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
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.
John Hummer was the Braves’ first-round draft pick in 1970. He signed his professional contract at the old Gulf & Western Building near Columbus Circle, and then was told to head to LaGuardia Airport and a flight to Buffalo. It was a quick up-and-back, a chance to meet the hometown press and fans. No big deal. The only problem was that on the way to the airport Hummer realized he only had $15 in his pocket.
When the cab pulled up at the terminal, the fare read $14.90. “I tried to tell the cabbie what had happened, how sorry I was,” Hummer recently told me. “But he just threw the dime back in my face.”
An omen of what was to come perhaps? For in Western New York, some fans were steamed that the Braves had selected Hummer instead of local hero Calvin Murphy in the team’s inaugural college draft. Never mind that Hummer had nothing to do with that decision, those at the old Aud often laid into him.
“I couldn’t blame them,” Hummer said. “I knew what they wanted. They wanted Calvin Murphy and I wasn’t that kind of player.
At Princeton, Hummer was best known for his defense, which helped coach Pete Carril win the Ivy League and turn heads in the NCAA Tourney. His nephew, Ian, now stars for Princeton.
Despite the criticism, Hummer was often seen around Buffalo. “I was the only player in those early years to live downtown. Everybody else was out in Amherst or Williamsville. I had a place right off Elmwood Avenue. I enjoyed getting out and talking with the people. For me, Buffalo will always be the ultimate bar town.”
Hummer stayed with the Braves for three seasons before being traded to the Chicago Bulls in the deal that brought Kevin Kunnert and Gar Heard to Buffalo. Hummer finished his basketball career with the Seattle Supersonics. After his playing days ended, he earned an MBA from Stanford and co-founded a venture capital firm in San Francisco. Pets.com, Wind River Systems and Napster are just a few of the firms he’s invested in.
In looking back at his basketball career, Hummer occasionally wonders what could have been. For you see, the Milwaukee Bucks had the 16th selection in the 1970, right behind the Braves. “And Larry Costello wanted me,” Hummer says, “and arguably I would have been a better fit with the Bucks. But that’s the way it goes.”
(Costello coached the Bucks to the 1971 championship, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, and Oscar Robertson on the roster.)
During his NBA career, Hummer played for three Hall of Famers – Dolph Schayes, Bill Russell and Jack Ramsay. Two of them were during his time with the Braves.
“I loved Buffalo,” Hummer said. “Sure there were some ups and down, but I really enjoyed those days.”
. Tim Wendel
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.