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.
Interesting results and comments from a weekend ‘Buffalo News’ article that attempted to define, classify, and define what celebrity status means in Western New York.
“Star power: What it means to be a WNY celebrity” included an “A” List and “B” List along with list of celebs that have lived in the Buffalo area and famous and pseudo-famous people on to the “Celebs who have passed on” list.
After reviewing the multiple lists, I decided that even from my jaded perspective of someone who has not lived in the region for years, that the “Buffalo News” staff missed some obvious WNY celebrities of local and even national significance.
I was moved enough to write in (along with many others) omissions to the lists, in fact the accumulated omission list from the reader’s comments section has star power compared to the roster put together by the seemingly young “News” staff. If one is under the ago 40 Tim Horton may be more associated with the doughnut franchise than his Hall of Fame hockey career. Horton made the list, whoch begs the question: Do people know what the people listed actually acomplished?
Here are the names the “Buffalo News” missed, compiled into one list. See how many you many you recognized or would have missed:
- Jack Kemp: former Bills quarterback. U.S. Congressman, Vice Presidential candidate
- Grover Washington, Jr.: soul-jazz saxiphonist, pioneer of the smooth jazz music genre
- Rick Azar: longtime WKBW sports anchor
- Bob McAdoo: Buffalo Brave, NBA Hall of Fame member, NBA scoring leader and MVP
- Randy Smith: Three sport All-American at Buffalo State, NBA All-Star MVP, still Braves/Clippers franchise leader is every major category
- Foster Brooks: entertainer, actor
- Van Miller: longtime voice of the Bills and Braves, sport anchor WBEN for decades
- Danny Neaverth: morning radio host, public address announcer during glory days of Bills and Braves
- Ed Kilgore: local sports anchor since the early 70’s
- Freddie Smerlas: former Bills great and radio personality
- Sal Maglie: major league all-star pitcher
- Stephanie Miller: sundicated radio talk-show host
- Seth Godin: nationally acclaimed business writer, marketing expert, entrepreneur
- Kim Alexis; super model in the 70’s and 80’s, television host and fitness expert
- William Fichtner: character actor
- Rick Jeanneret: voice of the Buffalo Sabres
Please feel free to add to the list.
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.
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.
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.