Thursday, February 26, 2009

1972-73 Season


The University of North Carolina rarely took junior college players into its program during Dean Smith's coaching era. Bob McAdoo was an exception.

McAdoo had played two seasons at Vincennes Junior College in Indiana -- and was an
All-American both times -- before transferring to North Carolina. He needed little time to establish himself as one of the nation's best players, having an outstanding season for the Tar Heels. The 6-foot-9 McAdoo averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per game for UNC, leading the team to the Final Four.

McAdoo had one more year of eligibility after the 1971-72 season in Chapel Hill, but opted to enter the professional ranks through the hardship ranks. It was obvious he'd be one of the first players taken by the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association. In hindsight, McAdoo was clearly the best player available to NBA teams that year.

The Portland Trail Blazers should have known that, but they apparently didn't. The Blazers took LaRue Martin with the first overall pick of the draft. That wouldn't be remembered as the worst pick in Portland's franchise history -- the Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan choice would hold that distinction forever -- but it was close. Martin played four years in the NBA, and never averaged more than 7.0 points per game.

That left McAdoo for Buffalo in the second spot, and the Braves picked him. NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy told the Braves that the Virginia Squires of the ABA were claiming that they had signed McAdoo, and that the Braves would be taking McAdoo at their own risk. Buffalo went ahead and picked him anyway. McAdoo was not yet 21 when he actually signed, putting the validity of the deal in question. Buffalo owner Paul Snyder offered the Squires $200,000 for the contract, and Squires' owner Earl Foreman guessed his deal might not hold up in court so he took the money and released McAdoo. Snyder and Foreman went to a safety deposit box to get the original ABA contract. Snyder took the paperwork, headed for a toilet, and flushed.

"I didn't think I'd be a star right away," McAdoo said. "I thought I could be a starter right away."

Buffalo took Harold Fox in the second round, a guard out of Jacksonville. The Braves took 13 other players in the draft, but none of them made it out of training camp.

There was a new face leading the players in that camp. Dr. Jack Ramsey, who earned a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, was the new coach. Ramsey had been a legendary coach at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia from 1955-66, going 234-72. He became general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1966 and won the NBA championship in that role in 1967. However, he moved to the coaching ranks in 1968 and spent four years there in that position. Ramsey had a winning record with the Sixers, but that team was clearly headed downhill. Ramsey had his first losing season as a coach in 1971-72.

The Braves were already downhill, having never won more than 22 games in a season in their history. They came in with hopes of doing better, particularly with McAdoo around. The idea was to have McAdoo, Bob Kauffman and Elmore Smith as a tall, impressive front line, with the guard position to sort itself out along the way. The plan never quite worked out.

The problems started when Mahdi Abdul-Rahman seemed to age overnight. He did little in nine games as a Brave that season, averaging only 5.9 points and 1.9 assists per game, and was waived. Abdul-Rahman bounced to a couple of other teams after that, but he essentially was done. What's more, there were no immediate replacements in the area. Randy Smith had made a successful transition to guard from small forward to make room for McAdoo, but he needed a playmate/point guard.

Dick Garrett's career was starting to sink. His scoring average was slowly dropping, and he was never a point guard. Fred Hilton had become more out of control in his second season as compared to his first, and he clearly was shooting his way out of the league. Fox wasn't helping. To add a little chaos to the situation, Fox and Garrett were arrested on a drug-related matter at their apartment, although charges were dropped.

General manager Eddie Donovan tries his best to pick up some stop-gap help. Dave Wohl was acquired on waivers from Portland, while Howard Komives came over for a draft choice from Detroit. But Wohl clearly wasn't a long-term answer, and Komives was near the end of his career.

Up front, the starters showed they were capable of piling up the points and rebounds.

Elmore Smith led the team in scoring (18.3 per game) and rebounds (12.4), but fouled out of a league-high 16 games.

McAdoo started slowly as a small forward, not even cracking the starting lineup in the early part of the season. Bill Bradley of the Knicks scored a career-high 38 points when guarded by McAdoo one night.

"It was the most frustrating season I'd ever had, because I had never played on a losing team before," McAdoo said.

But eventually McAdoo found his game, and he averaged 18 points and nine rebounds per game despite averaging only 32 minutes. Kauffman averaged a double-double every night (17.5/11.1) and again played in the All-Star Game. But there wasn't much behind them, as John Hummer and Bill Hewitt weren't able to contribute much.

Even when the Braves made history, it didn't work out. On Oct. 20, the Celtics had piled up a huge lead by the end of the third quarter. With subs playing on both sides, Buffalo started scoring ... and scoring ... and scoring. The Braves scored 58 points in the 12-minute span, setting an NBA record. Randy Smith alone had 23 points in the quarter to set the franchise record. It didn't help; the Celtics still won the game.

"Satch Sanders was guarding me," Smith told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "He was near the end of his career. ... He told me during the game to slow down. Because of my speed, that was a remark I heard from everyone."

The next night, the Braves came home to face the Milwaukee Bucks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed the game due to injury, but it didn't slow the Bucks. Milwaukee held the Braves to seven points in the second quarter and four in the third. Buffalo lost, 91-63, as Bob Kauffman was 1 for 15 from the field in a game that saw the Braves shoot 27 percent.

"I don't know what happened," Smith said. "We just ran out of energy from all that running and scoring the night before in Boston. Those were strange consecutive nights."

Late in the season, with nothing at stake and Smith hurt, Ramsey put McAdoo in at center. The experiment worked spectacularly well. McAdoo piled up 29, 39, 39 and 45 points in successive road games down the stretch. Clearly, he presented all sorts of matchup problems for opposing teams. McAdoo was far too quick for some of the plodding centers of the era, who had to come out and try to guard him on the perimeter because of his shooting ability. Besides, he wasn't really equipped to guard players like John Havlicek and Bill Bradley.

The Braves finished the season 21-61, their worst record ever and 47 games out of first. Their average attendance was down to 7,847, leading Snyder to look into playing some of their games in Toronto. After starting the season 4-19, they had ended the season by losing 11 in a row and 26 of their last 30 games. Seven of the wins came against the 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers. The Braves still hadn't beaten the Celtics ... ever.

Buffalo needed a facelift, and fast.

"We had to change the structure of the team. The team that I inherited did not have personnel that was capable of winning in the NBA," Ramsey said. "You have to get players that will win."

For statistics on this season, click here.

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