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.
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.
Braves owner Paul Snyder was many things to many people — team founder, consummate businessman, a guy who had little patience with players or coaches, a major reason why the team eventually left town. But he was certainly a visionary when it came to the regionalization of sports.
Early in his tenure, he wanted his Braves empire to extend from Toronto around the west end of Lake Ontario to Syracuse. Today, many sports teams are regional phenomenon. The Atlanta Braves are the team of the Southeast. The Dallas Cowboys are America’s team, with a devout audience in Texas and Oklahoma. And when it comes to pro sports in Buffalo, things have come full circle.
Efforts are under way for the Toronto Raptors to play an exhibition game or two in Buffalo. Of course, the Bills are already slated to play games in Toronto and many predict that the NFL team will head north of the border for good when owner Ralph Wilson dies.
It’s too bad that the Braves couldn’t have hung on a few more seasons, or at least protected their territorial rights better. It wasn’t that long ago that Snyder contended that Toronto fell under the shadow of his Braves empire. Such posturing fell apart when the Braves left town after the 1978 season and Buffalo city fathers didn’t contest the move in court.
The irony of ironies is that the guys who grew up to own the Raptors attended Braves games back in the mid-1970s at the old Maple Leaf Gardens. Reportedly, that’s where they first got the idea for an NBA team in Toronto.