Catching up with: John Hummer, Buffalo Braves

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

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

Braves/Clippers franchise shows crap-shoot value of draft picks

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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” 

Brady, Smith share similar paths to the top

April 17, 2011 Leave a comment

by Chris Wendel

In their usual brash way, ESPN has now decided that this is “The Year of the Quarterback”, an interesting proclamation knowing that there may not be  NFL football to watch this fall. The proceedings began last week with the one-hour ESPN film “The Brady 6”, telling the story of Tom Brady’s fall to the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft.

The film itself is full of anecdotes and interviews from the six quarterbacks that were selected before Brady,  and interesting “where are they now” scenarios with all six QB’s. Coaches Brian Billick and Steve Mariucci explained their rational for passing on Brady, while Brady’s college coach at Michigan Lloyd Carr portrayed Brady as a true leader that persevered when he was benched his senior year. Strange how Carr talks up Brady now, when he felt pressed to play phenom Drew Henson (who was also interviewed). A major reason for Brady’s drop in the draft was Carr’s penchant for flip-flopping quarterbacks, something that Mariucci termed “a red flag”.

The film itself was produced with the same high quality as most of the network’s “30 for 30” films. Meanwhile, the rest of the ESPN empire is quite good at creating news and history and as usual, forgetting anything that occurs in smaller markets like Buffalo (Is it me or has anyone else noticed how a topic can start as a comment or question on “Mike and Mike”, gain momentum on “The Herd” and be the lead story by the end of the day?). Discussions on ESPN radio shows promoting “The Brady 6” film centered on Brady perhaps being the lowest drafted player to ever become an All-Star caliber player.

So, watching and listening to all of this, I couldn’t think of 1978 NBA All-Star MVP Randy Smith. Just as compelling as Brady was Smith’s unlikely path to glory, chosen as a 7th round draft pick in 1971 by Eddie Donovan the GM of the Buffalo Braves. Donovan was under fire the previous season for passing on Niagara University All-American Calvin Murphy, choosing Smith the following year out of Buffalo State to appease the locals.

Smith’s rise to power in the NBA became the thing of legend in Western New York, but in larger metropolises that pays ESPN’s bills, it’s a back page story that most fans have seemingly forgotten. If anyone has a story that would resonate in one of ESPN’s well done documentaries, it is Smith’s ironman career and franchise records that still stand today, some 30 years later.

I live in Michigan now and even with well versed NBA fans in their 50’s and 60’s, a mention of Randy Smith results in a vacant looks and scratched heads. Of course most also don’t recall the Braves franchise, their three Rookies of the Year, and Bob McAdoo’s scoring titles. Perhaps it’s no wonder there was little mention on ESPN’s radio and TV updates following Smith’s death almost two years ago.

Remembering Roger Crozier

April 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Roger Crozier, circa 1972

Tonight the Buffalo Sabres will have a fan appreciation night featuring the return of over 75 Sabre alumni players. Unfortunately the impressive list will not include Roger Crozier, Buffalo’s standout goalie from the 1970’s.

Crozier passed away in 1996 after a stellar career that included a Conn Smythe Trophy (the first player to earn the award on a losing team in the Stanley Cup Finals) with the Detroit Red Wings in 1967 and induction into the Sabres Hall of Fame in 1980.

Phil Ranallo, veteran writer of the “Buffalo Courier Express” newspaper brilliantly recounts Crozier’s  performance during the 1972-73 season in his morning column: “What’s New, Harry?”.

In a style that made him a staple at Western New York breakfast tables for decades, Ranallo describes that coming of age season and Crozier’s appreciation for the Sabres team assembled by General Manager Punch Imlach, and defenseman Tim Horton, who watched Crozier’s back that season.

WHAT’S NEW, HARRY?

Phil Ranallo, February 22,1973

AT LAST, LIFE IS beautiful for Roger Crozier or almost as beautiful as life can get for a fellow who holds down one of the most terrifying and dangerous jobs in the world of fun and games.

For the first two years of the existence of the Buffalo Sabres, Crozier stood smack-dab in the center of the bull’s-eye. The cat-quick goaltender was the Sabres’ first line of defense.

Pucks, pucks, pucks, pucks, an endless barrage of rock-hard pucks was fired at him. Tending goal for the Sabres was like being positioned at the wrong end of things in a shooting gallery.

Roger survived those two frightening years; but ended up with more lumps and bruises than a guy who had picked an argument with a cement mixer – while inside the cement mixer. It was enough to give a fellow a nervous twitch.

THIS SEASON, THOUGH–heaven, at last! Players still swarm in on Crozier with sticks in their hands and knives on their feet. But the Sabres have taken some of the pressure off “No. 1,” the gutsy guy who resides in “No-Man’s Land”, the crease, that oblong area in front of the net.

“Yes, Life is a lot easier on me now,” says Crozier, who in his 13-year career has collected numerous badges of his trade-three broken jaws, one broken nose, one broken cheekbone and facial crocheting that adds up to “maybe 300 stitches.”

“It’s easier because we’re a good hockey team now. We’ve come ‘quite far quite fast because of the great job management has done-Punch Imlach and Joe Crozier.

“At the beginning of the season, when we went through 10, games unbeaten, we didn’t really know how good we were, and wondered whether we were just lucky.

“NOW THAT WE’VE GONE through 60 games, it’s different. We know we’re not a flash-in-the-pan team, We think we’re as good a hockey club as there is in the league-with the exception of Montreal, maybe.”

Then Crozier spoke of the Sabre defense and paid special tribute to Buffalo’s geriatric marvel Tim Horton, the 43·year-old Sabre who is making his mark as hockey’s George Blanda.

“I’d watched Horton play for years, but never realized how good a defenseman he is. I didn’t appreciate him (until I played behind him.

“Nobody takes the puck away from Tim in the corners and nobody can check him in front of the net, He’s unbelievably strong, He’s great at getting the puck out of ‘our end of the rink,”

THE CONVERSATION SWUNG back to goaltending and Crozier confessed that he does not regard it as the greatest job in the world-or in hockey. He mentioned the pressure of being the last line of defense pressure that gnaws at a goalie’s stomach-literally in Crozier’s case, since he is prone to attacks of pancreatitis.

“If a forward or a defenseman is playing badly,” Crozier said, “he gets a chance to go to the bench and get re-organized. But a goalie has to stay out there-and it’s murder on him when he’s having a bad night.”

Crozier said he has one fear-the fear that he will play a bad game, “It’s the same-fear every goalie has when he first hits the ice-because he can’t be sure if he’s going to be good or bad.”

SO WHY DID CROZIER become a goalie? “When I was a kid, goaltending seemed like a pretty good idea,” he explained, “I worked at it hard and the first thing I knew it was the only position I could play with ability.”

“If I had my choice over again, though, if I could go back and start all over again, I’d be a forward or a defenseman-for sure,”

Sabre fans are happy that Roger Crozier, the great goaltender with the marvelous moves, does not have that choice.  Tonight, when the Sabres meet the Vancouver Canucks in Memorial Auditorium, could be a special night in the life of Roger Crozier. Roger could reach a milestone, if he makes 26 saves, he’ll reach the 4,000 save plateau as a Sabre goaltender. That’s more than half-ton of vulcanized rubber he has kept out of the net in less than three years.

Remarkable.

 

Ranallo’s account portrays unlikely rise of Randy Smith

February 18, 2011 2 comments

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.

Is failing to plan, really planning to fail?

January 3, 2011 Leave a comment

The end of 2010 brings with it a sense of renewal or a cold dose reality with the dismal prospects for the Bills and Sabres. I can’t think of a time in the recent past where I held such pessimistic feeling for both teams to perform any better, let alone get to the point of being relevant nationally.

For many the cure all for the Bills would be a franchise quarterback to build a contender around. A year ago I thought the “can’t miss” prospect was Washington’s Jake Locker. Locker could have come out after his junior season and thought it better to stay another year, only to suffer through horrible early season losses to BYU and Nebraska.

Our attention then turned to Andrew Luck of Stanford, who now is also thinking of sticking around for his senior year. Some of Luck’s decision rides on where his coach Jim Harbaugh decides to go (more on Harbaugh’s career choice later). I still like Locker, a durable type of quarterback who battled adversity and a limited supporting cast to finish the season strong and beat that same Nebraska team in a late December Holiday Bowl. Perhaps Locker is the quarterback the Bills need at this point, without the higher price tag of Luck.

Harbaugh will tonight take the stage as his refurbished Stanford Cardinal takes on Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl (please note that the game’s corporate sponsor has been deleted and forgotten). It’s a foregone conclusion that Harbaugh will leave Stanford shortly after tonight’s game for either his alma mater or to coach in the NFL. Counting on a deal with Michigan may have made weeks ago, the Wolverine brethren feel that Harbaugh will return them to their entitlement of ten win seasons and national prominence.

It wasn’t that long ago many of these same fans tossed aside Lloyd Carr for a coaching phenom named Rich Rodriguez. If Michigan doesn’t get its wish, and Harbaugh goes elsewhere, there is no apparent plan B. Just remember, the reason that things don’t according to plan, is because there never was one. Now, where does that leave the Bills and Sabres?

Categories: Uncategorized

Uptick in Fitzpatrick’s performance mutes urgency for quarterback draft

November 23, 2010 Leave a comment

The Bills won another game Sunday and now have competition for the first pick in next April’s NFL draft. And Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like a Pro-Bowl quarterback in the game’s second half against the Cincinnati, the team that he once played for.

In two short weeks the Bills have gone from a potential 0-16 doormat to a team that is within two games of nine other teams for the league’s worst record (Carolina presently has a 1-9 record).

More impressive turnaround is the recent play of the Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick; whose quarterback rating of 88.1 places him ahead of recent first-round quarterback picks Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, and Mark Sanchez. By the way, Fitzpatrick was a 7th round pick in 2005.

All this begs the question: Do the Bills have to draft a quarterback with their first round pick next spring, or continue to build around Fitzpatrick? Stay tuned.