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.
Note: It’s been over a year since the release of the book Buffalo, Home of the Braves. We’ve reposted a column written by Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News from 2009. The book is now classified as “out of print” but there are still a limited number of copies available online from the Sun Bear Press web site and Amazon.com.
May 22, 2009
I can see it from the third floor of The Buffalo News, a crumbling carcass of steel and brick. You think of the ghosts and memories contained in the old Memorial Auditorium, and in the hearts and minds of the athletes and fans who spent so many hours there.
Tim Wendel remembers. Wendel grew up in Lockport. He came of age in the 1970s, when pro sports in Buffalo were at their zenith and two daily newspapers were there to record the moment. Wendel would run out of his house on cold winter mornings to pick up the old Courier-Express, and to see what Phil Ranallo had to say in his column.
Wendel went to Syracuse to learn journalism. He got work as a sports rewrite guy at the Courier, editing Ranallo’s stuff. He was on his honeymoon in September 1982 when he got a phone call from a friend who was watching his apartment. Your apartment’s fine, the friend said, but your paper closed.
He ended up in Washington, D. C., where his wife got a job with the Post. Wendel wrote a book about the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team. He covered baseball and wrote a baseball novel about Fidel Castro.
He remained a Buffalo guy at heart. He and his brother, Chris, sat around at family gatherings, rehashing games from their youth. One day, they were carrying on about the Braves when a relative said, “Why don’t you guys shut up and write about it?”
That’s where the idea for the book started. Wendel got access to the Courier archives and reread Ranallo’s old Braves columns. Chris said he should start calling some of the old Braves. The first call went to Ernie DiGregorio.
“I said, ‘I want to talk about the Braves,’ ” Wendel said Thursday. “His reaction was, ‘Wow! Yeah, let’s talk about the Braves.’ All the guys felt that way.”
Wendel’s labor of love, “Buffalo, Home of the Braves,” was more than four years in the making. On May 30, Wendel will be at New Era Cap on Delaware Avenue for a book signing and release.
The book is 216 pages, coffee table size, and costs $89. That’s a tad pricey, but it’s hard to place a value on people’s memories. There are some 250 photographs, most by Robert L. Smith. There are eight chapters, one for each year of the Braves’ existence. Wendel’s text is accompanied by 15 of Ranallo’s columns.
“We’re bringing Ranallo back to life, so to speak,” Wendel said. “Once again, I’m playing straight man to Phil. I’m writing the narrative and he’s the voice of outrage and reason.”
Wendel traces the team from its inception through the playoff seasons to the grim departure, after Paul Snyder sold the team to John Y. Brown. There are eerie parallels to the current sports scene. Snyder wanted to regionalize his franchise. The Braves played as many as eight games a year in Toronto.
“The Braves’ so-called home games in Toronto, about a 90-minute drive north of the border, often grated on the team’s die-hard fans,” Wendel writes.
Sound familiar, Bills fans?
Wendel talked with most of the main parties, including DiGregorio, Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Jack Marin and the coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay.
“They all hold a sweet spot in their hearts for Buffalo,” Wendel said. “They realize this is where they came of age. They talked about how great it was to play in the Aud, and how great the fans were, and about going out at night. They talked about going to Cole’s and seeing Bobby Chandler and the Bills there.
“They loved the Aud. McAdoo, Randy, Marin, it was almost Field of Dreams stuff, about shooting a basketball at the Aud. They loved shooting there.”
It’s good to know that, as the Aud was coming down, a Buffalo guy was retrieving its brief but precious NBA memories, which live forever.
The long overdue tribute to Randy Smith from his alma mater Buffalo State was held last night at the school’s Sports Arena. During the half-time presentation, Smith was celebrated for his gentle caring demeanor, as well as his phenomenal sports career.
The ceremony included a short speech from the Buff State Athletic Director Jerry Boyes, a proclamation from Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (noticeably absence was the key to the city), and touching remembrance from Smith’s wife Anjela. After the presentations, a huge banner in Smith’s honor was raised before the surprisingly sparse crowd, and his number was finally retired.
Before he became a NBA All-star with the Buffalo Braves , Smith was a three sport All-American at Buff State from 1967-71, excelling in soccer, track, and of course basketball. His soccer coach at Buff State talked of the immense talent Smith was blessed with as a soccer player, mentioning that the Bengals during that era were ranked as high as 7th nationally (there were no divisional categories at that time). Smith scored a record 40 goals in his three year soccer career which remains a school record
In 1970 Smith led the Buff State to the NCAA College Division Final Four in 1970, and was a 1969 track All-American in the triple jump, setting a NCAA triple jump record at the time at 52 feet, 1 ¼ inches. It was mentioned last night that there is likely no other school that has celebrated a three sport All-American. Upon further review, apparently the only other person to claim the three sport honor is Jim Carrington of Navy who excelled in football, swimming, and lacrosse in the 1940’s. Ironically Carrington passed away on June 1, 2009 four days before Smith.
All of this is remarkable in the context of Buff State, a small school that is many times confused by the outside world with the University of Buffalo. The night’s presentation put things into historical perspective, making it clear that Randy Smith represented the greatest era in Buffalo State athletic history, perhaps forever.
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.”
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.
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.
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.