Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pre-1970

The National Basketball Association was at war with the American Basketball Association, and the NBA needed reinforcements as quickly as possibly.

The established NBA had been first challenged by the ABA in the summer of 1967. The new league has shown to be typically annoying and pesky, driving up the costs of player salaries dramatically. That meant the existing NBA teams were always looking for new revenue sources, and expansion fees were one such source.

The Seattle SuperSonics and San Diego Rockets entered the league in 1967. Milwaukee and Phoenix entered in 1968. That put the number of teams at 14, and it still wasn't enough.

In fact, two teams' fees split 14 ways weren't enough. The NBA had announced on Nov. 5, 1969, that it would expand by two teams. After looking over applications from Buffalo, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Memphis and Portland, the league added three teams for an entry fee of $3.5 million each. The official birthday of the Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers was February 6, 1970. They would begin play the following fall.

That wasn't much time to get organized. The draft was less than two months away. What's more, the new team was playing catchup from the day it was created.

The franchise was originally awarded to the city of Buffalo before it was assigned to a particular holder/owner. A couple of groups were hoping to get the franchise. Keep in mind that this was the time that there was talk of a new domed stadium in suburban Buffalo, and one of the groups had ideas of playing home games there -- a plan that was, in a sense, ahead of its time.

Eventually the franchise went to Neuberger-Loeb, a New York investment firm. The organizing group was headed by Philip Ryan and Peter Crotty, and Carl Scheer was the first president of the team. The corporate end of the franchise was a bit unsettled from the start. That may have been a factor in the loss of Scheer from the organization. Scheer went on to a long career in professional sports, including some time running the Carolina Cougars of the ABA.

What's more, there was already another new pro franchise coming to Buffalo. Hockey's Buffalo Sabres were due to start play in the fall of 1970 as well. It had strong local ties in owners Seymour and Norty Knox. And it had a strong lease for Memorial Auditorium that gave the team good dates (Thursdays and Sundays, mostly) and revenues from many Auditorium events. The basketball ownership group clearly had plenty of work ahead of it.

Step one in the formation of the team was the hiring a general manager, and there was a good candidate at the other end of the Thruway. Eddie Donovan was the current occupant of the same job of the New York Knicks, who were on their way to the NBA championship that spring. He also had Western New York ties, playing and coaching St. Bonaventure University before heading for the Knicks as coach in 1961. Donovan is the answer to the trivia question, "Who coached the Knicks the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points?" He later moved up to general manager. It was considered quite a coup when he was lured to Buffalo before the end of the 1970 season to take over the new franchise.

The coach (picked on March 31) was also a well-known name. Dolph Schayes was one of the greatest players in NBA history. He had led the Syracuse Nationals to a championship in 1955, and retired in 1964 as the NBA's all-time leading scorer. Later he went on to coach the Philadelphia 76ers, although he lost his job as the Sixers couldn't get over the hump represented by the Boston Celtics despite the presence of Chamberlain. Schayes had been working as the NBA's supervisor of officials.

"Dolph's strong point, I think, was being able to communicate with the fans of the area. He was tremendous on radio and television," said Jim Baker, who covered the team for the Courier-Express. "He was an excellent interview, a good speaker. He was a very likable guy."

Along the way, the franchise picked up a name. More than 14,000 entries poured in for the usual "Name the team" contest. The most popular choice of the fans was "Frontiersmen," listed on 74 entries. But Braves was declared the winner. "We wanted a name that not only symbolized what the athlete would do on the court but one that would also be representative of the city of Buffalo," Scheer said. Dunkirk's Dave Lejewski was the winner of the contest. He was given season tickets as a prize.

When the draft arrived on March 23, the NBA hadn't done the new expansion teams any favors. The teams were slotted seventh, eighth and ninth in the first round. The Braves were scheduled to go ninth in the opening round. It would have been a great year for Buffalo to pick first overall. This was one of the great top-heavy draft classes in the history of basketball. The first four picks were all fabulous players. The best of them not only grew up in Buffalo and went to Bennett High School, but played college basketball in Memorial Auditorium frequently for St. Bonaventure. However, the Braves never had a chance at Bob Lanier, who went on to an outstanding career with the Detroit Pistons. He was followed in the draft by Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich and Dave Cowens.

So Buffalo wasn't getting one local hero. Donovan traded his first draft choice to the Baltimore Bullets for promising guard Mike Davis (a member of the NBA's All-Rookie team in 1969-70 and a first round pick. The Braves had the 15th pick in the first round, but the deal forced them to miss out on John Vallely of UCLA and Jim McMillian of Columbia.

Buffalo didn't know it yet, but this would be one of the fateful moments in franchise history. There were still two future Hall of Famers available in that draft, not that anyone could be sure of that at the time. And one of them even had just a strong local connection as Lanier did.

Calvin Murphy was one of the greatest scorers in college basketball history during his career at Niagara. No one could stop him, even though he was 5-foot-9. There were legitimate questions about how well he could survive in the NBA at that height.

There were similar questions about another guard out of Texas-El Paso, who was also under 6-feet. Nate Archibald, however, wasn't as well known back then.

When the number 15 pick came up, Buffalo took a 6-9 forward. John Hummer played college basketball at Princeton. He was smart, rebounded well and played good defense. However, he wasn't much of a scorer. Plus, he was a terrible free throw shooter, never even sinking 60 percent from the line in a given year of his career.

Murphy was taken at the start of the second round by San Diego, while Archibald was picked immediately after Murphy by Cincinnati. It's a great "what if?" - could Murphy have helped the Braves survive in Buffalo?

The Braves took another power forward in the second round, Cornell Warner of Jackson State. The third round pick was Chip Case of Virginia, who played high school basketball in suburban Lockport. Case was the first player to actually sign a contract with the Braves. The rest of Buffalo's picks didn't work out.

The expansion draft took place on May 11, 1970. Buffalo was perceived as receiving a huge break right off the bat. Teams could only protect seven players at the start of the draft. When the protected lists were revealed, there was a surprise on the Los Angeles Lakers' list.

Dick Garrett wasn't just another member of the NBA's All-Rookie Team. He was a starter for the Lakers, a team that reached the NBA Finals that spring. The Lakers opted to protect some of their big men instead, and left Garrett open. The Braves grabbed him. The Lakers' plan became apparent later, when they traded one of their protected big men, Mel Counts, to the Phoenix Suns for Gail Goodrich. That worked out extremely well for Los Angeles.

For history's sake, here's the list of the other Buffalo selections: Emmett Bryant, Boston; Fred Crawford, Milwaukee; Herm Gilliam, Cincinnati; Bill Hosket, New York; Bailey Howell, Boston; Paul Long, Detroit; Mike Flynn, Los Angeles; Don May, New York; Ray Scott, Baltimore; George Wilson, Philadelphia.

Scott, by the way, had a loophole in his previous contract with Baltimore and was free to jump to Virginia of the ABA. The Braves later received a draft choice as compensation.

As part of the proceedings, Donovan had worked out a deal with his old pals with the Knicks. New York had eight players it wanted to keep (Willie Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Cazzie Russell, Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth). The Braves agreed to avoid those players. In return, the Knicks shipped Mike Silliman and Nate Bowman, spare parts on the roster, to Buffalo after the draft.

Silliman had played for Army and was just coming back to basketball. Bowman's passes in New York were called "facebreakers" by his Knick teammates, but he did have all kinds of style that was a bit wasted out of New York City. For his part, Bowman claimed he was traded because he left tickets for a friend -- activist H. Rap Brown.

Speaking of trades, Howell was of more use to a contender than to an expansion team, so the Braves sent him to Philadelphia for a center/forward named Bob Kauffman. Buffalo had hopes that Scott would add a little veteran leadership up front, but he opted to sign with Virginia of the ABA.

So the Braves had some players. Now it was a matter of counting down the days until Opening Night. In the meantime, they tried to stir up some interest locally.

"I've always felt that if you are going to give to people you have to receive," Kauffman said. "I believed that as a player, even though that's contrary to the way most people feel. Before the Braves ever played an exhibition game, Dolph Schayes, trainer Jerry McCann, Chip Case - a draft pick from Virginia - and myself did 81 clinics throughout the Western New York area. We wanted to get them more interested in pro basketball. ... We sent a message of good will, and that the Braves cared about the people of Western New York."

With that schedule, no wonder Kauffman was ready for training camp, and his best season as a pro.

If you believe in omens, though, the Braves had a bad one in their very first exhibition game. They did beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 97-95, in Wooster, Ohio. Then the bus ran out of fuel on the way home at 2:30 a.m., forcing the team to seek shelter at a nearby hotel.

No one said this expansion stuff was going to be easy.