5 days ago
Thursday, February 26, 2009
(Ticket stub from the last Braves' home game)
The Buffalo Braves wasted little time in preparing to move. They had to give notice to the City of Buffalo that they had not sold the required 4,500 season tickets, thus activating a clause in their lease that would allow them to move. On May 8 they did that. Team president Norm Sonju said the decision had not been made to move the team, although he didn’t expect many to believe that. On that same day, Buffalo allowed Cotton Fitzsimmons to escape the remaining three years of his contract so that he could take over as coach of the Kansas City Kings.
Sonju actually was telling the truth, as John Y. Brown hadn’t made a final decision about the Braves. Sonju said Brown was under pressure to move the team back to Louisville, while co-owner Harry Mangurian preferred Miami. Long Island, San Diego, Dallas, Birmingham and Minneapolis were all said to be on a list. But Florida didn’t have an arena, while Dallas and Louisville’s characteristics scared Brown. Birmingham was a bit small, a factor when considering television markets, but it did have a nice, big arena waiting.
Sonju conducted a study of the situation. On May 31, Sonju announced the decision: the Braves would move to Dallas to become the Dallas Express. That decision turned out to be less-than-permanent as problems developed. Brown asked for a 20-day postponement in his proposal to move the team, and decided against Dallas during that time. On June 22, Brown said that San Diego and Minneapolis were the two finalists, but those cities weren’t ideal either. Could Buffalo keep its team by inertia?
No. A week later, the drama was finally completed in a totally unexpected way. Brown moved the team to Boston, so to speak.
Brown swapped franchises with Irving Levin, the owner of the Celtics. Levin took his team to San Diego, while Brown took over the Celtics. It could be argued, then, that it was the Braves’ franchise that actually signed Larry Bird and won championships in the 1980’s.
The teams also worked out a huge trade as part of the ownership swap. Boston acquired Nate Archibald, Billy Knight, and Marvin Barnes. San Diego acquired Freeman Williams, Kevin Kunnert, Sidney Wicks and Kermit Washington. The Celtics retained the draft rights to Bird; he had been taken earlier in the summer even though he wasn’t leaving Indiana State until the following spring. On July 7, the NBA approved the transaction, which was brokered by an attorney named David Stern.
"I think the key was that Irv and I laid out the foundation in good faith for the deal. We had a handshake on it," Brown said. "We didn't let the lawyers and accountants change the deal. I found Irv very good to deal with, very honorable.
"I appreciate all the courtesies that all the cities gave us. I didn't want to pit one city against another. There are so many elements that go into trying to pick a city for the long-term future. I think Buffalo is a great sports town. ... There were a lot of problems before I got there. You have to make decisions in life, and if there's any embarrassment on any of these cities I didn't intend it."
Brown didn’t change his ways in Boston. He gave up three first-round draft picks and center Tom Barker for McAdoo, almost driving Celtics’ legendary executive Red Auerbach to the New York Knicks. Brown left the Celtics for Mangurian after a year, became Governor of Kentucky, married and divorced former Miss America and broadcaster Phyllis George, and went back into the restaurant business. Western New Yorkers still are angry at Brown; it’s surprising they ever sit foot in a Kenny Rogers’ Roasters or a Roadhouse Grill. Sonju didn't go with Brown; he put together a group that was granted an expansion franchise in Dallas in 1980.
As for the Clippers, they seemed cursed for years, going more than a quarter-century without winning a playoff series. The franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1984.
Randy Smith wound up as the Braves' all-time leader in most categories, including games and points. McAdoo was first all-time in rebounds and scoring average.
What went wrong for the Buffalo Braves? Much, but timing was a huge factor. The Sabres got off to a head start in beginning a sports franchise in the fall of 1970, thanks to better planning and strong local ownership. The hockey team was an instant success, selling out game after game through the 1970’s. The Sabres also had a better lease. Some of the Braves’ revenues, such as concessions, went to the Sabres.
Economics also worked against the Braves. Buffalo wasn’t a particularly big market, and it was difficult to believe that two winter pro sports franchises could compete head-to-head and survive. Years later, Snyder agreed with that statement, but he repeated his belief that the lack of good dates in Memorial Auditorium -- particularly Saturdays because of Canisius College's baskeball program -- was one of the team's biggest problems. He didn't like playing Fridays because it competed with high school basketball.
"I was fully prepared to compete with the Sabres because I thought that we would be the winner," Snyder said. "But I couldn't do that without a weekend playing date."
However, Snyder was one of the few people who believed that. It's not easy to be a major sports facility and not be the primary tenant in terms of being in control of the building. Still, Canisius' schedule didn't completely overlap with the NBA's, and the Golden Griffins weren't home every week from October until April. Some creative scheduling, such as playing more games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, might have helped. Meanwhile, Friday night home games don't seem to be a problem for other cities.
Snyder certainly deserves some credit for saving the franchise when it looked to be in trouble just before the start of the first season, when the initial investing company sunk into financial troubles. But he often acted impulsively - look at the Schayes firing - and his actions sometimes weren't in his best personal interest.
Selling the team to Brown didn't help matters, either. "I'm very sympathetic to the fact that Buffalo doesn't have a basketball team," Brown said years later in a 2016 story in The Buffalo News. "It's a great sports market. ... I like Paul and have a lot of respect for him, but we didn't understand the potential for pro basketball. It was a business we didn't understand, I guess."
If the Braves had been able to hang on for a couple of more years, they might have had a chance. Bird and Magic Johnson arrived in the NBA in the fall of 1979, and pro basketball became hot. Besides, the Sabres’ sellout run came to an end in the early 1980’s, and the team wasn’t used to having to sell tickets and market itself. It might have been vulnerable to a well-financed rival.
There was a little bad luck and poor decision-making too. Calvin Murphy might have helped Buffalo get through the early years, and a healthy Ernie DiGregorio would have helped create attention. Ownership always seemed on the verge of some sort of nervous breakdown. A playoff series upset might have helped the team turn the corner in terms of the fan base, too.
No matter. The Braves were gone in 1978, and the NBA isn’t coming back.