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Joe Axelson (December 25, 1927 – May 31, 2008) was an American sports executive who won the first NBA Executive of the Year Award in 1973 while serving as general manager of the Kansas City–Omaha Kings. He was partly responsible for the shifting of the original Cincinnati Royals franchise to Kansas City–Omaha, and then on to Sacramento, California.
Axelson was a native of Clinton, Illinois. He played baseball and basketball for school teams. He served in the armed forces in GA for several years. Not much is available re: business activities in the 1960s, but he became involved to some degree with sports events / related promotion, and The Jacobs Family, owners of the NBA Cincinnati Royals as well as a slew of other enterprises. When Max Jacobs became Chairman Of The Board of that team, replacing his deceased father Louis Jacobs in 1968, the young Jacobs named Axelson General Manager of the NBA team, even as Axelson had little experience with the league. Oscar Robertson, in his autobiography, later said ' Axelson didn't know a basketball from a pumpkin ', a statement made in light of Axelson's poor trading record with the team. Axelson traded Jerry Lucas, a three-time First Team All-NBA player, for two San Francisco Warriors players, Bill Turner and James King. Turner played with the Royals for just one season, then was dealt to the Warriors to join Lucas in 1970. King, who missed games with a broken leg, played just 31 games with the Royals and was then released. Lucas was a starting 1971 NBA West All-Star, then starred for two more seasons for the New York Knickerbockers, helping them reach two NBA Finals. Axelson was more known for trading Oscar Robertson, an even bigger Cincinnati star than Lucas had been. Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson were received in return. Paulk had not played at all in 1969–70, and was even said to be in the military in GA during that time. He played one year with the team and then was traded to Chicago the following year. His entire NBA career was 120 games. Robinson, a very good guard, played just one year with the team, then was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers by Axelson for a draft pick. Robertson played four more years in the NBA, twice helping his team to The NBA Finals. Robertson and Lucas were Axelson's best trade opportunities to help the Cincinnati team. Both trades were roundly criticized.
Listed as one of the owners when the Royals transfer out of Cincinnati, Axelson had the team playing games in both Omaha, Nebraska and Kansas City, Missouri. Kemper Arena in Kansas City was not initially even available for use. Despite all that, and a mediocre 36-46 first season record, Axelson was named NBA Executive of the Year. With the now-named Kings, Axelson's teams recorded four winning NBA seasons in thirteen years, though once impressively reaching The NBA Western Conference Finals in 1981. Axelson was not part of that success since he took a two year leave to work for the league office before resuming his position as general manager of the Kings.
With competition from the Comets soccer team and attendance sagging, Axelson again was asked to help move the team to another city. The Final home game in Kansas City, 4/14/1985, thousands of fans showed their dislike for Axelson by wearing ' Joe Axelson masks ' and booing throughout. Axelson was later also burned in effigy. The new Sacramento Kings had a decent first season with a 37-45 record, then failed to win 30 games in any season for the next eight years with Axelson again as General Manager.
In 1979 the NBA had still liked him enough to name him Director Of Operations, and he was an important aid to David Stern as he took over the league.
After leaving basketball, Axelson later had a radio show to talk about his favorite team --- The Chicago Cubs. It's not known if his basketball exploits were ever discussed on that show.
- Association for Professional Basketball Research FAQ. Retrieved 9 September 2007.
- Former Royals, Kings executive Axelson dies at age 80