By Tim Wendel
Any coach can win when he has enough players to run his system. It’s the rare coach who can find a way to win when missing key
pieces to the puzzle. That’s what made Jack Ramsay a Hall of Fame coach.
Famous for his plaid pants, Ramsay coached at St. Joseph’s in the collegiate ranks and four teams (the Philadelphia 76ers, Buffalo Braves, Portland Trailblazers and Indiana Pacers) in the National Basketball Association. He died last night at the age of 89 after a long battle with cancer.
Ramsay, like many of his coaching brethren, believed in big men. In his system, they not only anchored the middle of the defense but he looked to them to be an integral part of the offense as well. But in 1972, Doctor Jack (he earned a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania) found himself without a bona-fide big man in a league that still had plenty of them. In adjusting to his talent, Ramsay transformed the Buffalo Braves into unlikely winners.
Bob McAdoo arrived in Buffalo about the same time as Ramsay. At 6-foot-9, McAdoo had played center at North Carolina and believed he could do the same in the NBA, even though many initially believed he was better suited to be a forward in the professional ranks.
When the Braves got off to a slow start in 1973-1973, only their third year in the league, Ramsay increasingly began to play McAdoo at center. Not only did the newcomer take charge of the Braves’ front court, outperforming veteran players, he would eventually be named rookie of the year.
In addition, Ramsay turned to Randy Smith to bolster his backcourt. Smith remembered that when the season began he and McAdoo were at the end of the bench. “We’d sit there and watch those guys make all those mistakes and we’d be on the bench knowing we could do better. We had to be better than that.”
Soon Ramsay came to the same conclusion, even if it meant playing a rookie like McAdoo at center, going against the likes of Kareen Abdul-Jabbar and Dave Cowens, and a second-year guard in Smith, who was better known for his soccer skills in college.
After Ernie DiGregorio, an acclaimed rookie out of Providence, joined the Braves, Ramsay realized that he had to go against his personal preferences if Buffalo was to succeed. Ramsay and general manager Eddie Donovan looked to trade for more big guys, but the price was too high. That’s when Ramsay decided to go all in on offense.
“With McAdoo at center, Garfield Heard at strong forward, Jim McMillian at small forward and Randy Smith and Ernie D. in the backcourt, we could run and score,” Ramsay once told me. “It seemed like we were destined to be that kind of team. We were like what the Phoenix Suns with Steve Nash became in this era of basketball. We had to outscore everybody else.”
And they often did. With Ramsay at the helm, the Braves made the playoffs the next seasons and became one of the NBA’s major draws.
Before the 1976-1977 season, the Braves and Ramsay parted ways. Ironically, the Braves would soon have the inside muscle the coach long cherished, with the arrival of rookie forward Adrian Dantley and briefly bringing in center Moses Malone. The next year Ramsay won the NBA Championship as coach of the Portland Trailblazers.
The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Our area has a rich basketball heritage, one that dates to the 1950s. We’ve been home to Naismith Hall of Famers, NBA rookies of the year, college All-Americans and national scoring champs.
One of the world’s great athletic wonders, the Bo Jackson of his day, went to college here and emerged from the depths of the draft to forge a record-setting NBA career that commenced with the Buffalo Braves. One of the top 10 collegiate centers of all time came out of a Buffalo high school, played in the Final Four and embarked on a long and distinguished Hall-of-Fame career.
It’s only right that we acknowledge the historical pedestal on which they reside. It’s time to have a banner day for Buffalo basketball and hoist flags recognizing the worthy to the roof of HSBC Arena.
Reggie Witherspoon, homegrown basketball coach of the University at Buffalo, came up with the idea, and what a marvelous one it is. It would be ideal, Witherspoon said, to build the ceremony around an NBA exhibition game, preferably one involving the Miami Heat, whose coaching roster includes Bob McAdoo, who was NBA Rookie of the Year with the Braves, NBA MVP with the Braves, the player you think of first whenever you think of Buffalo‘s good old NBA days.
McAdoo would be a shoo-in for a banner. So would Randy Smith, a Buffalo State College grad who was an All-American in soccer, basketball and track, a trifecta made all the more impressive considering Smith felt baseball was his best sport. The Braves threw the local college star a bone by selecting him and his suspect jump shot in the seventh round of the 1971 draft. Smith never stopped repaying his debt of gratitude, playing in a record 906 straight games and coming off the bench to earn MVP honors in the 1978 NBA All-Star Game.
Who else is deserving? Calvin Murphy, Niagara’s All-American guard, is a must. The world-class baton twirler dumped 48 on Canisius on Jan. 13, 1968, breaking the Memorial Auditorium scoring record in the first Little Three game in which he ever played. A little over a year later he had 27 in a two-point loss to St. Bonaventure, the closest the Bonnies came to losing a Little Three game during the Bob Lanier era. He set a then-NBA record by converting 78 straight free throws. He’s in the Hall of Fame. Yeah, Calvin cuts it.
Lanier? How can we pass on Lanier? One of the stipulations for having a banner should be a show of excellence at the Aud. Lanier, a Bennett grad, played sparingly there as a collegian and a pro, and there’s no ignoring the man who would have delivered Bona a national title, guaranteed, had Villanova’s Chris Ford not taken out his knee in the 1970 NCAA Elite Eight.
Other candidates abound. There’s John McCarthy of Canisius, who played seven years in the bigs. And Ernie DiGregorio, NBA Rookie of the Year with the Braves in 1974, a season in which he set the rookie single-game assist record of 25. Anyone for Larry Fogel? Coming up with nominations is the easy part. It’s reducing the list that becomes the challenge.
Buffalo‘s basketball history should have a place above the main stage at HSBC. The city’s hoops history deserves recognition. There should be kids pointing to the banners overhead and asking their parents, or their grandparents, “Who was Bob Lanier?” Just the way they do with Tim Horton, the French Connection, and the Knoxes.
By Tim Wendel
We could fill volumes with all the front-office blunders the Buffalo Braves made. A trail tears that includes trading Bob McAdoo, Adrian Dantley and Moses Malone for the likes of Swen Nater, Marvin “Bad News” Barnes and assorted other flameouts. Letting go of coach Jack Ramsay when the team appeared ready to finally overtake the Boston Celtics.
But what if the worst mistake the Braves ever made had nothing to do with any particular trade or move, no matter how egregious (I mean McAdoo to the Knicks for John Gianelli and cash?) Instead this sports franchise made a choice so disastrous early on that it proved to be Instant Karma. Real Lousy Instant Karma.
When the NBA awarded Buffalo a team in 1970, St. Bonaventure University and Syracuse University were among those already distancing from their Indian mascots. No more Brown Indians or Saltine Warrior.
Perhaps Carl Scheer and the original Braves ownership (prior to Paul Snyder) saw an opening in the regional marketplace when they decided to call themselves the Braves in honor of Western New York’s Native American history. But in making that selection did the Braves set themselves up for eight seasons of heartbreak?
According to Braves historian Budd Bailey, prior to entering the NBA the franchise held a contest and considered several names: “The most popular choice of the fans was “Frontiersmen,” listed on 74 entries. But Braves was declared the winner. ‘We wanted a name that not only symbolized what the athlete would do on the court but one that
would also be representative of the city of Buffalo,’ Scheer said.”
A few weeks ago, a friend in New York wondered if the Braves were the last professional franchise sport named for a Native American group or icon. One could make argue that the NHL’s Columbus Black Jackets came later, but that franchise insists that its nickname has nothing to do with Native Americans. And, indeed, if you set the Blue Jackets to one side, the Buffalo Braves are to be the last team in any professional sport to claim to an Indian linkage.
I always found it ironic that decades after team swapped franchises with the Boston Celtics and headed west to be the Clippers that the Braves’ star backcourt of Ernie DiGregorio and Randy Smith were working at two Indian casinos in New England. Talk about a strange twist of fate.
Would the team still be in Buffalo, perhaps with McAdoo’s and Smith’s retired numbers hanging from the rafters at First Niagara, if the team hadn’t dared call itself the Braves in the first place?
WHAT’S NEW, HARRY? November 29,1980
(Preamble by Chris Wendel) Several things happened to me today that led to the reprint of this 1980 Phil Ranallo column. First was reading a Facebook post discussing the concept of an outdoor stadium in downtown Buffalo. Next was a friend (who grew up in LA) asking me why Buffalo never had a major league baseball team. The last was seeing this column in a pile of papers in my office. This column has a little of everything: The questioning of Ralph Wilson’s motives, discussion of a stadium that could breathe life into an ailing downtown, and the prospect of major league baseball in Buffalo. Enjoy this work from “Courier Express” sportswriter Phil Ranallo:
Last weekend’s happening — the influx of out-of-towners and their two-fisted spending — served as a fine example of what a big league baseball franchise could do for our town.
Revelation that the invasion of all those Steeler faithful may have had as much as a $l-million economic impact
on the community had to open a lot of eyes.
I’m talking about the eyes of all — the city and county fathers’— as well as the residents of the area, many of whom have long opposed construction of a stadium suitable for major league baseball.
WHAT TRANSPIRED last weekend —-the business the visitors brought to our hotels, motels, restaurants, taverns, etc.—could be the greatest possible advertisement for construction of a baseball stadium in downtown Buffalo.
It should provide the Erie County Sports Board with, ammunition in its fight for such a facility.
Perhaps Ralph Wilson had all this in mind when he made the decision to hustle tickets in Pennsylvania for the Bills-Steelers game.
It’s my guess that Wilson would do anything in his power to help Buffalo build a downtown stadium and land a big league ball club.
I’m sure Ralph isn’t averse to a big league baseball team being located here and competing for the Buffalo sports entertainment dollar.
LAST WEEKEND’S goings-on were unique for a regular season pro football game. Almost all the fans, generally speaking, hail from the area represented by the home team.
Not so, though, in, baseball.
A baseball team with its long home stands, does something that neither a pro football team nor a hockey team does. A baseball team attracts fans from hundreds of miles.
Many of these fans spend theirvacation time or weekends in the baseball town. They stay in your hotels and motels, dine in your restaurants, shop in your department stores, patronize your theaters, etc.
Why, a big league baseball club performing in a beautiful stadium at the Crossroads would even lure people from suburban Buffalo to the central city.
PERSONALLY, I feel that construction of a new downtown stadium — to accommodate a, major league baseball team would ‘be the most progressive step this community could take.
It would be good for some of the things that are ailing Buffalo — terrific for the city is economic growth and the attractiveness of the downtown area.
With major-league baseball as part of our Buffalo life, sports fans would have somewhere to go during this community’s current sports-dry months — from May to September.
They’d have a baseball club to root for — something that would put a little fun in their lives.
And at reasonable prices, since baseball — unlike pro football and hockey does not turn the pockets of its customers inside-out
THE SAD PART of all this is, it could have happened here in Buffalo long ago. Your newspaper the Courier Express thumped the tubs for a downtown stadium in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
And it definitely would have happened, had it not been for those certain people in certain quarters.
Our head-in-the-sand leaders, men with lack of foresight, acquiesced to the dictates of those selfish certain people!
They built Wilson his 80,000-seat football-only stadium in Orchard Park and thereby slammed the major-league baseball door on Buffalo —and for that baseball fans in Montreal and Toronto will be forever grateful.
Those Canadian cities landed big league baseball franchises, either of which could have been Buffalo’s — if we had the proper leadership.
THE COMMUNITY’S current leaders may get the chance to correct the colossal blunders of their predecessors.
The economic impact the visitors from Pennsylvania had on this area last week should enable our leaders to provide the state with a strong argument for state funding of a new stadium in downtown Buffalo.
WHAT’S NEW, HARRY? February 26,1977
On February 13, 1977, Don Edwards played a role in perhaps the most unusual event in Sabres history. A day after Edwards reported to Buffalo from Hershey, Sabres general manager Punch Imlach ordered coach Floyd Smith to have Edwards replace expected starting goaltender Al Smith. The events of that month are captured in this vintage column written by legendary “Courier Express” writer Phil Ranallo.
DON EDWARDS, THE KID goalie who in two short weeks has made it as the people’s choice—despite the tremendous handicap of starting out as Punch Imlach’s personal choice—is listed in the Sabre press guide as standing 5 feet 9 inches and weighing 160 pounds.
Well, the other night, after Edwards put a horse-collar around the necks of the Philadelphia Flyers in that dandy hockey match, I got my first up-close peek at the young man —in the Sabre dressing room—and I’ll tell you this:
If Don Edwards stands 5-9 and weighs 160, so does Bill Shoemaker.
One look at Edwards convinced me that Paul Wieland, the Sabres’ director of public relations who compiled the
data in the press guide, should never serve as commissioner of weights and measures. Or be described as a fellow Edwards whose chief characteristics include the trait for which George Washington is best-remembered.
Paul Wieland, I now suspect, is the guy who measured—and okayed—Rene Robert’s hockey stick before the Philadelphia game.
The best one can say for Wieland is, if Don Edwards stood 5-9 and weighed 160 when Wieland took his “stats,” Edwards was standing on two unabridged editions of the Random House Dictionary and Frankie Christie had a heavy foot on the scale.
EDWARDS IS SMALL-SMALL, believe me.
If you didn’t know the Sabre players and walked into their dressing room, with the purpose of picking out the team’s last line of defense, the team’s last man between victory and defeat —the goaltender—the last guy you’d pick would be Don Edwards.
Since goaltending is one of the most hazardous jobs in all of sports, you’d never dream that Edwards is the guy who is more than a match for those 6-4, 200-pounder bruisers with the flailing sticks in their hand and the flashing bayonets on their brogans.
When Don Edwards strips, peels down to his skivvies, there Is almost nothing to him.
Since Thursday night’s game was unusually long—it was after 11 o’clock before the Sabres’ room was opened to, the press —the first thought that struck me, when I got my initial look at Edwards, was:
What’s this kid doing up this late?
IF I’D HAD ONE, I WOULD have given Edwards a lollipop. He looks just like the kid who delivers my newspaper. He’s one National Hockey League goalie, I’m willing to bet, who could get on a bus for half-fare.
Standing there, in his skivvies, Edwards did not look as tall —or as wide—as his goalie stick.
I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world Edwards, when he dons all of that heavy goalie paraphernalia— the pads and stuff—manages to stand up.
I’m not kidding, if Edwards went out on the ice without the padded armament of his profession, he could hide behind one of the goal-posts.
I you got a dressing-room peek at Edwards, you’d swear that if one of Bobby Orr’s rising shots —the kind that Orr used to fire when he was Bobby Orr —struck Edwards in the midsection, it would render poor Don airborne and drive him into the red seats.
WHY, IF EVERYBODY ON the Sabres’ squad was Edwards’ size, Seymour Knox and his brother, Norty, would be much wealthier gentlemen than they already are—if that’s possible. Because the Sabres could make their road trips in a Volkswagen.
But can this kid ever tend goal!
This kid is as good-looking a goaltender as he is good-looking.
I mean, Edwards is handsome.
Gals who get a look at Edwards, with his mask off, must go daft when they see that head of dirty blond hair and that shining face with the fine features—and that little blond mustache.
Gals have got to want to pick him up and hug him. If Edwards didn’t have that mustache, he could be in trouble if a gal did pick him up. Because she might be tempted to put him over her shoulder and burp him.
BUT IF SHE DID, SHE’D be burping the hottest goaltender in the NHL. Since joining the Sabres on Feb. 13, this 21-year-old kid from Hamilton, Qnt., has worked seven games—and has skated off a winner six times.
Two of his victories have been shutouts. He has a goals against average of 1.71—best in’the NHL. He has stopped 154 of the 166 pucks fired at him, for an efficiency rating of .927—best in the NHL.
Punch Imlach, the man who brought Edwards up from Hershey and touched off that furor—by ordering Floyd Smith to play Edwards in the Feb. 13 game, instead of backup man Al Smith—has been labeled a genius, the world’s No. 1 judge of hockey talent. ‘
As Edwards keeps notching victory after victory, Punch Imlach keeps enjoying the last laugh, night after night, on his critics who lambasted him for pulling rank on Floyd Smith.
Since I was one of Imlach’s critics, a lot of people have been telling me they think it’s time I apologized to Punch.
Well, okay. I’ll apologize—when Imlach stops laughing.
Jerry West’s recent autobiography West by West offers up a glimpse into the complex and often troubled life of a NBA legend. As a player for the Los Angeles Lakers, West visited Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium several times in the early 70’s. In fact West suffered a season ending knee injury at the Aud in a game against the Braves in 1971.
For Buffalo fans, West talks at length about the rebirth of Brave great Bob McAdoo with the Lakers. As General Manager of the Lakers, West took a flyer on McAdoo in 1981, to help the team’s push towards a NBA championship. Here are some of West’s recollections of McAdoo and former Brave Dave Wohl:
Bob MacAdoo who now works under Pat (Riley) for the Miami Heat was there and it brought back a sharp memory of mine, of how nearly everyone thought bringing him in midway through the 1981-82 season would be a disaster, partly because he had gotten a reputation for being difficult and there was a concern that he was washed up.
He had a bone spur injury and we needed to find out if he could still play, find out if he was still, more or less, the same guy would led the league in scoring three years in a row and been the MVP for one of them Dave Wohl, one of our scouts and a close friend of Bob’s when they were teammates on the Buffalo Braves flew, to New Jersey to watch him work out. I didn’t necessarily see him as a starter, but Bob certainly did and that created problems for him at first when he signed with us for a minimum wage contract. We were bringing Bob in because Mitch Kupchak had suffered a serious knee injury.
I talked to Bob at some length about what we needed from him —- his scoring as a way to open up the floor and take pressure off Kareem, and his defense (which was not something that had ever been asked of him before). I told him he would need to adjust to not just being the number one, or even the number two, option. But if he could do what I did outlined, he had a chance to win a championship. (Bob would say later how difficult it was for him to make the transition to coming off the bench, but he couldn’t have been more surprised by how he readily he was accepted by the new teammates with the exception of Kareem, that is, with whom he never had any real relationship to speak of). I had first seen Bob play as a senior in high school at a summer camp in North Carolina and I told him at the time, “Son you’ve got the ugliest shot I’ve ever seen. But don’t change it, because it goes in.”
Don’t miss the review of West by West, My Charmed, Tormented Life by Braves Historian Budd Bailey
NFL President Roger Goodell paid a visit to Buffalo last week, mentioning that improvements to Ralph Wilson Stadium (to the tune of $100 million) would enhance the chances of Western New York keeping the Bills. Setting up a showdown between taxpayers, ownership, and the NFL, the scenario is somewhat reminiscent of the Buffalo Braves departure in 1978, captured in this vintage column written by legendary “Courier Express” writer Phil Ranallo.
What’s New, Harry July 11, 1978
SINCE IT’S HIGHLY DEBATABLE whether a city really needs a professional basketball team – or any pro sports club, for that matter – it can hardly be argued that Buffalo is about to be swept down the drain now that the basketball Braves are gone.
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the loss of the Braves – from Buffalo– is a giant step backward.
Personally, I find myself in deep mourning. The death of the Braves has depressed me. It’s as if I’ve lost a close friend. No kidding. I’m tempted to affix a black band to my right coat sleeve.
The Braves were dear to me because I have long been hooked on the sport of pro basketball. I enjoyed watching the Braves play – lose or win.
They were also dear to me for a selfish reason. I enjoyed writing about them, and their presence in Buffalo made my job easier, since Randy Smith and Co. afforded me with material with which I managed to pound out 50-to-75 columns a year.
During the club’s eight years in existence in Buffalo, I grew to regard the Braves as one of our community’s symbolic institutions. On my list, the Braves ranked right up there – a couple of spots ahead of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
I FELT THAT the departure of the Braves could possibly do economic damage to the city. I felt that their loss might even have an extremely harmful psychological impact on our town.
Now, though, I’m not so sure – about the psychological impact, I mean
Four days have passed the day of infamy – since the NBA club-owners stripped Buffalo of its franchise and rewarded John Y. Brown for his ruinous ownership of the Braves by giving him the votes to move the team and, in effect, the right to thumb his nose at Buffalo.
Four days have passed since the NBA owners, by a 21-1 vote, deemed Buffalo unworthy of a major-league basketball team after eight years of membership in the NBA.
Yet, in Buffalo, from my vantage point, not too many folks seem to care.
There has been little weeping at the death of the Braves – and almost no gnashing of teeth.
THE REACTION OF Buffalonians boggles the mind. Save for diehards who didn’t seem to be stronger in number than a corporal’s guard, the reaction to the death of the Braves has been a giant yawn – or a two-word comments, “Good riddance.”
I got the feeling that if they ran a referendum asking the townspeople if they wanted the NBA bosses to change their minds and keep the Braves in Buffalo, half would say, “Tell me what the Braves are and I’ll tell you if I want to keep them here.”
Included among those whose reaction was a big yawn are the leaders of this town – the politicians who operated out of city hall.
The city’s leaders told us, a while back, that they were ready to take John Y. Brown and the NBA to court – if the league decided to strip Buffalo of the basketball team.
Well, now that the stripping has been done, they’ve changed their minds.
THE CITY’S LEADERS have decided that it’s best not to fight – that it’s better to roll over and play dead, better not to make a peep. They feel that a long, drawn-out court battle would be too expensive for the taxpayers.
They also decided not to go to court – and get this – because they felt that such an action would discourage any future investor from considering Buffalo as the site of a new NBA franchise.
In my view, Buffalo’s refusal to put up its dukes and fight Brown and the NBA will have the opposite effect on future NBA investors when they’re shopping for cities.
I mean, forget Buffalo as a future NBA town – at least in this century.
After all, would you pick for your new NBA club a city that once had a team, but failed show enough interest to fight to keep it?
The city leaders also decided not to fight, it has been reported, because of the about-face the local investors did when head-counting time came.
DURING THE THREE-MONTH period in which John Brown hedge hopped the nation, in search of a new city for the Braves, the city leaders reported time and again that there were several local investors ready to come forward and make a pitch to buy the Braves – if Brown was in a selling mood.
Although no names were mentioned, some of the city leaders – with their constant talk of numerous investors – had me believing there were more Buffalo people trying to buy the Braves than went to games last season.
But when show-time came – when the zero-hour arrived and it became time for the local investors to stand up and be counted – all of the investors remained seated.
The reaction of the guys and gals in this town to the loss of the Braves – as well as the reaction of the city leaders – has got to lead a man to conclude that John Y. Brown is one of the sharpest cookies in the sports world.
JOHN BROWN’S GAME plan was a perfect one. For three months, he drove everybody batty, with his courting of city after city – to the point where everybody had him and Braves up to here.
Then he pulled off his stupendous deal.
And nobody as much as hollered, “Foul.”
Nobody cared where he went as long as he went and they got him out of their hair.
Yes, sir, Brown’s game plan worked to perfection.