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.
The long overdue tribute to Randy Smith from his alma mater Buffalo State was held last night at the school’s Sports Arena. During the half-time presentation, Smith was celebrated for his gentle caring demeanor, as well as his phenomenal sports career.
The ceremony included a short speech from the Buff State Athletic Director Jerry Boyes, a proclamation from Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (noticeably absence was the key to the city), and touching remembrance from Smith’s wife Anjela. After the presentations, a huge banner in Smith’s honor was raised before the surprisingly sparse crowd, and his number was finally retired.
Before he became a NBA All-star with the Buffalo Braves , Smith was a three sport All-American at Buff State from 1967-71, excelling in soccer, track, and of course basketball. His soccer coach at Buff State talked of the immense talent Smith was blessed with as a soccer player, mentioning that the Bengals during that era were ranked as high as 7th nationally (there were no divisional categories at that time). Smith scored a record 40 goals in his three year soccer career which remains a school record
In 1970 Smith led the Buff State to the NCAA College Division Final Four in 1970, and was a 1969 track All-American in the triple jump, setting a NCAA triple jump record at the time at 52 feet, 1 ¼ inches. It was mentioned last night that there is likely no other school that has celebrated a three sport All-American. Upon further review, apparently the only other person to claim the three sport honor is Jim Carrington of Navy who excelled in football, swimming, and lacrosse in the 1940’s. Ironically Carrington passed away on June 1, 2009 four days before Smith.
All of this is remarkable in the context of Buff State, a small school that is many times confused by the outside world with the University of Buffalo. The night’s presentation put things into historical perspective, making it clear that Randy Smith represented the greatest era in Buffalo State athletic history, perhaps forever.