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.
A team a few bricks shy of a load. Small in stature at positions where that matters most. Week after week unable to finish close games.
That sounds an awful lot like the current Buffalo Bills football squad. But not so long ago that scouting report also summed up the Buffalo Braves basketball team. And, unfortunately, such organizational faults helped speed the team’s departure from Western New York.
In following the Bills’ ineptitude in recent seasons, I’m reminded of conversations I had with Bob McAdoo while writing Buffalo, Home of the Braves. The Hall of Famer, now in his 15th year as an assistant with the Miami Heat, talked at length about being patient. Having a plan and believing in it.
“Several times the pieces we had the pieces in our hands for a championship team,” McAdoo says, “and we let them go.”
Of course, one of the pieces that the Braves gave away was McAdoo himself – peddled to the New York Knicks in a Judas deal for John Gianelli and $3 million.
But there are plenty of other examples:
- Trading away a young Moses Malone.
- Firing Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay
- Drafting Tom McMillen when Ricky Sobers, Lloyd Free, Gus Williams and Kevin Grevey were available.
- Showing Jim McMillian, Gar Heard and Jack Marin the door.
- Allowing John Y. Brown to turn the franchise into “ABA North.”
“Good teams know when to stand pat,” McAdoo told me. “With bad ones, things get too fast, too crazy. Before you know it, you look up and see you’ve lost what’s really important.”
With the Bills going through such uncertain times, here’s hoping they’ve learned a lesson from the old Braves. The fans in Buffalo are among the most knowledgeable I’ve ever come across. They know when team ownership has a real plan and when it is just another shell game.
NBA Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo emailed today between exhibition games as Assistant Coach with the Miami Heat, giving his thumbs up for the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves”. His friend and Buffalo resident Kenny Martin made the connection, and it’s great to have McAdoo’s blessing.
You’ll notice that the Buffalo Nation site has been reconfigured. We think the new look will be a good conduit to Braves and other Buffalo sports news. We are also redoing the Sun Bear Press web site, with some nice background graphics and a streamlined ordering process that should be completed this week.
Speaking of ordering, we’re finally up and listed on Amazon.com. Look for another book signing with author Tim Wendel and perhaps a special guest Brave. We’re lining up a date for early December, likely again at the New Era Cap Company on Delaware in downtown Buffalo.
(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.
Portions of the interview were used in the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves“, a large format book featuring the comprehensive history of the Buffalo Braves, Western New York’s NBA franchise of the 1970’s. Copies of the book are now available online from SunBear Press or at independent bookstores in the Buffalo area.
by Tim Wendel
Some players only see the world through a prism of their own statistics and accomplishments. Others have no choice but to be a part of team – to be a spokesman for something larger than themselves.
That’s how it was with Randy Smith, who died unexpectedly last night of a heart attack. He was the spokesman for the old Buffalo Braves. He not only realized that but came to embrace that role.
“Sometimes I felt like I was the last of the Mohicans,” Smith told me during the writing of Buffalo, Home of the Braves. “But I was the guy who was there pretty much from the beginning to the end. I guess you could say I became the institutional memory of that team.”
Nobody loved the Braves and nobody loved Buffalo more than Smith. After starring as a soccer player at Buffalo State, the basketball Braves drafted him in the seventh round of 1971 draft. After working on his jump shot and then thrilling fans with his two-handed slam dunks in the preseason, he surprisingly made the NBA team. From there he continued to raise his game until he became an All-Star. Randy came off the bench to score 27 points in the 1978 NBA All-Star Game (the Braves’ last year in Buffalo) and took home the MVP award. He played 12 seasons in the NBA – a record 906 games – and never missed a game.
After his playing days were more, Randy eventually became the executive host at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. Sometimes when I’d call, trying to sort out something for the book, he couldn’t talk right away. “Got some big clients in town,” he’d say. “Try me back.”
But when the high-rollers had gone home, Randy liked nothing more than to talk about the Braves and the old days with Dr. Jack Ramsay, Ernie D. and his good friend Bob McAdoo.
“He was the one who remembered all of our stories,” McAdoo says. “He was the best of the Braves.”
Bob McAdoo was featured today in a great piece by Harvey Araton in the New York Times about redemption and keeping one’s ego in check to get that second chance. The comparison of McAdoo getting his opportunity to win a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers was made to Stephon Marbury, as he enters a crossroad in his career.
A few months ago we tagged the Braves on with the title: “The team that time forgot”. So it came as no surprise, that there was no mention in today’s article of the Buffalo Braves, the team that gave McAdoo his first chance in the NBA, where he won three scoring titles as the league’s MVP in the mid 1970’s.
There was a similar tone several years ago when AC Green broke Randy Smith’s NBA record for the most consecutive games played. There was barely a mention of Smith, or the team he played the vast majority of his games for. Time has seemed to erase the Braves from the present day media’s memories. Perhaps a history lesson is in order.