Uni Watch's Friday Flashback: The man behind the Kings logo

When the Sacramento Kings unveiled their new logo in late April, it marked the resurrection of one of the most improbably durable designs in sports history.

The Kings' logo, showing a stylized crown perched atop a basketball, was originally created for the 1971-72 Cincinnati Royals. After one season the team changed its name and moved west, becoming the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, but the logo was retained. Additional franchise relocations followed, including the move to Sacramento in 1985, and the team was sold to new owners several times, but the crowned-ball logo somehow endured. It was finally mothballed in 1994 but later became popular as a throwback logo, leading to its recent revival as the team's primary mark.

The crowned ball isn't the sports world's only logo to have survived across different eras and cities. The Los Angeles Dodgers' familiar script, for example, is relatively unchanged from the team's days in Brooklyn. But the Kings' logo has managed to endure some unusually choppy waters. Its 45-year lifespan had covered two team names, four cities, and six team owners. The logo itself is now in its fifth incarnation.

All of which leads to a simple question: Who designed it?

It's a trickier question than you might think. Sports designers are rarely credited by name. Logos and uniforms are usually attributed to institutions (a team, a league, a uniform manufacturer), not to the human beings who did the creative work. And although a few teams are very good about archiving and documenting the details of their visual history, those clubs are the exceptions. Most teams -- including the Kings, in this case -- have no idea who created their graphics.

And besides, the original version of the Kings' logo was created 45 years ago. Even if we knew the designer's name, would that person still be alive?

As it turns out, yes.

Shortly after the updated was logo was released, an email from a Cincinnati designer named Robert Grove arrived at Uni Watch HQ. Grove said he had designed the original version of the crowned ball for the Cincinnati Royals back in 1971, and he had old newspaper clippings to prove it.

Grove is now 70 years old, which means he was only 25 when he created the original Royals logo. He grew up in Lima, Ohio, and has lived in and around Cincinnati since attending college there in the 1960s. Aside from those early newspaper clippings, the story of his role in the NBA's visual history has never been told until now.

Like many designers of his generation, Grove speaks in the warm, unhurried voice of a courtly gentleman -- a throwback to a less hectic era. He still maintains a professional design practice, although he's not as busy as he once was and says he has "dabbled in retirement." His clients over the years have included a mix of commercial and non-profit operations (you can see a few examples here) -- and, of course, one pro basketball team.

You'd think that creating the logo for an NBA team at the age of 25 would have set Grove up for a long career in sports design, but it didn't work out that way. He has one other sports-related project in his portfolio -- a baseball exhibition design at Riverfront Stadium that was part of Cincinnati's bicentennial celebration in 1988 -- but never created any other team graphics after the Royals mark. Why not? He recently agreed to answer that question, and many others, in a Uni Watch interview. Here's how it went.

Uni Watch: Before you designed the Royals' logo, were you already a basketball fan in general, and a Royals fan in particular?

Robert Grove: Actually, I was always more of a baseball fan. And when it came to basketball, I was more of a fan of college basketball than the NBA. I had actually tried to play basketball in junior high and high school, but I only made it to the JV team. More of a benchwarmer, really.

If you weren't much of an NBA fan, how did you end up designing and submitting the logo for the Cincinnati Royals?

First of all, it was totally unsolicited. They didn't ask me to do it, and I don't think they were even interested in a new design at that time.

I had worked with a local design studio in Cincinnati. But it was a very closely held studio, and I didn't see myself going very far there. So I was about to start out on my own, and I thought maybe I could get some clients by doing some stuff on speculation. A friend of mine had just gotten some work designing the logo for a new minor league hockey team, so I thought about the Royals. Back then their logo was this "Mr. Basketball" guy, and I thought, "How can I go wrong? I know I can do better than that."

So I did it purely on spec, with the idea of getting some more work. Somehow I knew the guy who was the Royals' head of PR at the time, so I submitted it through him.

After you submitted the design, how long did it take before you heard back from the team?

Not all that long. A few months, if not less.

Did they make any changes to your original concept, or ask you to make any changes?

Actually, no, they didn't. Basically, they just gave me a couple of season tickets for what turned out to be their last year in Cincinnati. I did go to several games with those tickets.

So that was your total compensation -- a pair of season tickets? They didn't pay you a monetary fee?

No, no. And that was OK, because I had sent that to them unsolicited, as a sample of something I had done. I was mostly interested in getting some publicity from it, that sort of thing.

Did the team hire you to create any other graphics, or bring you on board in any way?

They did not, not at all. Of course, that might have happened at some point down the road if they had stayed in Cincinnati, but instead they moved the team to Kansas City. And of course I was disappointed -- I was hoping, maybe in the next season, to get more work from them and implement the logo idea more fully as a branding kind of thing. Back in those days we called it identity, not branding. But anyway, yeah, I never got the chance to cultivate them as a client.

When the team renamed itself the Kings and moved to Kansas City, were you surprised that they kept using your logo design?

Not necessarily. But it was nice, you know -- since there were new owners, that meant more than one person liked the design.

In 1985 the team moved again, this time to Sacramento, and they still kept using your logo. Were you surprised by the design's durability? And also, were you rooting for the team from afar for all those years?

I was probably more surprised that they kept using it when they moved to California, yes, just because of the passage of time and the way design trends were shifting. But no, I wasn't really following the team. As a designer, you're very close to a project when you're working on it. But once it's done, you tend to let go of it and let it have its own life. So I didn't feel a close emotional tie to the Kings. In fact, I didn't even realize they had updated the logo more recently until my son saw your story about it and told me.

Did you realize they had actually stopped using your logo in 1994, and that the logo was basically dormant from then until this spring, when they updated it?

I was not aware of that, no. I'm sure you included that in your story. I guess I should have read it more closely!

Throughout all of these franchise relocations, did team management or ownership stay in touch with you in any way?

No. Not even once after they moved away from Cincinnati.

Do you think the team is even aware of who you are?

No, I don't think so.

How do you feel about the changes they've made in this new revision? Does it seem odd to see your logo in a new color scheme?

I think it looks very good in purple. And of course purple is a royal color, so it's perfect for the Kings. And I'm quite happy with the other changes as well. I think the firm that handled it did a very good job.

You're referring to Rare Design, which has done a lot of work with NBA teams.

That's right.

Have you been in touch with them to discuss how they tweaked your logo?

No. I wouldn't want to make it seem like I'm looking over their shoulder or anything like that. As a designer, your work becomes the client's property, so they can do what they want with it. I'm just happy that they honored the spirit of it.

That brings up a good question: For a logo like this one, which has been around for more than 40 years and been used on all kinds of merchandise and so on, do you think a designer should get some sort of additional compensation or royalties?

There are some designers whose business model is based more on royalties from sales. But sometimes you just need the cash now, especially when you're young, so you do it as a work for hire, and then it belongs to the client. But again, in the case of this logo, they didn't even hire me -- I did it on speculation.

So you don't have any hard feelings about the fact that the franchise got a design that they've used for more than 40 years, and you got a pair of tickets that were worthless after one year?

No, not really. It's a waste of energy to think that way. If I could go back and renegotiate every contract of my career, I probably would, but I don't feel any need to do that.

Looking back at your original design, is there anything about it that you wish you'd done differently, something that sticks out as a flaw or an imperfection?

Yeah. The white highlight edges in the crown should be thicker, probably the same thickness as the seams in the basketball. That would provide a little more balance for the whole thing. If I could do it again, I'd make that change.

So has that been bugging you all of these years?

I had noticed it before. Again, I wasn't making a point of following the Kings, so sometimes many years would go by and I wouldn't even see the logo. But I was reminded of it when I pulled out the original logo after the Kings released their new version. But it wasn't keeping me awake at night or anything like that.

Looking back on your career, how do you feel about this logo? It's probably one of the best-known things you've ever done, although I realize that doesn't necessary mean it's a better piece of work.

Obviously, if a lot of people have seen it, it's had a big impact, and that's somewhat validating. The most rewarding aspect of it is that it's stayed alive so long. Sometimes you do good work and it disappears within a year or two.

Creating an NBA team's logo in your mid-20s would seem to be the perfect beginning of a career in sports design, but you never worked with any other teams. Why not?

Well, part of it is that the Royals moved away, so I never had a chance to develop that client relationship, which might have led to other things. But also, there's a philosophical divide in the design world. Some designers, if they had created that logo, they would have immediately started pursuing every other sports team and tried to do what Rare Design has done now, to create a niche business. But others, like me, would say, "OK, I've done that. Now what's something different I can do?" That's what I was always doing -- looking to try something different. Now, from a business model standpoint, that is not as profitable, because you make more money if you become known for having a specialty. But it's how I chose to pursue my career.

As Grove suspected, nobody currently connected to the Kings had ever heard of him. But once they were told about his role in the team's history, emails were sent and phone calls were made, and there's now talk of a reunion between designer and client, perhaps sometime this fall.

"We'd love to have him out here, just so he can see how this is resonating in Sacramento," said team president Chris Granger. "That logo, that's what started it all, that's what started the love affair when the Kings came to Sacramento in 1985. It's how people were introduced to the Kings, and it still means a lot to them. We're proud to resurrect it and give it its due."

For his part, Grove enjoying this blast from his past. "It's all very unusual and unexpected," he said. "But it's very gratifying."

Would you like to nominate a uniform or uni element to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.

Paul Lukas always loves it when he can match a design to its designer. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.