30 years later franchsise swap begs for answers

By Tim Wendel

NBA Commissioner David Stern knows how quickly a sport can die, how its very integrity can be called into question. One of his first jobs in 1966, as outside counsel for the NBA, was the Connie Hawkins case. A star of the Brooklyn playgrounds, Hawkins associated with a known gambler, and that was enough to have him blacklisted from the league.

At the time, basketball was still recovering from point-shaving scandals that rocked the game in the 1950s. Top players, such as Kentucky All-Americans Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, were bribed by gamblers to make sure their teams didn’t cover the point spread. The City College of New York — the only team to win the NIT and NCAA titles in the same season – was involved and never returned to prominence.

Today, with former referee Tim Donaghy still making waves for fixing NBA games, commissioner Stern likely cannot help but flash-back to those dark days in the 1950s. Stern realizes as well as anybody how fast a sport can fade away.

Thirty years ago, boxing was on top of the world. Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali were household names — national heroes. A Saturday night bout was almost certainly water-cooler talk on Monday morning. Now the sport in which they were once kings has become a shell of its former self.

During that sport’s fall from grace, the public often wondered if the fix was in. Too many times what happened in the ring was manipulated — boxers lost fights on purpose; promoters, judges and referees rigged things to favor one party over another.

The recent news of Donaghy reminds me of another time when I wondered if the fix was really in. If there was much more than met the public eye?

In Buffalo, Home of the Braves, we detail how John Y. Brown swapped the entire franchise with Irving Levin, the owner of the Boston Celtics. One of the architects of that stunning team swap, perhaps the ultimate trade of all time, was David Stern.

Levin headed west with his team, becoming the Lost Angeles Clippers. Brown’s new Celtics, dare we say the old Braves, somehow held the draft right to collegian Larry Bird when the dust settled. Thanks to such an influx of talent, they returned to championship form.

“I was home in Buffalo. Somebody called me from the Braves’ office to tell me the news…,” Randy Smith told me years later. “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it.”

With that, basketball’s glory days in Buffalo ended.

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