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.
By Tim Wendel
Gilbert Arenas bringing at least three guns into the Washington Wizards’ locker room has made headlines nationwide. That the All-Star guard tried to pass off the incident as a practical joke is quite a reach. Still, any Braves fan knows that Agent Zero has a long way to go before surpassing the antics of one Marvin “Bad News” Barnes.
Old Marvin not only stowed guns in his locker, but he snorted cocaine during games and traveled with hookers on the team plane. He was better suited to be a member of Led Zeppelin or Rick James’ backup band than a professional athlete.
After starring at Providence, where he once sank a record 10 for 10 from the field in the NCAA playoffs, Barnes won rookie of the year honors in the American Basketball Association with the Spirits of St. Louis. Even though his wild lifestyle made him a shadow of his former self, Braves owner John Y. Brown brought him over from the Detroit Pistons (in exchange for John Shumate, Gus Gerard and a high draft pick) for the 1977-1978 season. Of course, this would prove to be the Braves’ last time around the block in Buffalo, and Barnes did his part to push the team over the edge.
More than 15,000 packed Memorial Auditorium for Barnes’ debut with the Braves. Posters of Bad News with the caption, “Buffalo is Marvin’s Gardens” were handed out.
Despite such a promising start, Barnes soon wore out his welcome in Western New York, too. But that didn’t mean there weren’t some tales to tell along the way. One of my favorites comes from Van Miller, the Braves’ play-by-play announcer.
“Marvin Barnes was past his prime by the time he got to the Braves,” Miller once told me. “But that didn’t stop him from still going around in style. Marvin was late pretty much for everything, so one day the team is practicing at a high school in Buffalo and Marvin comes in a half-hour late. But that doesn’t bother him one iota. He walked into that practice with a beautiful woman on each arm. He sat them in the bleachers at this school gym and they waited patiently until practice was over. Afterward Marvin cleaned himself up and then walked out of the joint with one on each arm.”
Last March, Providence College retired Barnes’ jersey, along with the numbers of Jimmy Walker and Ernie DiGregorio, another ex-Brave.
At the ceremony, Barnes joked that while it may take a village to raise a child, in his case it had taken “a whole state, State police, DEA, everyone.”
(Full 20 minute version) Randy Smith Interview Recorded in 2008 by author Tim Wendel for the book: “Buffalo, Home of the Braves”
In what is believed to be Buffalo Brave great Randy Smith’s last “on the record” interview, Smith discusses what it took to make it in the NBA, the early days of the Braves, his friendship with Bob McAdoo, the great appreciation he received from the Buffalo fans,and surviving the ups and downs with the ill-fated Braves franchise.
31 years after the Braves left Buffalo (and eventually became the Los Angeles Clippers, sort of), Smith still hold many of the franchise’s records including points scored and games played.
When asked who had the biggest impact on his career, Smith recalls a belief and determination in himself, as the major factor that formed his professional basketball success.
Drafted out of Buffalo State in the 7th round of the 1971 NBA draft, Smith defied the odds to set the NBA “iron-man” record with 906 consecutive games played (since broken by A.C. Green in 1997).
Randy Smith died on June 4, 2009 after suffering a heart attack near his home in Connecticut.
Buffalo News sportswriter had a great column on the Braves’ anthology: “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” this morning. He spoke with Tim yesterday, and was it was nice to have the column published before next week’s book signing and Jerry’s well deserved Florida vacation.
We heard from a lot of Braves’ fans today, many transplanted to other parts of the country but still with a strong affinity to Western New York and the Buffalo Braves, just like us. At day’s end we’re ending up as the number two sports story, what’s #1? The west wall of the Aud that came crumbling down as its demolition winds down.
The book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” is close to completion. On Saturday, May 30, 2009, a book release celebration event will be held in Buffalo.
From 11 AM – 1 PM that day, author Tim Wendel will be available for the signing of purchased copies of the book in the Community Room of the New Era Cap Company, located at 160 Delaware Avenue in Buffalo.
“Buffalo, Home of the Braves” can also be purchased online prior to the celebration event from SunBear Press.
Autumn means colorful foliage to some, the start of the football season to others. But what I wax nostalgic about during this time of year is what we used to call our “Buffalo Sports Weekends.”
From 1974 to 1978, I was an undergraduate at Syracuse University. The football team was about as good as it is now. In other words, lousy. But that didn’t stop us from religiously cheering on the Orange Saturday afternoons. This was before the Carrier Dome went up, so we hunkered down in Archbold Stadium, which bore a striking resemblance to the old Rockpile.
Several times each fall, we’d go right from the SU game and drive to Buffalo in time to catch the Braves at the Aud. Of course, it was early in a new NBA season and, at least in 1974-75-76, the sky seemed the limit for a squad with Bob McAdoo (pictured above), Randy Smith, Ernie DiGregorio on the floor and Jack Ramsay calling the shots.
I’ll admit that early on the Braves were a way to flesh out Buffalo Sports Weekends. Usually we’d go to the Bills game Sunday afternoon and finish things off with the Sabres, back at the Aud, Sunday nights. Then we’d race back down the Thruway in time for class Monday morning. I didn’t take the best of notes those days, but I was there. I made it to class.
But during those years, the Braves won me over. I loved watching them play and was crestfallen when they left town.
When I tell people about those days, hitting the Braves, Bills and Sabres in 24-plus hours, they think I’m crazy. “How’d you pull that off?” they ask. Indeed, it seems hard to believe now. But sometimes that’s how the best of times roll out. You don’t realize how special things were until decades later.