Our story begins in Kansas City, which in 1976 had three professional sports franchises, the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL, the Kansas City Royals of Major League Baseball and the Kansas City King of the NBA. My father Joe Axelson was the president and general manager of the Kings and to be honest, the Kings were in third place in the level of fan enthusiasm in K.C. at the time. One writer went so far as to suggest that Kansas City native, pro golfer, and eventual eight-time major champion Tom Watson was the third most popular professional sports franchise in town.
At the time, I was the group ticket sales and advertising director of the Kings and there existed a friendly rivalry amongst the teams. Then as now, it was truly a Kansas City Chiefs town, as they were in Super Bowl I where they lost to the Green Bay Packers, before winning Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings. The Chiefs players were local heroes as were Head Coach Hank Stram and to some extent President and General Manager Jack Steadman.
By the time 1976 rolled around the Chiefs had fallen on hard times on the field, posting 5-9 records for three consecutive seasons in 1974-76, before falling to 2-12 in 1977. However the Chiefs as a franchise still had a bit of an attitude of superiority. Steadman and Stram when asked who they planned to select in the NFL Player Draft each year, invariably replied that they planned to select, “The best athlete available.” The implication being they didn’t need help at any one position. Well after a few years of listening to that, my father decided to poke a little fun at the Chiefs.
At the same time, Bruce Jenner, well before his Kardashian days and his current incarnation as Caitlyn Jenner, was taking the sports world by storm. The former football player from Graceland University (Lamoni, Iowa) had become the best decathlete in the world, thereby earning the sobriquet as the ‘World’s Greatest Athlete.’ The decathlon is a grueling two-day completion that features: the 100 meter dash, the long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter run on Day 1. Day 2 includes the 110-meter hurdles, the discus throw, the pole vault, the javelin throw and the 1500-meter run.
Jenner finished 10th in the 1972 Olympic Games but after setting the world record in the decathlon in the 1976 U.S. Olympic Trials, was a huge favorite heading into the 1976 Olympic Games that were held in Montreal, Canada. During the Olympics, Jenner broke his own world record, this time amassing 8,616 points to win the decathlon gold medal. By the conclusion of the Olympics in August 1976, Jenner had earned certified American Hero status. So much so that Jenner was afforded the ultimate athletic honor at the time, his photo on the front of a Wheaties box.
In 1977 there were 22 teams in the National Basketball Association and the annual NBA Player Draft went eight rounds and was held June 10, 1977, ahead of the 1977-78 season. By comparison, currently the NBA has 30 teams and the draft runs just two rounds.
So to poke a little fun at our cross-town friends who occupied Arrowhead Stadium, in the seventh round of the 1977 NBA Draft, Joe drafted the athlete who was truly the best player available, Bruce Jenner. I’m not sure if the Chiefs ever realized they were being playfully needled, but all of us at the Kings front office thought the concept and execution were a riot.
But even better than that, the marketing types at the Wheaties Division of General Mills thought there was some positive publicity that could come their way and in pretty short order the Kansas City Kings announced Bruce Jenner Night sponsored by Wheaties. The bonus for the fans was that everyone in attendance that evening got to see Jenner and receive a mini-box of Wheaties. The good folks at Wheaties delivered 10,000 mini-boxes of Wheaties to the office. It would be fair to say that the staff ate Wheaties for breakfast for several months to come.
For his part, Jenner got the joke and handled it perfectly. He spent some time in the office the afternoon of Bruce Jenner Night, where he was presented with his own Kings jersey, complete with his professional number of 8,618. He signed some autographs for the staff, and in the photo running adjacent to this column, he signed an autograph for my wife Sharon. At six feet, one inch tall, Jenner wasn’t really a candidate for a roster spot on NBA team. But if we could have worked one of the 10 decathlon events into an NBA game, we would have had a winner. And that’s the true story of how the World’s Greatest Athlete became a Kansas City King for a day.