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.
By Tim Wendel
Of course, height is often paramount in basketball. As the NBA Finals get ready to tip, much of the discussion has been about the front lines. Andrew Bynum’s knee. Kendrick Perkins’ technical fouls. Phil Jackson calling out Kevin Garnett.
But the series could turn on another crucial element that Buffalo Braves fans know all so well – speed.
Today is the one-year anniversary of Randy Smith’s death. He was the local star who often transformed the game on the fly.
“Randy Smith was the perfect physical specimen,” Van Miller, the team’s legendary play-by-play man, told us during the writing of Buffalo, Home of the Braves. “There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the guy. … Randy was so quick that he could guard anybody.”
Or beat anybody else down the court, even when dribbling the ball.
NBA insiders know how valuable speed can be. Rajon Rondo was only a pup when the Celtics won the championship in 1998. Now he has matured into the team’s court leader due, in large part, to his ability to fly down the floor.
In a few weeks, the NBA draft will be held and Kentucky’s John Wall is expected to be the top choice overall. He’s not a big man, either. But Wall also has the ability to run the floor, too.
Both of them are following in Randy Smith’s footsteps.
The success of the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” began long before it was published, with the establishment of a strong online presence. We started our internet work with A Bigger Voice, a community-building organization out of Colorado and continued drawing interest through the book’s writing, editing, and publishing phases, finding those who fondly remember the “Golden Era of Buffalo Sports” of the 1970’s, when Western New York had three viable professional sports franchises.
A few days ago we formed a Facebook Group Page that has quickly gained over 250 followers and has sparked more discussion about Buffalo’s sports history. Along the way we’ve sold quite a few books, and continue to find a loyal audience of folks who like us, grew up attending Sabres and Braves games at the Aud.
Through our blog site Buffalo Nation and other related sites we’ll continue the dialogue. Look for a new book related to that “Golden Era in Buffalo Sports” that will be released later this year. More on that soon.
by Chris Wendel
Last week I attended the Buffalo Masters Basketball Tournament at Alumni Hall at the University of Buffalo, selling copies of “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” and meeting a good number of Buffalo Braves fans. Plenty of Braves stories were told including one that revealed the motivation of Paul Snyder’s to sell the team in 1976.
In its 17th year, the tournament has over 500 player and also honored former Buffalo Brave Randy Smith. who was a supporter and participant of the Tournament.
Thank you to Peter Durham and his staff for organizing the event that drew players from throughout Western New York as well as Detroit, Syracuse, Toronto, Dayton, Columbus, and California. A one point on a practice court near me, I saw a player in his late 70’s helping a seven year boy hone his shooting skills. That’s something one doesn’t see too often, but it’s what the Buffalo Masters Tournament is all about.
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.
Before joining the Buffalo Braves as a 7th round courtesy draft pick in 1971, Randy Smith honed his basketball skills at Buffalo State College. Smith also excelled in track and soccer during his tenure with the Bengals and is known as the greatest athlete in the school’s history.
Although details are sketchy, Smith will be honored on February 19th at a ceremony during Buffalo State’s game against Cortland state.
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.