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
by Chris Wendel
In their usual brash way, ESPN has now decided that this is “The Year of the Quarterback”, an interesting proclamation knowing that there may not be NFL football to watch this fall. The proceedings began last week with the one-hour ESPN film “The Brady 6”, telling the story of Tom Brady’s fall to the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft.
The film itself is full of anecdotes and interviews from the six quarterbacks that were selected before Brady, and interesting “where are they now” scenarios with all six QB’s. Coaches Brian Billick and Steve Mariucci explained their rational for passing on Brady, while Brady’s college coach at Michigan Lloyd Carr portrayed Brady as a true leader that persevered when he was benched his senior year. Strange how Carr talks up Brady now, when he felt pressed to play phenom Drew Henson (who was also interviewed). A major reason for Brady’s drop in the draft was Carr’s penchant for flip-flopping quarterbacks, something that Mariucci termed “a red flag”.
The film itself was produced with the same high quality as most of the network’s “30 for 30” films. Meanwhile, the rest of the ESPN empire is quite good at creating news and history and as usual, forgetting anything that occurs in smaller markets like Buffalo (Is it me or has anyone else noticed how a topic can start as a comment or question on “Mike and Mike”, gain momentum on “The Herd” and be the lead story by the end of the day?). Discussions on ESPN radio shows promoting “The Brady 6” film centered on Brady perhaps being the lowest drafted player to ever become an All-Star caliber player.
So, watching and listening to all of this, I couldn’t think of 1978 NBA All-Star MVP Randy Smith. Just as compelling as Brady was Smith’s unlikely path to glory, chosen as a 7th round draft pick in 1971 by Eddie Donovan the GM of the Buffalo Braves. Donovan was under fire the previous season for passing on Niagara University All-American Calvin Murphy, choosing Smith the following year out of Buffalo State to appease the locals.
Smith’s rise to power in the NBA became the thing of legend in Western New York, but in larger metropolises that pays ESPN’s bills, it’s a back page story that most fans have seemingly forgotten. If anyone has a story that would resonate in one of ESPN’s well done documentaries, it is Smith’s ironman career and franchise records that still stand today, some 30 years later.
I live in Michigan now and even with well versed NBA fans in their 50’s and 60’s, a mention of Randy Smith results in a vacant looks and scratched heads. Of course most also don’t recall the Braves franchise, their three Rookies of the Year, and Bob McAdoo’s scoring titles. Perhaps it’s no wonder there was little mention on ESPN’s radio and TV updates following Smith’s death almost two years ago.
By Chris Wendel
40 years ago today the Buffalo Braves played their first regular season basketball game, a 107-92 win over the Cavaliers before 7,129 fans in the pre-expanded Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Today, watching the Buffalo Sabres celebrate their 40th anniversary with much fanfare, it makes sense (and stings some too) to revisit why the Braves were the first of many “what could have been(s)” for Buffalo sports fans.
While many of us ponder with angst the future of the Buffalo Bills, the thought of replacing NFL football with another NBA franchise has been bantered about. In a town that can’t figure out a practical development strategy for the old Aud site, it’s almost impossible to grasp a scenario where the NBA and a local ownership group would see value in investing in another NBA basketball franchise.
With all of this in mind, and on the 40th anniversary of the start of NBA basketball in Western New York, it is appropriate to revisit the legacy left behind by the Buffalo Braves:
- High scoring offense: After two lousy seasons that were typical of a new franchise, the Braves followed with a sudden meteoric rise utilizing a fast paced offense that was the precursor to today’s modern transition game. To get an idea, take a look at this archive video of a 1976 NBA Eastern Conference Semi-finals between the Braves and the Washington Bullets.
- Some solid draft choices : The Braves had three NBA Rookies of the Year in eight seasons with Bob McAdoo, Ernie DiGregorio, and Adrian Dantley. Dantley became the first Rookie of the Year in any major sport to be traded from his team before the start of his second season (more on that kind of catatonic management style in a minute). There were ill-fated draft picks as well including John Hummer and Tom McMillen.
- Bob McAdoo: The amazing emergence of Bob McAdoo, who followed up his Rookie of the Year season with three straight NBA scoring titles and NBA MVP honors for the 1974-75 season. Basketball Reference recently described McAdoo as “strangely absent from the NBA Top 50” selections.
- The unlikely path of Randy Smith: Drafted in the 7th round of the 1971 NBA draft (a courtesy pick by GM Eddie Donovan for not drafting Niagara standout Calvin Murphy in 1970). Smith’s raw talent and determination won out over time as he attained the NBA ironman record for most games played (since surpassed by A.C. Green) and became the MVP of the NBA All-Star game in 1978. Many of Smith’s franchise records (Braves/Clippers) remain intact almost 30 years after his retirement.
- Two Hall of Fame coaches, Dolph Schayes and Jack Ramsay: Ramsay left the Braves after the 1975-76 season and coached the Portland Trailblazers to the NBA title the following season. Schayes was fired one game into the team’s second season after failiing to produce a miracle with a team of older veterans and journeymen.
- Unhinged ownership: The Braves ownership was unstable from the start. Paul Snyder purchased the team shortly before the Braves first season and may not have known what he was getting into. Snyder’s management style accounted for the team’s rather quick improvement through player acquisition, but his impatience led to knee jerk coaching and personnel changes that short circuited any long-term stability. Snyder’s controlling behavior eventually drove away Jack Ramsay. In 1975 Snyder wanted out because of the Sabres’ control of decent playing dates (a valid point) selling the team to Kentucky Fried chicken mogul John Y. Brown. The bonehead moves made by the Braves during both the Snyder and Brown regimes are staggering to recount years later. Perhaps the biggest “what if” of them all were the transactions that obtained and traded Moses Malone (for money) after only two games and six minutes of playing time with the Braves. If Malone had stuck in Buffalo the Braves’ front line would have included Malone, McAdoo, and Dantley (all NBA Hall of Fame honorees). All three were traded within a year and the team was destined for somewhere other than Buffalo.
- Positive fan support: The Braves fans generally supported its team and were never given a stable product in return. Meanwhile the Knox brothers quickly built the Sabres into contenders by understanding the concept of fan loyalty, keeping key players in Buffalo for most of their careers (not trading them like commodities). The Braves averaged close to 12,000 fans a game when they had winning seasons. Attendance predictably waned as the team traded its good players, the ownership whined about the lack of city and fan support, and the Sabres continued to build their team and fan goodwill.
With a more devoted ownership that stuck to any type of strategic plan, the Braves may have survived long-term in Buffalo. Regardless of the outcome, the Braves remain one of the NBA’s interesting historic footnotes. I know well versed NBA fans that are now in their 50’s who recall little about the Braves, yet history shows that for a brief shining moment professional basketball was significant and successful in Western New York.
Note: It’s been over a year since the release of the book Buffalo, Home of the Braves. We’ve reposted a column written by Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News from 2009. The book is now classified as “out of print” but there are still a limited number of copies available online from the Sun Bear Press web site and Amazon.com.
May 22, 2009
I can see it from the third floor of The Buffalo News, a crumbling carcass of steel and brick. You think of the ghosts and memories contained in the old Memorial Auditorium, and in the hearts and minds of the athletes and fans who spent so many hours there.
Tim Wendel remembers. Wendel grew up in Lockport. He came of age in the 1970s, when pro sports in Buffalo were at their zenith and two daily newspapers were there to record the moment. Wendel would run out of his house on cold winter mornings to pick up the old Courier-Express, and to see what Phil Ranallo had to say in his column.
Wendel went to Syracuse to learn journalism. He got work as a sports rewrite guy at the Courier, editing Ranallo’s stuff. He was on his honeymoon in September 1982 when he got a phone call from a friend who was watching his apartment. Your apartment’s fine, the friend said, but your paper closed.
He ended up in Washington, D. C., where his wife got a job with the Post. Wendel wrote a book about the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team. He covered baseball and wrote a baseball novel about Fidel Castro.
He remained a Buffalo guy at heart. He and his brother, Chris, sat around at family gatherings, rehashing games from their youth. One day, they were carrying on about the Braves when a relative said, “Why don’t you guys shut up and write about it?”
That’s where the idea for the book started. Wendel got access to the Courier archives and reread Ranallo’s old Braves columns. Chris said he should start calling some of the old Braves. The first call went to Ernie DiGregorio.
“I said, ‘I want to talk about the Braves,’ ” Wendel said Thursday. “His reaction was, ‘Wow! Yeah, let’s talk about the Braves.’ All the guys felt that way.”
Wendel’s labor of love, “Buffalo, Home of the Braves,” was more than four years in the making. On May 30, Wendel will be at New Era Cap on Delaware Avenue for a book signing and release.
The book is 216 pages, coffee table size, and costs $89. That’s a tad pricey, but it’s hard to place a value on people’s memories. There are some 250 photographs, most by Robert L. Smith. There are eight chapters, one for each year of the Braves’ existence. Wendel’s text is accompanied by 15 of Ranallo’s columns.
“We’re bringing Ranallo back to life, so to speak,” Wendel said. “Once again, I’m playing straight man to Phil. I’m writing the narrative and he’s the voice of outrage and reason.”
Wendel traces the team from its inception through the playoff seasons to the grim departure, after Paul Snyder sold the team to John Y. Brown. There are eerie parallels to the current sports scene. Snyder wanted to regionalize his franchise. The Braves played as many as eight games a year in Toronto.
“The Braves’ so-called home games in Toronto, about a 90-minute drive north of the border, often grated on the team’s die-hard fans,” Wendel writes.
Sound familiar, Bills fans?
Wendel talked with most of the main parties, including DiGregorio, Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Jack Marin and the coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay.
“They all hold a sweet spot in their hearts for Buffalo,” Wendel said. “They realize this is where they came of age. They talked about how great it was to play in the Aud, and how great the fans were, and about going out at night. They talked about going to Cole’s and seeing Bobby Chandler and the Bills there.
“They loved the Aud. McAdoo, Randy, Marin, it was almost Field of Dreams stuff, about shooting a basketball at the Aud. They loved shooting there.”
It’s good to know that, as the Aud was coming down, a Buffalo guy was retrieving its brief but precious NBA memories, which live forever.
Interesting results and comments from a weekend ‘Buffalo News’ article that attempted to define, classify, and define what celebrity status means in Western New York.
“Star power: What it means to be a WNY celebrity” included an “A” List and “B” List along with list of celebs that have lived in the Buffalo area and famous and pseudo-famous people on to the “Celebs who have passed on” list.
After reviewing the multiple lists, I decided that even from my jaded perspective of someone who has not lived in the region for years, that the “Buffalo News” staff missed some obvious WNY celebrities of local and even national significance.
I was moved enough to write in (along with many others) omissions to the lists, in fact the accumulated omission list from the reader’s comments section has star power compared to the roster put together by the seemingly young “News” staff. If one is under the ago 40 Tim Horton may be more associated with the doughnut franchise than his Hall of Fame hockey career. Horton made the list, whoch begs the question: Do people know what the people listed actually acomplished?
Here are the names the “Buffalo News” missed, compiled into one list. See how many you many you recognized or would have missed:
- Jack Kemp: former Bills quarterback. U.S. Congressman, Vice Presidential candidate
- Grover Washington, Jr.: soul-jazz saxiphonist, pioneer of the smooth jazz music genre
- Rick Azar: longtime WKBW sports anchor
- Bob McAdoo: Buffalo Brave, NBA Hall of Fame member, NBA scoring leader and MVP
- Randy Smith: Three sport All-American at Buffalo State, NBA All-Star MVP, still Braves/Clippers franchise leader is every major category
- Foster Brooks: entertainer, actor
- Van Miller: longtime voice of the Bills and Braves, sport anchor WBEN for decades
- Danny Neaverth: morning radio host, public address announcer during glory days of Bills and Braves
- Ed Kilgore: local sports anchor since the early 70’s
- Freddie Smerlas: former Bills great and radio personality
- Sal Maglie: major league all-star pitcher
- Stephanie Miller: sundicated radio talk-show host
- Seth Godin: nationally acclaimed business writer, marketing expert, entrepreneur
- Kim Alexis; super model in the 70’s and 80’s, television host and fitness expert
- William Fichtner: character actor
- Rick Jeanneret: voice of the Buffalo Sabres
Please feel free to add to the list.
Nice to see a sold out house in HSBC for the first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The presence of high level hoops in Buffalo is a great change of pace, especially in a town dominated this time of year by Sabres’ hockey.
Thanks to Syracuse and West Virginia, which are within driving distance and sport loyal fan bases, HSBC will be packed all weekend. Announcers will gush about how Buffalo is one of the most exciting venues for the game.
Now close your eyes a moment and imagine what the scene would be like if a Braves banner, with the numbers of Randy Smith and Bob McAdoo, hung from the rafters. Or if a statue of Smith and McAdoo (think of Jordan’s outside the United Center) towered over patrons as they mingled into HSBC. Once again the connection between the present and the Niagara Frontier’s basketball past would exist.
Yes, the Orange’s Wes Johnson does remind one, at times, of Bob McAdoo. That Da’Sean Butler does run the court almost like our own Randy Smith.
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.