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Catching up with: John Hummer, Buffalo Braves

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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Braves/Clippers franchise shows crap-shoot value of draft picks

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment

By Chris Wendel

Last night the Cleveland Cavaliers “won” the NBA Lottery to select first in this summer’s player draft. What was somewhat lost was the fact that the pick originally belonged to you guessed it, the Los Angeles Clippers. LA traded the pick as part of the trade with Cleveland on February 24th.

It seems the more things change the more they remain the same for the Clippers/Braves franchise. In its first year of existence GM Eddie Donovan traded the Braves’ first draft choice to the Baltimore Bullets for guard Mike Davis. Davis had been on the NBA’s all-rookie team in 1969-70. In the process, Buffalo passed over the potential choice of Niagara stand-out and later NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy

Calvin Murphy

*  “I had done all of Calvin Murphy’s games at Niagara,” recalled Van Miller, the Braves’ legendary play-by-play man. “Pound for pound, Calvin is the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen. He could dunk the ball and he was a tough guy. He was the one guy that nobody, and I mean nobody, ever fooled with. Nobody in that league ever messed with Calvin Murphy. Eddie Donovan was a great GM for the Braves and other teams, but I, like a lot of people from Western New York, will never forgive him for not taking Calvin Murphy in that first draft.” *

Perhaps we are all delusional when it comes to believing that early draft choices determine a team’s future. After all, the Clipper/Braves’ all-time leading scorer is still Randy Smith, who was a 7th round pick by the Braves in 1971, selected to appease the local fan base after passing on Murphy the previous year. Smith’s unlikely rise out of Buffalo State to NBA All-Star status was difficult for anyone to predict. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

This piece from Steve Perrin Clips Nation blog describes last night’s happenings from a Clipper fan’s perspective.

*From the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” 

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.

40 years to the day, Braves legacy lives on

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Randy Smith receiving the NBA All-Star MVP trophy in 1978

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7.  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.

To find out more about the history of the Buffalo Braves, look for the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves”, available on Amazon.com and through its publisher SunBear Press.

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."

Interest in Braves’ legacy continues to build

May 8, 2010 Leave a comment

The success of the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” began long before it was published, with the establishment of a strong online presence. We started our internet work with A Bigger Voice, a community-building organization out of Colorado and continued drawing interest through the book’s writing, editing, and publishing phases, finding those who fondly remember the “Golden Era of Buffalo Sports” of the 1970’s, when Western New York had three viable professional sports franchises.

A few days ago we formed a Facebook Group Page that has quickly gained over 250 followers and has sparked more discussion about Buffalo’s sports history.  Along the way we’ve sold quite a few books, and continue to find a loyal audience of folks who like us, grew up attending Sabres and Braves games at the Aud.

Through our blog site Buffalo Nation and other related sites we’ll continue the dialogue. Look for a new book related to that “Golden Era in Buffalo Sports” that will be released later this year. More on that soon.

A Banner Request for the New Year

January 1, 2010 Leave a comment

by Tim Wendel

It was downright heartening to see the Sabres come back against Pittsburgh the other night. Not only did they take down “Sid the Kid” and those annoying Penguins, but they rolled back the clock, so to speak. The victory reminded me of an era when Buffalo teams were offensive juggernauts.

When the Braves were a contender in the mid-1979s, the rap against them was their often-lackluster defense. In fact, that’s the major lesson coach Jack Ramsay took away from his stint in Western New York.

“Sometimes you have to be able to stop the other team,” he told me decades later when I was putting together Buffalo, Home of the Braves.

To that end, Doctor Jack went looking for a new team with tall timber underneath and he found it in Portland, where he and Bill Walton won a title together.

That’s all well and good, but there’s also something to be said for being able to score. In watching the Bill stumble to the end of another dismal season I grew nostalgic for the old days when they could put up points almost as quickly as the old Braves. One could argue that the Bills of the 1970’s played defense about as well as the Braves did, too. Still, they had playmakers on offense and continued to rack up points pretty much until this current crop came along, which barely put up three points against Atlanta.

When I think about the Braves in their heyday, it’s difficult to differentiate them from the Bills and the Sabres because every team in town could score, seeming at will. You could see Bob McAdoo & Co. put up a bushel load one night and come back to witness the French Connection & Co. do pretty much the same thing the next at that grand old barn of a building called the Aud. OK, the Braves, Bill and Sabres didn’t bring home any titles during those epic runs. But, all in all, it sure was a lot more fun to watch.

Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks for helping make Buffalo, Home of the Braves a reality. Now let’s get a banner to that team raised at HSBC.