by Tim Wendel
It was downright heartening to see the Sabres come back against Pittsburgh the other night. Not only did they take down “Sid the Kid” and those annoying Penguins, but they rolled back the clock, so to speak. The victory reminded me of an era when Buffalo teams were offensive juggernauts.
When the Braves were a contender in the mid-1979s, the rap against them was their often-lackluster defense. In fact, that’s the major lesson coach Jack Ramsay took away from his stint in Western New York.
“Sometimes you have to be able to stop the other team,” he told me decades later when I was putting together Buffalo, Home of the Braves.
To that end, Doctor Jack went looking for a new team with tall timber underneath and he found it in Portland, where he and Bill Walton won a title together.
That’s all well and good, but there’s also something to be said for being able to score. In watching the Bill stumble to the end of another dismal season I grew nostalgic for the old days when they could put up points almost as quickly as the old Braves. One could argue that the Bills of the 1970’s played defense about as well as the Braves did, too. Still, they had playmakers on offense and continued to rack up points pretty much until this current crop came along, which barely put up three points against Atlanta.
When I think about the Braves in their heyday, it’s difficult to differentiate them from the Bills and the Sabres because every team in town could score, seeming at will. You could see Bob McAdoo & Co. put up a bushel load one night and come back to witness the French Connection & Co. do pretty much the same thing the next at that grand old barn of a building called the Aud. OK, the Braves, Bill and Sabres didn’t bring home any titles during those epic runs. But, all in all, it sure was a lot more fun to watch.
Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks for helping make Buffalo, Home of the Braves a reality. Now let’s get a banner to that team raised at HSBC.
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.
A team a few bricks shy of a load. Small in stature at positions where that matters most. Week after week unable to finish close games.
That sounds an awful lot like the current Buffalo Bills football squad. But not so long ago that scouting report also summed up the Buffalo Braves basketball team. And, unfortunately, such organizational faults helped speed the team’s departure from Western New York.
In following the Bills’ ineptitude in recent seasons, I’m reminded of conversations I had with Bob McAdoo while writing Buffalo, Home of the Braves. The Hall of Famer, now in his 15th year as an assistant with the Miami Heat, talked at length about being patient. Having a plan and believing in it.
“Several times the pieces we had the pieces in our hands for a championship team,” McAdoo says, “and we let them go.”
Of course, one of the pieces that the Braves gave away was McAdoo himself – peddled to the New York Knicks in a Judas deal for John Gianelli and $3 million.
But there are plenty of other examples:
- Trading away a young Moses Malone.
- Firing Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay
- Drafting Tom McMillen when Ricky Sobers, Lloyd Free, Gus Williams and Kevin Grevey were available.
- Showing Jim McMillian, Gar Heard and Jack Marin the door.
- Allowing John Y. Brown to turn the franchise into “ABA North.”
“Good teams know when to stand pat,” McAdoo told me. “With bad ones, things get too fast, too crazy. Before you know it, you look up and see you’ve lost what’s really important.”
With the Bills going through such uncertain times, here’s hoping they’ve learned a lesson from the old Braves. The fans in Buffalo are among the most knowledgeable I’ve ever come across. They know when team ownership has a real plan and when it is just another shell game.
After yet another disappointing loss, the dismal performance of the Buffalo Bills persuaded me to question with friends how far loyalty goes with one’s hometown team. After Buffalo dropped to 3-6 with a 41-17 drubbing at the hands of Tennessee Titans, I threw out the idea of changing my allegiance (at least for the rest of this season).
After eliminating the teams that I’ve grown to despise (Jets, Patriots, Dolphins) the teams left to consider included the Bengals, Chargers, and Broncos.
Living now in Michigan after growing up in Western New York, there’s never been a reason to root for the Lions (with the exception of Barry Sanders). Spending ten years of my life in Colorado and as much fun as it was going to Denver Bronco games in the old Mile High Stadium, my heart still belongs with the Bills.
As I write this New England is beating up on Indianapolis, the same New England team the Bills seemed to have handled in the first game of the season, before giving away the game in the final minutes. That seems so long ago now, but that game has me wondering if the Bills season could have played out differently.
To temper my delusion, I’ll soon escape to the Buffalo and Western New York Historical Society to view the exhibit featuring 50 Years of Bills History. It will allow me to look back at happier days or suffer several decades of futility all in one afternoon.
P.S. The Patriots blew their lead and eventually lost to Indianapolis. It should be noted that there is a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing New England also squander a game that it had seemingly won.
Braves Book Update: Buffalo, Home of the Braves is now on sale at seven independent book stores in the Buffalo area including the Buffalo and Western New York Historical Society Museum Shop. Purchases can also be made online from SunBear Press.
Sun Bear Press publisher of Buffalo, Homes of the Braves, has completed an upgraded of its web site. The new look focuses on the Buffalo Braves, Western New York’s NBA team that played its formidable years in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium.
The new site features a collection of Buffalo Braves articles, a full chapter excerpt from Buffalo, Home of the Braves, book reviews, and a list of retail outlets selling the book in the Buffalo area. Buffalo, Home of the Braves is available in a limited quantity for $89.
NBA Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo emailed today between exhibition games as Assistant Coach with the Miami Heat, giving his thumbs up for the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves”. His friend and Buffalo resident Kenny Martin made the connection, and it’s great to have McAdoo’s blessing.
You’ll notice that the Buffalo Nation site has been reconfigured. We think the new look will be a good conduit to Braves and other Buffalo sports news. We are also redoing the Sun Bear Press web site, with some nice background graphics and a streamlined ordering process that should be completed this week.
Speaking of ordering, we’re finally up and listed on Amazon.com. Look for another book signing with author Tim Wendel and perhaps a special guest Brave. We’re lining up a date for early December, likely again at the New Era Cap Company on Delaware in downtown Buffalo.
Twenty-seven years ago, The Buffalo Courier-Express folded. I’ll never forget it because I worked there and I was on my honeymoon when it happened. Of course, that unfortunate turn of events was well before cell phones, emails and texts.
My new wife and I were driving around the West – Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Francisco – and we weren’t exactly regular about checking back home. That resulted in one of the most bizarre conversations of my life.
I called back to Buffalo, to the friend who was keeping an eye on our apartment. “How’s it going?” “Your place is fine,” he replied, “but your paper folded three days ago.” We rushed back in time for the vote about the paper’s future.
On the table was an offer from Rupert Murdoch, which would have meant significant cuts in editorial staff. At the meeting, I sat next to Phil Ranallo and I remember him muttering “It’s Jonestown” – a nod to the drinking of the fatal Kool-Aid – as the measure was voted down.
To this day, I find it amazing that Murdoch ownership was fine for The Boston Herald and eventually The Wall Street Journal but somehow beneath Buffalo.
I saw Phil one last time after that. A quick chat. Everything was unraveling fast for C-E folks by then. Some were preparing for an abrupt retirement. Others of us were scrambling to find a new job. I became the sports columnist for The (Syracuse) Post-Standard and soon parlayed that into a move to the Bay Area and eventually a staff job at The San Francisco Examiner.
To think too much about Buffalo back then was to risk too much heartache. Best to make tracks and put down new roots out West. After all, that’s where we were when all of this happened, right? But, of course, one can never forget where he’s from. Western New York. The Courier-Express.
Working next to Phil. Listening to him talk about arguably his favorite basketball team, the Buffalo Braves. Those are the times I find myself thinking about on such sad anniversaries.