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.
Twenty-seven years ago, The Buffalo Courier-Express folded. I’ll never forget it because I worked there and I was on my honeymoon when it happened. Of course, that unfortunate turn of events was well before cell phones, emails and texts.
My new wife and I were driving around the West – Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Francisco – and we weren’t exactly regular about checking back home. That resulted in one of the most bizarre conversations of my life.
I called back to Buffalo, to the friend who was keeping an eye on our apartment. “How’s it going?” “Your place is fine,” he replied, “but your paper folded three days ago.” We rushed back in time for the vote about the paper’s future.
On the table was an offer from Rupert Murdoch, which would have meant significant cuts in editorial staff. At the meeting, I sat next to Phil Ranallo and I remember him muttering “It’s Jonestown” – a nod to the drinking of the fatal Kool-Aid – as the measure was voted down.
To this day, I find it amazing that Murdoch ownership was fine for The Boston Herald and eventually The Wall Street Journal but somehow beneath Buffalo.
I saw Phil one last time after that. A quick chat. Everything was unraveling fast for C-E folks by then. Some were preparing for an abrupt retirement. Others of us were scrambling to find a new job. I became the sports columnist for The (Syracuse) Post-Standard and soon parlayed that into a move to the Bay Area and eventually a staff job at The San Francisco Examiner.
To think too much about Buffalo back then was to risk too much heartache. Best to make tracks and put down new roots out West. After all, that’s where we were when all of this happened, right? But, of course, one can never forget where he’s from. Western New York. The Courier-Express.
Working next to Phil. Listening to him talk about arguably his favorite basketball team, the Buffalo Braves. Those are the times I find myself thinking about on such sad anniversaries.
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.
As I recollect the chronology of this book it dawns on me how long the process has taken and how many pilgrimages I have made to Buffalo. Recently someone asked me why I have dedicated so much time and effort into a book about the Braves.
You see I was a Sabres fan first growing up. Playing hockey from age eight to eighteen in Lockport (when it had a rink) put hockey at the forefront. Still I had good recollections of the Braves. I believe I first heard the cheer “Let’s go, Buffalo!” at a Braves game televised in 1970. Now my five year old says the same cheer in the same old cadence, when we drive past a field of bison on our regular trips to town. The years may pass but it has stayed with me.
July ’05: The Courier Express files have a limited number of Braves pictures; this is going to be a problem. What kind of coffee table book will it be without a large number of action photos? I start to search ebay for photos and memorabilia. Plenty of miscellaneous Topps cards, pennants, and Elton Brand throw back jerseys. One day I end up with a great video collection of Braves highlight films narrated by Van Miller.
Why not put the video into a CD that could be added to the book? I check with my contact with the NBA legal department who warns me to quell any video aspirations. The league is apparently quite protective of any of their video and the Braves intellectual property still belongs to the NBA, not the LA Clippers.
January ’06: Through my “real” job I run into a graphic design person here in Michigan who might be right for putting the book together. He has a strong affinity for sports and quickly shows an interest in what we are trying to do. He starts to appreciate the Braves despite the fact that he grew up in Saginaw and knows much more about hockey and the Tour de France then basketball.
March ’06: Another trip to Buffalo to file through Ranallo columns and past Courier articles. There are plenty of banner headlines highlighting a big Braves win, the amazing scoring exploits of Bob McAdoo, or a 17,000 night of attendance at the Aud.
I get some solid leads on former team photographers through two Braves fans who wonder why I’m always bidding against them for items. One asks; “What are you doing writing a book or something?”
The odyssey leading to the photographers is next.
Few thought so 30 years when the team switched franchises with the Boston Celtics before heading westward ho to become the Los Angeles Clippers. (The architect of that bizarre deal was a young lawyer named David Stern. But we’ll leave that twisted tale for another day.)
When the Braves left town, some civic leaders predicted that the NBA would be back in a decade or so. Seriously. They said that at the time. But one of the few guys who realized what this bait-and-switch really meant for the fans and the city was Phil Ranallo, the longtime columnist at The Buffalo Courier-Express.
I had the good fortune to sit next to Phil in the old C-E Sports Department in that paper’s last years of existence. He taught me about writing on deadline, how to get to real story and, most of all, how to have a sense of humor.
Phil nailed it when the Braves left town for good. He predicted that it would be a generation or more before the Niagara Frontier had another shot at a team of such stature. Back then we often debated the state of the sports world in late-night bull sessions at the paper. Several times Ranallo wondered aloud if the heyday of Buffalo had already come and gone. How with the economy suffering (this was the early 1980s) that it would difficult to hang on to remaining major-league franchises (The Bills, The Sabres).
Now some like to deride WNY as being behind the times. Unfortunately, when it comes to the impact of globalization, one could argue that Buffalo was cutting edge. It was one of first Rust Belt cities to be sold out by the politicians and see its jobs base flee overseas.
In Buffalo, Home of the Braves, we’re including several of Phil’s insightful takes on the team and the city. The man was ahead of his time and in some small measure our book is a tribute to him and an effort to bring his columns to a new generation of sports fans.