Last season, the Kansas City Kings introduced the Glitter Girls, a glamorous cheerleader-dance group that created so much interest among the local citizenry that team officials credit it with adding 15,000 people to the attendance rolls.
That got the Kings' hierarchy thinking. If cold winter nights made their fans that anxious for good entertainment, what would a winning season by the team do for the treasury?
Now management has the answer. The Kings, easily the most surprising squad in the NBA this season, are attracting crowds at a record pace. And a once shaky club dfinally has gained stability after six roller-coaster seasons in the country's heartland.
The sudden success of this team, of course, is directly related to the addition of rookie sensation Phil Ford, the whirling-dervish guard who has defied the pro basketball axiom that only big men can dramatically turn around the fortunes of a franchise.
But it also is a story of how a city can suddenly embrace a pro team after years of pondering just what to do with this bunch of tall folks scampering around in gym shorts.
The Kings no longer are the town's sports orphans, relegated to a lowly position behind baseball's Royals and football's Chiefs.
They get prominent mention in the local newspaper, their radio network blankets an extended area for the first time and rookie Ford already is as popular as third baseman George Brett.
"We really got decent support even before now, considering the overall success of our teams," said General Manager Joe Axelson, who has absorbed the bulk of the criticism for past failures. "This year, it's been overwhelming. If we had had better weather during the early part of January, attendance would be even better."
Already, the Kings, who play the Bullets Friday at 9:05 p.m. (WDCATV-20), have pulled in a crowd of 15,164, third largest in their history. But one of the s eason's smallest gatherings convinced the club how far it had come in a year.
About 4,000 hardy souls showed up last Sunday for a g ame against New York despite a blinding blizzard that eliminated all parking spots and nearly forced the Kings to postpone the contest.
"It was so bad, baby, that if I had to buy a ticket, I would have stayed home," said Axelson. "That showed us what kind of fans we have. We were so delighted that everyone who came can exchange their stub for another game and the ones who didn't can exchange their tickets or get a refund."
The Kings presently are averaging just under 10,000 per game and they expect to break the all-time attendance figure of 330,000 by at least 70,000.
The full impact of what has happened in Kansas City probably has not sunk in completely with either the league or the team.
"I think we are for real," said Axelson. "We needed to make a few adjustments from last season to be good, and we did. We didn't take care of the ball last year -- too many turnovers, too many mistakes. We lost 20 games in the final three minutes. If you were close to us at the end, baby, you had us."
Ford, the ball-handling whiz from North Carolina, has taken care of the Kings' carelessness, and the club, which finished with a 31-51 record last season, now is nine games above.500.
Axelson and the 10 team owners, meanwhile, shored up the major financial problems during the summer after initial season-ticket sales had dropped from the 1977-78 level of 3,600 to 2,800.
"Just as in every city, there is a power structure here, an hierarchy of business leaders," he said. "We requested an audience with them. We asked if they could put a blessing on us. We are the main tenants of a municipally owned building (Kemper Arena) and the more people we draw, the more money they get to retire the revenue bonds.
"They listened and they responded. We were able to sell blocks of season tickets to companies that hadn't even known we existed."
There was never any talk of the Kings leaving Kansas City, but the civic leaders were aware that the owners, who had never made money on their $5 million investment, were running out of patience.
Yet the city should not have to shoulder all the blame for the financial problems. The Kings, who started 31 years ago in Rochester, then moved to Cincinnati before coming to Kansas City in 1973, have had only one winning season in their present home.And the franchise has had only two above-.500 campaigns since 1964-65.
For the first six years here, they also were a tale of two cities. They played 15 games each season in nearby Omaha because they were unable to get as many prime dates in Kemper Arena as they desired. Reason: pro hockey's Kansas City Scouts were the prime residents and had first crack at the most attractive nights, and a month-long rodeo and various college tournaments long had been locked into specific dates.
But Omaha never took to the club and games there were cut to five, then eliminated completely along with the double-city identity. This season, the Kings have three games scheduled in St. Louis and expect to average about 12,000 there.
Axelson has built this squad around draft choices. The Kings are the only team in the NBA starting five of their own first-round draft choices. A sixth first-round pick, Richard Washington, has been out all season with a broken foot, but is expected back by mid-February and his presence, Axelson feels, "should make us really tough down the stretch."
All of the prime choices -- Ford (1978), Otis Birdsong (1977), Bill Robinzine (1975), Scott Wedman (1974), Sam Lacy (1970) -- were among the 11 top players picked in that season's draft. But even the rebuilding procses was almost disrupted completely three years ago.
"We were ready to cook when we had Brian Taylor," said Axelson. "We were 39-32 (in 1976-77) when he got hurt. We still had a winning season, but then he came up with contract problems and we had to trade him.
"Without him, it forced us into some personnel decisions (in the back court) we wouldn't have made if he hadn't defected. Robinzine also broke his ankle and it took him a year to come back. All in all, it put us a year behind."
From a playoff club, the Kings slipped to the fourth-worst record in the league. But Axelson drafted Ford and finally signed him after a long contract hassle. He hired Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons to replace Phil Johnson, who was fired in midseason the year before. Then he gave approval to Fitzsimmons' decision to introduce a fastbreak style.