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.
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?
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.
As the NBA All-Star Weekend approaches, we go back in the way-back machine to 1978. In the Braves’ final year in Buffalo and his team in a state of disarray, Randy Smith took the nation by storm and was voted the All-Star game’s Most Valuable Player. The game featured several amazing shots by Smith who had joined the Braves in its early years after being selected as a 7th round draft choice in 1971.
Phil Ranallo, veteran writer of the “Buffalo Courier Express” newspaper brillantly recounts Smith’s stellar performance in his morning column: “What’s New, Harry?”. Ironically, the Braves’ coach at the time, Cotton Fitzsimmons, had doubts about Smith’s abilities, especially in clutch situations. In a style that made him a staple at Western New York breakfast tables, Ranallo recounts not just Smith’s All-Star performance, but also the unlikely path that brought him there.
WHAT’S NEW, HARRY?
Phil Ranallo, February 7, 1978
LET’S ALL HOPE THAT Cotton Fitzsimmons was paying close attention Sunday afternoon as Randy Smith – with the world watching – did everything with the basketball but take the air out of it.
If Fitzsimmons was all eyes as Randy transformed the NBA All-Star game into “The Randy Smith Show,” Cotton’s worries are all over – at least in any future critical late-game situations the Braves may find themselves.
I’m willing to bet that, from this moment on, whenever the Braves are in desperate need of a field goal in the dying seconds of a basketball match, Fitzsimmons will know exactly what to do.
I mean, Cotton will do the logical thing.
He’ll order Randy to take one of those high-percentage shots of his, one of those dazzling high-arching 35-footers – the kind that way, way up there, gather a little snow, then come down and go, “Swish!”
What Randy Smith did Sunday, in the Atlanta Omni, is straight out of Frank Merriwell – or straight out of the wildest dreams of little kids who go to bed with their arms wrapped around a basketball.
And what Smith did – what happened to him in the Omni – could not have happened to a more deserving fellow.
FOR A LONG TIME now, Randy Smith has been one of the best basketball players in the business. And for an equally long time, all he ever got in the plaudits or recognition department – beyond the city limits of Buffalo – was the business.
Despite the fact that talent oozes from his every pore, what Randy always received from pro basketball America was short shrift.
In the balloting for this All-Star game, for example, Smith failed to make it among the top 10 guards in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. He picked up fewer votes than Al Lorenzo did in the last Democratic mayoral primary.
Smith went into this game a veritable unknown basketball soldier.
But Randy came out of this game a basketball guard of the highest rank, a celebrated hero, a basketball darling – a guy who, figuratively, was carried out of the arena on the shoulders of pro basketball America.
USING THE OMNI AS his headquarters, Randy introduced himself to the pro basketball world – “Hello, all of you out there in basketball land; my name’s Randy Smith; I’m quite a pro basketball player; so watch and I’ll prove it.”
Smith, in this All-Star match, showed ‘em all what he really is – a shooting star of breathtaking dimensions.
With a wondrous, spellbinding demonstration of long-range firing, Smith, the city slicker from the East, won the West.
Smith, the basketball pride of Buffalo, buried the West in a blizzard of baskets.
Fittingly, the play on which Smith climaxed his 11-basket performance was his piece de resistance. It left the folks in the Omni – and in television land – gasping.
The play was vintage Randy Smith.
Randy stole the ball and dealt it to Julius Erving – and Erving shot and missed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Smith appeared, leaped, grabbed the rebound, put up a 15-footer and – “Swish!”
SO NOW THAT THIS All-Star game is history, Randy Smith no longer is a Rodney Dangerfield of pro basketball – no longer is a guy who commands no respect from the nation’s basketball fans.
They now know exactly who Randy Smith is – a sleek, quicksilver fellow with a marvelous outside jump shot and incredibly fast hands that can catch flies in mid-air and steal hubcaps off speeding automobiles.
The fans now know that if there’s anything faster than Smith’s hands, it’s his feet.
It was Smith’s blazing speed, by the way, that gave him his chance in pro basketball.
Seven years ago, after the Braves drafted Smith seventh in the draft, Randy’s chances of making the Buffalo squad were regarded as slimmer than slim.
Until he took one of Coach Dolph Schayes’ agility tests.
THE FIRST DAY they passed out the uniforms that season, back in 1971, Smith popped the eyes of Schayes and the rest of the Braves brass with his performance in the agility drill.
In this drill, the players ran from one end of the line of the court to quarter-court and back, then to half-court and back, then to three-quarter court and back, and finally to the other end line and back.
Well, when Randy completed that first agility drill, his closest pursuer still hadn’t made it to the other end of the court.
Randy was so much the best, so much the fastest, that he could have showered before the second guy got home.
Right then and there, Schayes and the rest of the Braves people – Eddie Donovan, John McCarthy and Joe Niland – made up their minds.
“For a kid with this kind of speed,” Schayes said, “there’s got to be a place on the squad.”
SO RANDY SMITH stuck with the Braves. And now, today, fans everywhere know who he is and why guards who guard him run the risk of going cross-eyed – since it sometimes seems that there are three of him.
Randy Smith, the fellow who for seven years, night after night, has played beautiful music out there on the basketball court – the guy who has conducted, composed, arranged – has finally been allowed to make all the curtain calls, instead of somebody else.
Sunday afternoon, in the Atlanta Omni, justice was served.
For more on the Braves see the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” which features a comprehensive team history and over 260 vintage photos.
By Chris Wendel
Clear skies and unseasonably warm weather greeted my brother Tim and I as we visited Western New York last week. Despite our affinity for the area we grew up in, it’s not often that we are there at the same time.
Tim was invited to speak in our hometown of Lockport, at an author’s event held at the Lockport Public Library. Also featured was Buffalo News sportswriter Amy Moritz. Both reflected on their Lockport roots and the impact of growing up in the area had on their career paths, writing, and relevant sports related topics. There were plenty of Braves fans at the event, many of which were still seeking clarification on the final resting place of the franchise (it’s complicated, but the answer is Boston).
The two-day tour also included visits to the Archive Department of Buffalo State College whose staff was instrumental in the compilation of the book Buffalo, Home of the Braves, the Sabres photo exhibit at the Albright Knox Art Gallery, restaurants serving great but not necessarily the most nutritious food (can you say Ted’s?), and our parents’ house (where we also grew up) near the Erie Canal.
The Sabres exhibit is worth seeing, with an interesting short film loop with incredibly fast paced footage taken from player helmet cameras at a Sabres game played at HSBC Arena.
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.