They existed for only a moment, deep in this city’s sports shadows, during the same sunlit winter when the Eagles reached a Super Bowl, the Flyers and 76ers their leagues’ championship rounds, and St. Joseph’s the Elite Eight.
Even if you were among the ridiculously few Philadelphians who paid $2 to watch the Philadelphia Kings in person during the Continental Basketball Association’s 1980-81 season, you’ve likely forgotten them.
They produced no NBA stars. They played in a decaying West Philadelphia arena. High school teams outdrew them. The city’s newspapers ignored them. And after just one season, they vanished in a cloud of apathy and red ink.
In a city such as Philadelphia, new teams emerge and evaporate as routinely as political scandals. Born in optimism, they typically perish in indifference. Who today recalls much about the Atoms, the Bell, the Blazers?
But the Kings, for all their anonymity, were part of one of the oddest chapters in Philadelphia’s sports history, one that now, on its 40th anniversary, deserves to be revisited.
How many of this city’s other pro teams were owned by a dentist who doubled as a cocaine kingpin? How many were designed not to win championships but to launder money? How many played road games in Alberta, Alaska, and Montana? How many had an executive who paid a Pagan to torch their arena?
“It was grueling and strange,” recalled Jim Bostic, the Kings’ leading rebounder, who is now a minister in Yonkers, N.Y. “But we were young, and it was fun.”
What made the Kings’ short-lived saga so compelling wasn’t any single player or statistic. Instead, it was their owner and the role his team and its arena played in the crimes that sent him to prison.
The story began in the summer of 1980, when Larry Lavin, a 25-year-old Penn dental student, returned from his Hawaiian honeymoon. That’s when he discovered he owned the Arena, a 60-year-old, 6,000-seat facility at 46th and Market Streets.
“I was totally against the stupid idea,” Lavin, 64 now and living in Tampa, said in a recent telephone interview. “But my business agent told me if we invested a couple hundred thousand and it didn’t work, we could walk away. We did. But after I walked away, he burned it down.”
That agent, Mark Stewart, intended the purchase as a money-laundering vehicle for Lavin, who, even before starting a lucrative dental practice in Devon, was earning millions.
A Massachusetts native who’d been expelled from exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy for drug use, Lavin had sold marijuana at Penn before graduating to cocaine. By 1980, authorities estimated, he was heading a multi-state distribution ring, one that monthly moved 100 pounds of the drug and grossed $5 million.
Eager to spend but reluctant to attract attention, Lavin sought advice. A Penn friend directed him to his father’s Center City law firm, where Lavin was introduced to Stewart, a financial schemer enamored with sports.
“I was concerned with the IRS,” said Lavin. “I wanted to be able to buy nice things and not have a problem. I was told Mark was really good with real estate, and that’s really all I wanted. But he was into this flashy stuff.”
Stewart had been the agent for Flyers coach Fred Shero, and he admired Leonard Tose, the Eagles’ hedonistic owner. He initially invested $500,000 from Lavin into businesses he operated, including a record company and a sports-management firm. Stewart then paid Lavin an annual salary of $75,000.
The initial investments paid off. The athletes they managed included future heavyweight boxing champion Tim Witherspoon. Their record company produced a No. 1 funk hit, “Double Dutch Bus,” though the artist, Frankie Smith, saw little of the profits. But as the drug money and Lavin’s desire to spend it grew, new laundering vehicles were required.
“Mark screwed up a lot of things,” said Lavin, “but almost every idea had some validity to it. For a time we had the No. 1 fighter in the world and the No. 1 record in the country.”
The hockey-loving sports editor of his prep school’s newspaper, Lavin indulged his love for sports.
“I actually gave a guy money to buy Philadelphia’s first Ticketron so I always had great seats,” he said. “I had seats right behind the Flyers bench, but they sucked. Every time the puck went down the other end, the players all leaned forward.”
For Eagles games, he leased a Veterans Stadium luxury box. “Just for the parking,” he said. He and his friends watched the action from eight 50-yard line seats.
“One game I’d go with friends, the next with girlfriends,” he said.
Then, for $100,000, Larmarc Inc. purchased the Arena and renamed it for Martin Luther King. With plans to stage roller derby, boxing, and wrestling there, Stewart searched for a more regular tenant.
The agent believed the NBA was about to invest in the CBA, formerly the Eastern League. Among that league’s eight franchises in 1979-80 was one in Lancaster. The Red Roses’ owners were willing to sell. Lavin got them for $50,000, moved them here, and, in honor of the Arena’s namesake, called them the Kings.
Former 76ers star Hal Greer was named coach/general manager. Cazzie Russell, the Michigan all-American who at 36 had been retired from the NBA for two years, was signed to lend the roster credibility.
Sonny Hill put Greer in touch with Baker League players. The Kings added ex-St. Joseph’s forward Norman Black and Monte Davis, a No. 1 pick the 76ers had cut. Villanova’s Chubby Cox came on board, as did La Salle’s Darryl Gladden, Temple’s Jerry Baskerville, and Bostic, a brawny New Yorker who’d played at New Mexico State.
They staged a public tryout in November, attracting an eclectic mix of hopefuls. One, a Brazilian, happened to be vacationing in Pennsylvania when he decided to take a shot at pro basketball. When he saw the talent on hand exceeded his own, he feigned an illness and left.
One of the last cuts was Al Angelos, a Plymouth Whitemarsh star who’d played at Philadelphia Textile and later coached both his high school alma mater and Ursinus. When Black was signed by the Detroit Pistons, Angelos took his spot
“My first game, they picked me up in a van and on our way to the Arena they explained the plays to me,” Angelos recalled. “We got out, played the game and I think I had like 18 points. It was pretty good basketball, a level above the Baker League.”
Lavin didn’t recall what the Kings’ payroll was, only that “it wasn’t much.” Players received anywhere from $50 to a few hundred a game. Russell, he thought, earned a little more.
“It was more a chance for them to get exposure,” Lavin said.
Russell averaged 19 points. Black, who now coaches in the Phillipines, was their best scorer, Bostic their top rebounder. They’d win just 17 of 40 games, finish third in the East, and get eliminated in the playoffs’ second round.
If they ever attracted more than 250 fans to the Arena, no one can recall it.
“We drew some crowds for the fights,” Lavin said, "but they all seemed to last 2 minutes, and people would get upset.”
The minor-league Kings’ average attendance of 255 was pathetic, though it was better than the Atlantic City Gulls’ 107.
When at midseason, Greer was asked what he needed to learn during the second half, he said, “We need to find out why nobody’s coming.”
In his only season as a professional coach, Greer led with a competitive fire and his players loved him.
“Just a wonderful, wonderful man,” said Angelos.
“A tremendous human being,” said Bostic.
But like almost everyone associated with the Kings, Greer, who died in 2018, eventually lost focus.
“I went to some games,” said Lavin. “Hal Greer would come running in after playing golf just in time for the game.”
Thanks to constant reshuffling, the CBA had teams in such faraway locales as Anchorage; Lethbridge, Alberta; Great Falls and Billings, Montana. That made for interesting road trips.
On one mid-winter day, the Kings played in Anchorage, flew to Seattle, caught a plane there to Alberta, discovered they’d flown to the wrong part of the large Canadian province, returned to Seattle, booked another flight, and, after 24 hours, finally arrived in Lethbridge.
“On that last leg, we ended up taking a prop plane,” said Angelos. “Those big guys were jammed in there. They wanted to kill Hal.”
Amenities were nonexistent. The entire traveling party typically crowded into two taxis. Players paid for their own meals on the road. The Arena’s locker room and court were deteriorating.
“One night, Jim Bostic comes down with a rebound,” said Angelos. “He lands on his heel and it goes right through the floor. We had to stop the game and wait for a carpenter.”
In season, Black and Bostic both got signed by the Pistons but were returned when their 10-day contracts expired. The Kings beat Atlantic City in their opening playoff round, then were eliminated by Rochester.
Their highlight occurred in their next-to-last game, on March 17. Facing elimination and trailing Rochester, 137-133, with 6 seconds to play, Cox hit a three-pointer. Bostic then stole the inbounds pass and, as the buzzer sounded, drained a 15-footer for the win.
But a night later, Rochester won, and it was over. It ended, Bostic said, with none of the Kings suspecting their owner was a drug dealer.
“We were just young kids who loved basketball,” Bostic said. “We had no idea what was going on.”
That offseason, Lavin sold the Kings to a urologist who returned them to Lancaster. Russell became their coach. Greer retired.
On Oct. 4, 1981, seven months after that final game, a suspicious two-alarm fire destroyed the Arena’s roof. Five years later, Stewart, then in prison for tax evasion, was arrested and charged with paying a Pagans motorcycle gang member $12,500 to set it. That arsonist, James “Horrible” Holt, had been murdered in 1984.
While Stewart never netted any insurance money, the fire focused unwanted attention on Lavin.
“In my position the worst thing you can do is something like that fire that brings heat to us,” he said.
The heat intensified on what authorities called the “Yuppie Conspiracy” drug ring. In 1984, Lavin was arrested, but he and his family fled and assumed new identities in Virginia Beach. While there, he lived lavishly and carelessly. A neighborhood friend he regularly invited onto his boat turned out to be an FBI agent.
In 1986, the FBI intercepted a letter Lavin’s wife had sent surreptitiously to her mother. Extrapolating Lavin’s location from a birthday-party venue the letter mentioned, agents soon rearrested him.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy, drug distribution, and tax-evasion and was sentenced to 42 years. He served his time in federal prisons in Kansas and Wisconsin and at a medical facility in Rochester, Minn. In 2005, he was released.
Divorced now and remarried (“My wife’s 41, and she’s the oldest woman I ever dated,” he said), stripped of his dental license, Lavin resides on a golf course in Tampa and is an executive with a telemarketing firm, One Touch Direct.