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.
Two Buffalo area events scheduled for next week will resonate for those who have memories and interest in the Buffalo Braves. The most noteworthy is Buffalo State College’s tribute to their three-sport All-American Randy Smith to be held during the halftime of the mens basketball game against Cortland State on Friday February at 8 PM at the Buff State Sports Arena.
Smith who died unexpectedly last spring, excelled in track and soccer at Buff State while also honing his basketball skills with the Bengals, before embarking on an improbable NBA career with the Braves.
According to an article which appeared in The Record (student newspaper) on Wednesday, Feb. 10th, “Smith’s mother, wife, and daughter along with several coaches and teammates will be on hand for the ceremony that will include a banner being raised in his honor being raised to the rafters.”
For those of us who have been banging the drum for the Buffalo Sabres and HSBC Arena to honor Randy (sorry I can’t keep referring to him as Smith) with a banner, it’s nice for Buff State’s Athletic Department to have an appropriate ceremony for “arguably the greatest student-athlete to ever don Orange and Black in Buffalo State history.”
Another special event slated for Tuesday February 16th features devout Buffalo Brave fan and Western New York native John Howell. “If you’re from Buffalo…Is Suicide Really Redundant?” plays off the painful punchline from the musical “A Chorus Line” to produce a powerful presentation about Buffalo’s roots and more importantly suggests that the future of Western New York is brighter than one would imagine. Howell wrote a great piece on after Randy Smith that we’ve featured before, but “Remembering Randy Smith” is always worth revisiting.
Chris Wendel, co-author of “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” will also be at the event to sign and sell copies of the Braves coffee-table style book.
“If you’re from Buffalo…Is Suicide Really Redundant?” will be held at 8 PM on Tuesday February 16th at Allen Hall at the University of Buffalo’s South Campus.
by Tim Wendel
It was downright heartening to see the Sabres come back against Pittsburgh the other night. Not only did they take down “Sid the Kid” and those annoying Penguins, but they rolled back the clock, so to speak. The victory reminded me of an era when Buffalo teams were offensive juggernauts.
When the Braves were a contender in the mid-1979s, the rap against them was their often-lackluster defense. In fact, that’s the major lesson coach Jack Ramsay took away from his stint in Western New York.
“Sometimes you have to be able to stop the other team,” he told me decades later when I was putting together Buffalo, Home of the Braves.
To that end, Doctor Jack went looking for a new team with tall timber underneath and he found it in Portland, where he and Bill Walton won a title together.
That’s all well and good, but there’s also something to be said for being able to score. In watching the Bill stumble to the end of another dismal season I grew nostalgic for the old days when they could put up points almost as quickly as the old Braves. One could argue that the Bills of the 1970’s played defense about as well as the Braves did, too. Still, they had playmakers on offense and continued to rack up points pretty much until this current crop came along, which barely put up three points against Atlanta.
When I think about the Braves in their heyday, it’s difficult to differentiate them from the Bills and the Sabres because every team in town could score, seeming at will. You could see Bob McAdoo & Co. put up a bushel load one night and come back to witness the French Connection & Co. do pretty much the same thing the next at that grand old barn of a building called the Aud. OK, the Braves, Bill and Sabres didn’t bring home any titles during those epic runs. But, all in all, it sure was a lot more fun to watch.
Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks for helping make Buffalo, Home of the Braves a reality. Now let’s get a banner to that team raised at HSBC.
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.
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
Portions of the interview were used in the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves“, a large format book featuring the comprehensive history of the Buffalo Braves, Western New York’s NBA franchise of the 1970’s. Copies of the book are now available online from SunBear Press or at independent bookstores in the Buffalo area.
In 2008 Tim Wendel author of Buffalo, Home of the Braves interviewed Randy Smith, who played most of his prolific NBA career with the Braves from 1971-78. Smith passed away earlier this month.
In this first segment, Smith describes his determination in making the team’s roster after being selected as a courtesy pick out of Buffalo State by the Braves in 1971. Randy Smith Interviewed in 2008
Next week: Randy Smith talks about his second season with the Braves, and how the arrival of Jack Ramsay and Bob McAdoo changed his career forever.