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Ranallo’s account portrays unlikely rise of Randy Smith

February 18, 2011 2 comments

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.

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Where are they now? Bob Kauffman

August 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Bob Kauffman contacted us a few days ago, after receiving a copy of the Buffalo Braves anthology: “Buffalo, Home of the Braves”. Kauffman of course was a driving force in the early years of the Braves franchise, and was a three-time NBA All-Star with Buffalo. He was flattered by the book and thought back fondly on his playing days in Western New York.

Here’s an edited audio version of the voice mail message that Kauffman was kind enough to leave:  bob kauffman voice mail

This short excerpt from “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” demonstrates Kauffman’s commitment to Buffalo:  “The franchise did its best to win over local fans. Coach Schayes and his players put on more than 80 local basketball clinics. They did so to “get people more interested in professional basketball,” Kauffman later told former Buffalo sportscaster Pete Weber. “What we started there was the good will that the Braves cared about the people of Western New York. It was a romance and we drew well for the first couple of years because we cared, we tried, we worked.””

Transcript version of Bob Kauffman's message: "Hey Chris Wendel, this is Bob Kauffman in Atlanta Georgia. I want to thank you very much for sending me a copy of the new book on the Braves, that Tim did and the you guys collaborated on and everything else.

I just wanted to thank you very much, it’s tremendously informative, it brings back awesome memories, and I also regret that franchise had to leave, because Buffalo was a wonderful place for Judy, me, and my family. I just wanted to thank you guys for doing what you did, it is really awesome.

Thanks for writing about the Braves, I never envisioned it, but you knew there was a market for it. It looks like it was a lot of love was put into it and it brought tears to my eyes. Thanks once again to both of you and everyone else who was involved."

Humble Beginnings

March 19, 2008 Leave a comment
Chapter One: 1970-71 Season

To order “Buffalo Home of the Braves” visit www.sunbearpress.com

On January 20, 1970, the National Basketball Association voted to expand by four teams. Along with Portland and Cleveland, an NBA franchise was awarded to a group of investors headed by Phillip Ryan and Peter Crotty for Buffalo.

The age of sports expansion had been well under way since the late 1960s. The National Hockey League, for example, had doubled the number of its franchises from six to 12 in one grand move. The NBA had expanded to Seattle and San Diego in 1967; and to Milwaukee and Phoenix a year later. While some contended that the talent pool wasn’t there to support so many new teams, the NBA was eager for new markets in large part because it was at war with the rival American Basketball Association.

The ABA had been around since 1967 and was developing a strong following in some parts of the country. The ABA, with its distinctive red, white and blue ball, emphasized slam dunks and high scoring. The rival league was driving up player salaries and many owners in the older NBA were becoming increasingly concerned about the bottom-line. New teams to the NBA paid escalating franchise fees. In the case of the new kids on the block – Portland, Cleveland and Buffalo – the entry fee was $3.7 million.

Days after the announcement was made, it became apparent that the Buffalo group didn’t have deep enough pockets to operate a team at the most expensive rung of professional basketball. In looking back on the team’s checkered past, it was the first sign of trouble for a ballclub that would soon rank one day among the best in the league and in the next breath be spirited away from town in the most bizarre bait-and-switch move ever seen in professional sports.

Location-wise, Buffalo appeared to be a solid enough choice for NBA expansion. Even though its metropolitan area population was 1.3 million, the lowest of the new expansion cities, Buffalo’s economy was built upon the rock-solid basics that once made the Great Lakes such a vibrant area – shipping, hydroelectric power and steel. In addition, the area had a rich basketball history at the college level. Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure formed the “Little Three,” and Calvin Murphy (Niagara) and “Buffalo” Bob Lanier (St. Bonaventure) had recently received All-American honors.

The New York Knicks’ Eddie Donovan, who had played and coached at St. Bonaventure, was hired as the team’s first general manager. Besides being a great judge of talent, Donovan was also known as the guy who coached the Knicks the night the 76ers’ Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in Hershey, Penn. That still ranks as top individual scoring night in NBA history.

The team’s nickname, Braves, came from a contest with 14,000 entries. Dave Lejewski of Dunkirk had the winning entry and was awarded season tickets. Neither Lejewski, nor anybody else in Buffalo for that matter, was exactly sure what kind of team would be taking the floor at Memorial Auditorium. In the NBA draft, the Braves had the ninth pick in the first round. Unlike Buffalo’s new hockey franchise, the Sabres, the Braves missed out on top talent their first season. (The Sabres were able to select scoring star Gilbert Perreault with the top pick and they never looked back in building their team.) The first four selections in the NBA draft proved to be bona fide stars. Lanier, the star from St. Bonaventure, went No. 1 to Detroit, followed by Rudy Tomjanovich (San Diego), Pete Maravich (Atlanta) and Dave Cowens (Boston). After that, the draft dropped off, so Donovan traded the franchise’s first draft choice to the Baltimore Bullets for guard Mike Davis. Davis had been on the NBA’s all-rookie team in 1969-70.

The Braves had another pick in the first round – No. 15. Local fans clamored for the new club to take a chance on Niagara’s Murphy. Murphy had proven to be one of the greatest scorers in college history. But he stood only 5-foot-9. For that matter, there was another dynamite guard still available when it became the Braves turn to choose – Nate “Tiny” Archibald from Texas-El Paso. Yet as the moniker indicates, Archibald wasn’t a towering giant, either.

In the end, Donovan played the percentages and selected 6-foot-9 forward John Hummer from Princeton. He was a solid rebounder and played good defense. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great shooter, even from the free-throw line. It wasn’t until the third round that Donovan threw a bone to the locals by selecting Chip Case of Virginia. Case had played his high school basketball in suburban Lockport, N.Y.

Predictably, the rest of the squad was stocked with rejects from other teams. Besides Hummer, the Braves’ original starting five included Herm Gilliam, Don May, Dick Garrett and Nate Bowman. The best player on the squad that inaugural season proved to be Bob Kauffman, a former first-round pick with Philadelphia. With the new team lacking in height, Kauffman took over the center spot, even though his natural position was forward.

Dolph Schayes, a one-time Hall of Famer for the Syracuse Nationals, was the coach. His expertise was talking up the team to the local media, which was important because the Sabres were already off to head start with the public.

But before the first season got underway, the team needed to add one more individual. When the Braves’ original investment group began to fall apart, the NBA approached Paul Snyder about taking over the franchise. Snyder had made his money in the food industry. Despite his small stature, his firm handshake and riveting gaze soon gained anyone’s attention. In the spring of 1970, Snyder sold Freezer Queen, a frozen-food company, for a generous profit to Nabisco. The time seemed right to try something different, like owning a professional basketball team.

When the NBA called, the Braves had almost completed preseason play. While the team was the usual collection of cast-offs and misfits, it was easy to daydream about greater glory. Next season the team would likely have a top draft choice. Kauffman was somebody to build around. The team was Snyder’s for the asking, but he would have to act quickly. A new season, the Braves’ inaugural one, was about to begin.

To order “Buffalo Home of the Braves” visit www.sunbearpress.com