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.
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
NBA Commissioner David Stern knows how quickly a sport can die, how its very integrity can be called into question. One of his first jobs in 1966, as outside counsel for the NBA, was the Connie Hawkins case. A star of the Brooklyn playgrounds, Hawkins associated with a known gambler, and that was enough to have him blacklisted from the league.
At the time, basketball was still recovering from point-shaving scandals that rocked the game in the 1950s. Top players, such as Kentucky All-Americans Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, were bribed by gamblers to make sure their teams didn’t cover the point spread. The City College of New York — the only team to win the NIT and NCAA titles in the same season – was involved and never returned to prominence.
Today, with former referee Tim Donaghy still making waves for fixing NBA games, commissioner Stern likely cannot help but flash-back to those dark days in the 1950s. Stern realizes as well as anybody how fast a sport can fade away.
Thirty years ago, boxing was on top of the world. Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali were household names — national heroes. A Saturday night bout was almost certainly water-cooler talk on Monday morning. Now the sport in which they were once kings has become a shell of its former self.
During that sport’s fall from grace, the public often wondered if the fix was in. Too many times what happened in the ring was manipulated — boxers lost fights on purpose; promoters, judges and referees rigged things to favor one party over another.
The recent news of Donaghy reminds me of another time when I wondered if the fix was really in. If there was much more than met the public eye?
In Buffalo, Home of the Braves, we detail how John Y. Brown swapped the entire franchise with Irving Levin, the owner of the Boston Celtics. One of the architects of that stunning team swap, perhaps the ultimate trade of all time, was David Stern.
Levin headed west with his team, becoming the Lost Angeles Clippers. Brown’s new Celtics, dare we say the old Braves, somehow held the draft right to collegian Larry Bird when the dust settled. Thanks to such an influx of talent, they returned to championship form.
“I was home in Buffalo. Somebody called me from the Braves’ office to tell me the news…,” Randy Smith told me years later. “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it.”
With that, basketball’s glory days in Buffalo ended.
(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.
As I watched the Celtics oust the Detroit Pistons last night, I remembered an interview I did with Randy Smith for Buffalo, Home of the Braves. Smith was the guy caught in the middle of the most confusing team swap in sports history. Here’s how he remembers that bizarre period:
“Once John Young Brown got his hands on the team, Buffalo was the last place he wanted to have it play. He and I used to talk a lot. He’d tell me about the possibility of the team going to Dallas, San Diego, Kentucky — it was inevitable that the team was going to leave the Buffalo area. Then I woke up one morning to hear that he had made a swap of entire teams.
“I was home in Buffalo. Somebody called me from the Braves’ office to tell me the news. … I started to get checks from the Boston Celtics for deferred payments, even though I was going west to play for this new team, the Clippers. I didn’t know where to expect my checks to come from, but, you know, you don’t care as long as they don’t bounce.”
Find out more about: Buffalo, Home of the Braves
Seattle is about to lose its basketball team the Super-Sonics to Oklahoma City of all places. Seattle fans fear the worst and even though the team still has two years remaining on their lease, the odds of the Sonics remaining in Seattle are low. Another owner makes a business decision, another franchise leaves town, fans feel betrayed, and there is likely nothing they can do about it.
The more things change the more they remain the same. The NBA owners voted this week 28-2 to allow the Sonics to move for the start of the 2008-09 season with NBA Commissioner David Stern very much in the fray. 30 years ago Stern negotiated the bizarre deal that swapped the Buffalo Braves franchise with the Boston Celtics and sent what remained to San Diego to become the Clippers.
As much as our nostalgic minds believe that sports weren’t dictated by money back in the 70’s; they were. The Braves swap/sale/exit from Western New York was all about an out of town owner who sought greener pastures and higher long term revenue.
The Sonics present a situation strangely similar to the Braves prior to their move. An owner from the south purchases the team (Clay Bennett) with the hidden desire to move the team elsewhere (in Bennett’s case to his home state of Oklahoma). The out of town owner makes veiled threats and demands of the city to keep the team, when the plan was to move the team from the very beginning.
The unfortunate part for Buffalo is that the fans did fill seats when the product on the court was good and finally threw up their hands with frustration witnessing the revolving door of players that paraded in and out of town that final season.
Who could blame the Buffalo faithful for not investing in season tickets when the John Y. Brown circus was wheeling and dealing away the talents of Moses Malone, Adrian Dantley, Marvin Barnes, and John Shumate? Meanwhile the Buffalo Sabres were building a competitive team with players who would spend most of their careers in Buffalo with a stable local ownership.
The irony of all this is if the Sonics end up in Oklahoma City, a metropolitan region with a population base slightly ahead of Buffalo’s. We feel Seattle’s pain in an all too familiar way.