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
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
* “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”
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.
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.
It’s been several months since the book ‘Buffalo, Home of the Braves” hit the shelves. In the whirlwind of activity since the May 30th release, I’ve only recently been able to put it all in some perspective. In recapping the events, truth does sound much stranger than fiction:
Thursday May 28th: After four years, endless editing, and a small fortune of investment, I finally hold the book in my hands. My initial thoughts focus on how much girth the finished book has. It feels heavy and looks great.
I pick up about 30 boxes of books from Village Press in that is located in Traverse City, Michgan (where I’ve resided for the past 21 years), and load them into a rental car for the 10-hour ride to Lockport where my parents still live. I realize then that the book project has taken me back at least a dozen times to the Buffalo area, usually on a seven hour route through southern Ontario. This time I have hundreds of coffee table-style books in the trunk that would be difficult to explain to Customs agents.
Instead I take the long way, along the southern shore of Lake Erie through Cleveland. As the sun sets in the west, I drive through Cleveland, just the Cavs are about to tip off against Orlando in the NBA Semi-finals. Part of me wants to stop and take in the game, but I think better of it and carry on.
Friday May 29th: Up early to prep for the next day’s book signing, also trying on the fly to figure out a way to set up a production line arrangement for pre-ordered books that need to be mailed out. The first ones go out from the post office in tiny Gasport, New York, a few hundreds yards from the grade school that I attended many years ago. That’s the way it is on this trip, a sense of urgency with getting the book thing right, sprinkled with odd flashbacks to the past.
In the afternoon I deliver the first book personally to a one, Mark Savone. Mark and I first met at the “Farewell Old Friends” event back in November that celebrated the tear down of the old Aud. Since then he has called almost weekly to get an update on the book, saying each time that he can’t wait to get his hands on it. I set the GPS to his home in Tonawanda, arriving promptly at the annoited time. Standing there by the street is Mark, guiding me in, waiting wearing a Yankees jacket. Our first customer sees the book and he’s excited, therefore I’m excited.
Next stop is the University of Buffalo. I had met the UB basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon a few months earlier, and knew he was a Braves fan growing up in Western New York. I took a chance and stopped by the basketball office, figuring that he might be in. I first ask to drop off a copy, and the front desk manager goes back to see if Witherspoon is available.
To my surprise Reggie has me come back to his office. We talk for a few minutes and he begins to provide a back story to many of the events and photos surrounding the Braves. He obviously likes the book, and I’m even happier. I have to leave for a scheduled appointment at the UB Bookstore (early on they wanted to carry the book followed by several local independent bookstores). Witherspoon informs me that he won’t be getting much work done today because he plans on reading the entire book.
I meet up with Dennis May who I also met at the November Aud event. He had agreed to help us out with the book signing. After bringing the UB bookstore their books, we stopped back to see Reggie Witherspoon (he was still liking the book). Dennis rides along as I fulfill a bookstore order in Orchard Park, and although he’s a good ten years younger then me, I’m impressed by his vast knowledge of Buffalo sports history.
Saturday May 30th: My brother Tim arrived late Friday night. After a quick breakfast at Tim Horton’s, we arrive at the New Era Cap Company who graciously let us use the meeting room at their Delaware Avenue flagship store for our book signing.
The event goes well, not too overwhelming ,but a steady combination of fans, season ticket holders, team personnel, friends, and family. One person has driven an hour from Rochester, others hang out to talk about the Braves legacy and how they could be permanently honored at the new HSBC Arena
Bob Smith, the photographer makes an appearence, John Boutet fills the room with his amazing collection of Braves memoribilia, and John Murphy of WIVB (and the voice of the Buffalo Bills) arrives to interview Tim for a story for a future sports cast. The two hours goes by quickly and sales for the day reach my expectations. We pack up and retreat to a local bar for a late lunch.
We receive a call from Paul Ranallo, son of the late Phil Ranallo. Paul had reached the signing late and wanted a copy of the book. I invite him to the bar, and hear first hand, stories of the great Buffalo Couier Express sports columnist. A beer or two is in order while the tales (and jokes) of Buffalo’s glorious sports past flow.
With the conversation winding down. Another call comes from our parents who have stopped by the Aud demolition after the book singing event. They think it was worth visiting, I’m not so sure. After some deliberation, Tim and I make the seven block trek to where the Terrace Street entrance is/was.
We were able to get much closer to the site than I imagined. Looking west through a chain link fence, we were able to see a crane with a claw like device working away on a facade, somewhere in the orange balcony section. In the open air on a warm Saturday the place where we spent so many cold winter family nights is slowly dismantled.
Next: Dealing with the news of Randy Smith
(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.