only national title before embarking on a Hall of Fame NBA career. In the game against the Pistons in Lima, Lucas scored 27 points and pulled down 20 rebounds. Not a bad night’s work.
Lucas was no stranger to the Lima Senior gymnasium. The Spartans “held” Lucas to a prep career low of 16 points in a Middie trip to Lima. Lucas had an answer though. In the last home game of his high school career, Lucas scored a record high 63 points against the Spartans.
Harding is not a name many will recognize but he is one of the most interesting players in NBA history. He was the first player drafted by the NBA who did not play college basketball.
One of Harding’s first games in the NBA was with the Pistons, in Lima. He scored 6 points. I knew his story and my eyes were on him even during warm-ups that night because he wasn’t much older than I was.
At 7 feet tall, he towered over everyone. There were only a few guys his size playing in the NBA at that time.
Harding had tremendous potential but he was never able to escape the violent street life of his Detroit youth. He became one of the most feared players in the NBA, but not for his play. Reggie had a reputation as a fighter and his teammates claimed he always carried a gun in his gym bag.
His short NBA career ended with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA where, in a televised interview, Harding threatened to kill the general manager, Mike Storen, over a contract dispute.
Returning to Detroit, Harding pulled on a ski mask and attempted to rob a gas station near his home. “I know it’s you Reggie,” the attendant told him. “No, it ain’t me,” replied Reggie, “Give me the money.”
Sadly, Harding was shot and killed at an intersection in Detroit at the age of 30. The case was never solved.
He had to suffer one last indignity. One of the few to attend Harding’s funeral was Johnny “Red” Kerr, his coach when he played for the Chicago Bulls. Kerr remembers, “We could see that the grave was not dug long enough. When they lowered his casket in the grave they had to bury him on the slant.” His life would have ended much differently if Reggie had found a way to lean on his considerable talent.
Bob Seggerson is a retired boys basketball coach and guidance counselor at Lima Central Catholic. Reach him at email@example.com.