Thursday, February 26, 2009
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, Houston, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Memphis and Portland, the league added four 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. The fourth team, Houston, couldn't come up with the money and dropped out. However, the San Diego Rockets moved there in 1971.
There wasn't much time for the new teams 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. Case, by the way, said that he went to sleep the night before the regular season opener believing that he would be on the roster of the team. He woke up, and was cut before the game. 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.
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.
It was October 14, 1970, and the Buffalo Braves were ready to face the Cleveland Cavaliers for their first game in their history. Memorial Auditorium was not full for the occasion; attendance was 7,129. That sounds rather remarkable in hindsight since opening nights now sell out the day tickets go on sale. It's even more remarkable considering the Aud only held about 10,000 fans at that point. The building was a year away from having its roof raised and the seating capacity expanded. Tickets for that game were $6.50, $5 and $4.
The Braves had a new name on the top of the organizational chart. Paul Snyder had purchased the team the day before opening night. The firm of Newberger, Loeb and Company had thought the Braves eventually would play in a planned domed stadium in Lancaster. That idea fell through over the summer, but the firm still made a $200,000 profit in selling the Braves.
As for Snyder, he was said to be thinking about it when he attended a Braves' exhibition game in Niagara Falls, got caught up in the excitement, and completed the transaction. The local businessman, who was a former wrestler at the University of Buffalo, owned Freezer Queen foods until it merged with Nabisco.
Coach Dolph Schayes sent out a starting lineup of Dick Garrett, Herm Gilliam, Don May, John Hummer and Nate Bowman for the opener. The combination worked for a 107-92 win over the Cavs. Bowman's Buffalo career may have peaked in that game, as his jumper put Buffalo ahead for good, 12-10. May had 24 points in 35 minutes, setting a career-high in scoring. Garrett added 20, including the first basket in franchise history.
It was downhill from there for the team, though. The Braves lost their next nine games, due in part to injuries to Garrett and May. They even returned the favor to Cleveland, losing to the Cavaliers on Dec. 6, 1970, for Cleveland's first-ever victory after 12 straight losses. A crowd of 2,002 looked on.
That was pretty typical of a forgettable season. Buffalo only won 22 games in that season, and the total was a little inflated. The NBA had stacked the schedule so that the Braves played the other two expansion teams, the Cavs and the Portland Trail Blazers, 12 times each. While that was good for the won-loss record (11 of the wins came against those two teams), it wasn't good for the gate. The Braves' fans preferred to see such established teams as the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. Buffalo never came close to a winning month, and was particularly bad on the road (6-34).
That initial team had a little talent and featured a couple of surprises. The biggest was someone who didn't start in that first game. Bob Kauffman, a former first-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers, who eventually claimed the starting center spot. Kauffman averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game despite being slightly miscast as a center. He was Buffalo's only representative in the NBA All-Star Game. Kauffman played a big role in the Braves' first-ever win over one of the NBA's "established teams." Buffalo knocked off Atlanta, 134-118, on Nov. 11, and Kauffman had 35 points in his first start as a Brave.
May was a little small for the small forward spot, but he could shoot. The 6-foot-4 former Dayton star had one of the great fluke statistical years in NBA history. May averaged 20.2 points per game. He never averaged as much as 10 points per game for the rest of his NBA career. The big year was all about opportunity and playing time.
The other regular forward was John Hummer, who didn't have a bad rookie season. Hummer averaged 11 points and almost nine rebounds per game. His biggest problem, of course, was that he wasn't Calvin Murphy. He also was a little clumsy, and his skills weren't the obvious ones like shooting.
Buffalo had four different guards who averaged at least 10 points per game. Garrett led the way at 12.9 points per game. Mike Davis was at 11.4 per game. Gilliam averaged 11.2, and Em Bryant -- he of the headband -- was at 10.0.
There wasn't much after that. Bill Hosket, a former Ohio State star, only played in 13 games due to an injury. Cornell Warner showed little offensive spark. George Wilson had one memorable moment, a ridiculously long game-winning shot in overtime to beat the Lakers, 113-111, at the Aud on Dec. 15. (The next day, Snyder spoiled the good feeling by saying he might have to move half of the team's games to Toronto.) Fred Crawford, Paul Long, Bowman and Mike Silliman were rarely in the regular rotation. Oddly, Donovan didn't make a single roster move during the entire season.
Bowman, at least, had one remarkable moment. He supposedly brought a gun to practice one day with the intention of shooting Schayes. He was released at the end of the season, played in the American Basketball Association the next year, and dropped out of basketball.
Buffalo finished 30 games out of first place, and averaged under 5,000 fans per home game. There weren't many highlights, as could be imagined. On December 1, Kauffman and Boston's Dave Cowens engaged in fight that left Cowens with a shiner. Art Williams hit the winning shot for Boston in a 117-116 win. On December 4, the Braves stunned the World Champion New York Knicks, 97-91, disappointing the many New York fans studying in local colleges who came down to see their heroes. Dave DeBusschere did not score a point in the game for the Knicks.
The comparisons between the Braves and the NHL's Sabres were easy and one-sided. Buffalo was selling out every game by the second half of the season, and had a cornerstone in the franchise's development in rookie Gil Perreault.
The Braves, facing a more balanced schedule, needed some new faces. They arrived in large quantities.
For statistics on the season, click here.
Cleveland had the first choice overall, and opted for Austin Carr of Notre Dame. Carr was the leading scorer in the history of the NCAA tournament at that point. Portland went second and took Sidney Wicks of UCLA, who had won three national championships while playing for legendary coach John Wooden.
That left Buffalo third, and the Braves' pick sent people scurrying to find an atlas.
Kentucky State? Where is Kentucky State?
Kentucky State was located in Frankfort, the capital of the state. What's more, it had a basketball team with not one but two future first-round draft choices on it. The Braves had taken one of them, center Elmore Smith. Travis Grant was a year away.
Smith came with question marks, some about the level of competition, but there was no doubting his physical talents. Smith was 7-feet and averaged 25 points and 24 rebounds per game in college. He also had established a reputation as a dominating shot blocker. Smith figured to be a nice fit for the Braves, who could slide the undersized Bob Kauffman over to power forward.
The Braves were able to sign Smith to a five-year contract, no small accomplishment in the days of the war with the ABA. Carolina had drafted Smith in the first round as well, but the Cougars later signed Jim McDaniels of Western Kentucky (even though McDaniels was Utah's top pick) and didn't offer much competition for Smith.
Some of the nation's best players had come out of the draft pool early because of signing. Artis Gilmore might have been the first pick in the draft by Cleveland, had he not already signed with the ABA's Kentucky Colonels. In fact, Howard Potter, who led Villanova to the Final Four, had signed with an agent during the season. Villanova was removed from the official records of that year's tournament; the second-place team is officially listed as vacated.
The Braves had accumulated three second-round picks through trades. They first went for a guard in Fred Hilton of Grambling. Hilton had an interesting story. He was a top high school guard with a reputation as a shooter in New Orleans. He wanted to go to LSU. However, Pete Maravich was already there, and there was only one basketball. So much for that idea. So off to Grambling. Next up was Amos Thomas of Southwest Oklahoma State. He was followed by Spencer Haywood, who had left college early and had spent one season in the ABA and one season in the NBA with Seattle. The Braves were prepared to argue that since 1971 was when Haywood's original college class was graduating, he should be eligible for the draft. It was a tactic that had little chance of succeeding, and could have been used later in the draft, but it was an interesting approach.
Buffalo didn't take anyone of note in rounds three through six, but in round seven it took a chance on a local player. Randy Smith had been a sensational all-around athlete at Buffalo State, starring on the track, soccer and basketball teams. A tremendous leaper, Smith scored many of his soccer goals simply by jumping above everyone else and heading the ball into an open spot of the net. Still, no one thought the selection was anything but a way to make a local kid feel good. "Randy can't make it in the Little Three, let alone the NBA," a Braves talent scout reportedly said.
"They didn't have any intentions of keeping me," Smith said later. "But I knew I was a good athlete, and I knew I was going to work hard and if I got an opportunity I was going to take advantage of it." On the first day of training camp, according to a later Sports Illustrated account, coach Dolph Schayes sent his team through a drill. Smith was easily the fastest man through it. Twice. "He's fast," Schayes was quoted as saying. "He's staying."
By the way, the draft that year went 18 numbing rounds. The Braves quit after round 17, and their last pick was Joey Meyer, the son of legendary DePaul coach Ray Meyer and himself a future coach.
Donovan also swung into action with a major trade with Atlanta. Figuring that Don May's stock was as high as it was ever going to be after his good 1970-71 season, Donovan dealt him with guard Herm Gilliam to the Atlanta Hawks for Walt Hazzard and Jerry Chambers. Hazzard was a good, veteran guard who had won two national championships for UCLA. His best season had come in 1967-68, when he averaged 24 points per game for Seattle. Now he was coming to the Braves after three good years with the Atlanta Hawks. Hazzard wasn't going to keep the point guard job in Atlanta, not with the heralded Pete Maravich around for a sophomore season.
Hazzard's first action in training camp caused some conversation, even if it didn't affect his play. Hazzard had the regular media members gather around him, and he announced that he had changed his name to Mahdi Abdul-Rahman to reflect his religious beliefs.
There was one other noteworthy change in the roster from 1970-71, at least to those in the legal profession. George Wilson was cut from the team, and sued the Braves. He argued that he was dropped because of a racial quota system and not because of his ability. Wilson, who played for six NBA teams in seven years, lost the suit.
With Smith and Hazzard/Abdul-Rahman added to the starting lineup, the Braves figured to be better in 1971-72 ... and they were. It just wasn't reflected in the standings.
The Braves again went 22-60, the same as the year before. However, Buffalo had stopped playing expansion teams one-third of the time and gone to a more traditional lineup of opponents. In other words, the team played the Boston Celtics six times (0-6), the New York Knicks six times (1-5), and the Milwaukee Bucks four times (0-4).
Loss number one was against the Seattle SuperSonics, a 123-90 blowout at home that didn't sit well with owner Paul Snyder. In fact, the next day Schayes was fired as coach of the team.
"I remember sitting at the press table, right after the final buzzer went off, and here comes Paul Snyder, the owner of the team, going right by the press table, red as a beet. I took one look at Paul and I knew Dolph was gone," said Jim Baker, Courier-Express reporter.
"I wasn't a little disappointed by last year, I was a lot disappointed," Snyder told Sports Illustrated. "I'm used to running a business and I felt it was the right decision to let Dolph go. So I did it. After the way we played in the first game I felt I would rather sell the franchise than watch another performance like that."
John McCarthy was promoted to the position of interim head coach for the remaining 81 games in what must have been an NBA first. McCarthy had played college basketball at Canisius College and then moved to the pros for six years with three different franchises.
The team statistics were similar to Year One. Buffalo was 14-27 at home and 8-33 on the road. The Braves again did not have a winning month on the calendar. The team had a three-game winning streak to get to 6-8 on the season, but that was the high point.
The new acquisitions didn't work out badly at all. Elmore Smith had an outstanding rookie season that was generally forgotten in the years ahead. The rookie averaged 17.4 points and 15.3 rebounds per game (the latter was sixth in the league). That's particularly impressive considering the jump in competition from college. Blocked shots weren't kept yet in the NBA, but Smith certainly was a league leader there. He had 14 in one game against Portland. Smith was named to the NBA's All-Rookie Team.
"The E is beautiful to watch. He's got such grace," Hummer told Sports Illustrated during the season. "I think we're gonna have a world championship here someday. I have never seen a guy so mature at 22. He doesn't care about scoring, he doesn't fool around - he just wants to win. You should have seen him the first time against Wilt [Chamberlain]. First, Wilt grabs the ball, shoves E out of bounds and off the edge of the court and dunks it. Then E calmly goes down to the other end, gets the ball, runs right at Wilt, slams it in and then quietly walks away without saying a thing."
Hazzard was the team's third-leading scorer at 15.8 points per game, and led the team in assists. Hilton quickly established a reputation as one of the great streak shooters in league history. He would shoot from anywhere. When he got hot, he could carry the Braves by himself. When he was cold, he could take the Braves right out of a game. Considering his .389 field-goal percentage was the worst on the roster, he was cold more than he was hot.
The big surprise, though, was Randy Smith. The 6-3 rookie actually made the team as a small forward, and beat out John Hummer and others for a starting position. Smith survived mostly on athletic ability that first year, but averaged 13.4 points per game. When the Braves played the Celtics, Smith and John Havlicek seemed to be in motion for the entire game.
Kauffman's move to forward worked out fine, as he averaged almost 19 points per game and again made the All-Star Game. But other players weren't developing. Dick Garrett and Mike Davis showed signs of plateauing, while Cornell Warner and Bill Hosket were stuck on the end of the bench.
At least attendance was up, as the Braves averaged 8,557 in 1971-72, although the team may not have needed the expanded Memorial Auditorium and its 15,000-plus capacity most nights. Buffalo clearly had some talent, but a star was needed to compete with O.J. Simpson and Gil Perreault for the sports dollar in Western New York. And one was on the way.
For statistics on this season, click here.
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 Elmore 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.
The 6-foot guard from Providence College was in the midst of having a magical senior season. A classic gym rat, DiGregorio seemed like the type of college player who would dribble a basketball to class. After all, he always seemed to have the ball when Providence played. DiGregorio was a positively brilliant passer, particularly on the open court. When necessary, he could hit the open jumper. DiGregorio was a step slow and not known for his enthusiasm on defense, but his other skills compensated for that on the college level.
Providence coach Dave Gavitt took a look at his team, that also included two other future pros in Marvin Barnes and shooting guard Kevin Stacom. Gavitt called DiGregorio into his office and told Ernie that he'd be in charge of the basketball that season.
"That was a heck of a thing for a coach to do," DiGregorio said later. "We didn't call a set play all year. We never came down the floor and yelled out 'one' or 'two' or 'three.' We just played."
Providence went all the way to the NCAA Final Four that season, but lost Barnes to an injury along the way and was eliminated despite DiGregorio's efforts. After UCLA claimed the national title, DiGregorio went on to play for the United States in an exhibition game against the Soviet Union. He was brilliant. The image of DiGregorio dribbling out the final seconds of a win in Madison Square Garden brought up images of Globetrotter Curly Neal running circles around the Washington Generals.
Every step of the way that year, DiGregorio's asking price to join a pro team was rising -- particularly for one that needed a gate attraction and a point guard. Would it be too much for the Braves, a team that fit that description, to ask for DiGregorio to slip down to third in the NBA draft?
No. Philadelphia, coming off the worst season in NBA history, had the first pick and opted for Doug Collins, a tall, quick guard who was the best player available. Cleveland opted for size in forward Jim Brewer. Buffalo went third and took DiGregorio. The next issue was signing him.
"That was when the ABA was going strong," said Bob Powell of the Courier-Express. "I think it was Kentucky - John Y. Brown was negotiating for him. Ernie was hot at the time, and he was in the driver's seat. He let John Y. and Paul Snyder bid."
Two million, 300-thousand dollars or so later, DiGregorio was a Brave. He showed that he was a gate attraction right away. A crowd of 10,280 went to Memorial Auditorium to watch a rookie game between the Braves and 76ers. Or, they went to see Ernie D. He did not disappoint, piling up 27 points and eight assists. His best pass might have been an imcomplete one; he was falling out of bounds when he threw an 50-foot behind-the-back pass that just miss hitting its target. The crowd buzzed for minutes.
A guard like DiGregorio required a certain type of mindset and supporting cast. For the rookie to be effective, the Braves had to run and shoot. General manager Eddie Donovan, who really hadn't done much maneuvering in his first three years in the job, finally sprung into action.
The Los Angeles Lakers had just lost Wilt Chamberlain to retirement, leaving a gigantic opening at center. So they gulped and traded one of their best young players, small forward Jim McMillian, to the Braves for Elmore Smith. McMillian had played in the league for three years and started for two, averaging 18.9 points per game in 1972-73. McMillian was a purist's delight, a smart player who was always in the right position and scored his points quietly but often. McMillian was a good match for two of the other small forwards in the Braves' division, Boston's John Havlicek and New York's Bill Bradley.
Bob McAdoo could replace Smith at center. There wasn't much public outcry over Smith's departure, despite some impressive numbers in his two NBA seasons.
"There was a certain amount of disillusionment with Elmore," said Milt Northrop of the Buffalo News. "He had come in with a big buildup. He was Buffalo's first legitimate draft choice. ... He was so big, and in his rookie year he played some great games. One game against Boston, he had about 25 points in the first half against Dave Cowens of Boston. The Braves took a good lead, but then Cowens did things the way he could and outplayed Elmore. Elmore also played some super games against Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar).
"But his knees were a problem. He was playing a lot of minutes, and there were games he couldn't play that much. One night he was playing a magnificent game against Kareem, outscoring him and making him work on defense, and then going after a ball he twisted his knee and his good performance went down the drain.
Smith also reportedly annoyed the team's front office by asking for a new contract during the previous season. Besides, many realized McAdoo would be the better option especially with DiGregorio on the roster. Smith had two decent seasons in the Lakers before going to Milwaukee in the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trade. He played eight seasons but was never as good as he was with the Braves. The Big E might have been the most underrated player in Braves' history.
Donovan wasn't finished yet. He sent John Hummer and a draft choice to the Chicago Bulls for Gar Heard and the unsigned Kevin Kunnert. Hummer certainly wasn't going to fit in with a high-octane offense, so he was better off elsewhere. In this case, "elsewhere" turned out to be in the business world after three more years in the NBA, as Hummer did very well financially.
Kunnert, taken 12th overall in the first round of the 1973 NBA draft, at the time was considered an important part of the deal. Heard was supposed to supply depth, but turned out to be much more than that. He was 6-foot-6 and could run and rebound, a good fit for what the Braves wanted to do.
Just like that, the Braves had themselves a brand-new roster with nine new players, even if Buffalo's fans wouldn't have as many chances to see it. The front office had opted to try moving nine home games to Toronto. The idea was to made it easier to buy season tickets and increase demand in Western New York. Unsaid was the implied threat of a move if Toronto took to its new home team.
It took a little time for the pieces to come together, but slowly that started to happen. Buffalo had its first winning month in history, going 6-4 in October. It actually led the division briefly, prompting DiGregorio to say, "How about that. They said it couldn't be done." Heard took over for Bob Kauffman as the starting strong forward, as Kauffman lost his starting job because of an injury.
"It was diagnosed as a groin injury initially, but then Steve Joyce, a super orthopedic man, said, 'Bob, it's not responding, let's take a picture of it.' It showed symptomatic arthritic condition, because it was a misalignment of the bone. Within a year and a half of my being an All-Star, it ended my career as a Brave," Kauffman said.
Ken Charles, Dave Wohl and Lee Winfield backed up DiGregorio and Randy Smith, who didn't need an excuse for wanting to play in a more athletic style. Even Ramsey was a little surprised about how it came together.
"There's no way of knowing that," he said. "That's your objective, and get your team together as quickly as you can. It worked well. Their skills were compatible for a running game. We were not strong physically. We were not a defending team. But we could run. We had the ability to pass the ball and shoot it well, and we had good overall speed."
The team's biggest problem was scoring from the bench. Points weren't coming from anywhere when the starters left the court, and Buffalo needed a bit of a boost to get over the hump. Donovan provided the answer on Feb. 1 when he sent Wohl and Kunnert to Houston for Jack Marin and Matt Goukas.
It was a great fit for the Braves. Kunnert wasn't going to play much with McAdoo on the scene. Marin may have been past his prime, when he was an outstanding small forward for the Baltimore Bullets, but he could still score in a hurry. Goukas was a useful guard off the bench.
The tempo of the Braves' offense seemed to get faster as the season went along. McAdoo was unleashed at center, averaging about 30 points per game and causing matchup problems for everyone else in the league. Think Dirk Nowitzki, 30 years earlier. DiGregorio was racing down the middle of the court, handing out more than eight assists per game and keeping the ball enough to score 15 points per game on his own.
The franchise milestones came one after another. The Braves won three of four on the West Coast around the first of the year -- including a Jan. 1 game in Portland in which DiGregorio set a rookie record with 25 assists -- and then beat the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Jan. 5 for the first time ever. McAdoo played in his first NBA All-Star Game, scoring 11 points in 13 minutes. Buffalo beat the Celtics on Feb. 27 for the first time in its history (22 straight losses), and just to make sure the point was made, the Braves beat Boston again, 110-94, two nights later before 18,023 in the Aud.
One of the most memorable wins came in-between those two victories over the division's bullies. The Milwaukee Bucks were headed to the NBA Finals that year, and had such stars as Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge. On Feb. 19, the Braves recorded a stunning 145-109 win over the Bucks. Two nights later, they beat the Knicks in Toronto by 22. Clearly, the Braves were tough to outscore on some nights.
"I've had to alter my theories on defense," coach Jack Ramsey told Time magazine. "To be defensive, you need a physically tough center and toughness at other positions. We can't be tough with DiGregorio at guard and McAdoo at center. Instead, we outrun and outshoot our opponents."
Buffalo clinched a winning record with a win in Golden State on Mar. 21. The team lost four of five on that season-ending road trip, but it didn't matter much. Buffalo already had wrapped up its first playoff berth in history, clinching it with a win over Portland in Toronto. Its 42-40 record was fourth in the Eastern Conference. McAdoo led the league in scoring (30.6) and field-goal percentage (.547), a rare combination. He was a second team all-league pick. Donovan was named executive of the year.
DiGregorio was named rookie of the year after leading the league in assists and free-throw percentage (.902). Here's what Ernie D looked like that season:
All five starters averaged at least 15 points per game. The team averaged more than 10,400 fans per game, its best such figure to date.
Sellout crowds were expected for Buffalo's first NBA playoff games, against the Boston Celtics. After all, the Braves had finally gotten over the psychological hump of beating the Celtics in the regular season. But Boston was experienced, deep, talented, and hungry for its first NBA title since 1969.
The first-round format featured alternating home games. The Braves only scored 97 points in the playoff opener and dropped Game One, but responded with a 115-105 win in Game Two. Boston held serve in Game Three, winning by 120-107 with Havlicek scoring 43 points.
Game Four was a classic. Neither team could get much of a lead, and the Celtics tied the game at 102-102 to set up a memorable finish. The Braves came down for the last shot of regulation time, and McAdoo, surprisingly, missed it. But Boston didn't box out McMillian, who was alone under the basket for the follow as the buzzer sounded. The 104-102 win tied the series and sent 18,119 fans into a frenzy.
The good feelings only lasted for a couple of days, as the Celtics won Game Five, 100-97. Back in Buffalo for the sixth game of the series, the two teams again went back and forth. The Braves trailed by four points with 20 seconds left, but McAdoo scored two baskets, raising his total to 40, to tie it. This time it was the Celtics with the last shot, though. Jo Jo White of Boston took it and missed it, but McAdoo was called for a foul right at the buzzer by referee Darell Garretson.
But was it before or after the end of play? "Jo Jo contends to this day that he was actually fouled before the buzzer," Smith said years later. What's more, if the foul came before the buzzer, shouldn't the Braves have been given the ball for one last shot?
Nope. With all of the players waved away from the free-throw line, White missed the first free throw but made the next two. Just like that, the Celtics had won, 106-104, and the Braves' season was over.
Boston went on to win the NBA championship over the Milwaukee Bucks. Buffalo and its 18,237 fans in the Aud that night were left waiting for next year.
Here are some highlights of the Braves-Celtics series from a Boston perspective:
For statistics on this season, click here.
There was plenty of talent at the very top of the NBA draft in 1974. For the first time since 1970, the Braves couldn't get any of it.
Buffalo's winning record had put it right in the middle of the first round, picking ninth out of 18 teams. It had no chance at such players as Bill Walton, Marvin Barnes, Tom Burleson and Bobby Jones.
Rumors surrounded the Braves at draft time that the team would select Tom McMillen with its first-round pick. The reason was an odd one: McMillen shared a hometown tie of Mansfield, Pa., with Buffalo owner Paul Snyder. The reasoning may have been faulty -- all involved denied that part of the connection -- but the pick came out as advertised. McMillen was a 6-foot-11 star from Maryland who could offer some depth at forward. The catch -- the Braves would have to wait a year for McMillen to fulfill an Oxford scholarship. Buffalo passed up some good talent for McMillen, including Keith Wilkes, Brian Winters, Truck Robinson and John Drew.
A little help up front was needed, because the Braves had lost a member of their bench in the 1974 expansion draft. Bob Kauffman, the last original Brave, was taken by the New Orleans Jazz and dealt to Atlanta, where he played the last year of his career. Kauffman had an odd-looking career -- three seasons in the NBA all-star game, four seasons as a reserve -- but he'd be always remembered fondly in Buffalo for his efforts in those early years of the franchise.
General manager Eddie Donovan completed one good-sized transaction in the offseason. Buffalo sent Matt Goukas and two second-round draft choices to the Chicago Bulls for Bob Weiss. It was a deal involving two future NBA coaches. Weiss was a third guard behind Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan on some very good Chicago teams of the early 1970's. Buffalo also purchased Dale Schlueter from Atlanta, a center who could take up space and give McAdoo a breather.
Was it enough to keep the building process going? Milt Northrop of the Buffalo Evening News didn't think so.
"I think where the improvement stopped was that they stopping building the backup strength on the roster," he said. "After they make the playoffs in '74, they had a decent pick, the ninth pick, and they drafted Tom McMillen. ... They weren't in a position where they could bank a player. They needed rebounding help off the bench."
But the starting lineup was the same, and for more than a month it looked as if that nucleus was going to blow down the NBA.
Buffalo opened the season on Oct. 18 with a win in Boston, its first ever. On Oct. 29, DiGregorio tore the cartilage in his knee badly enough to miss more than half the season. Even so, the Braves lost a game in Portland on Nov. 1, and then won 11 straight games to move to a 15-3 record. Buffalo looked like the sports capital of the nation at that point, what with the Sabres headed for their best-ever season and the Bills on their way to the playoffs. All three teams were in first place that November.
"The team had matured, and solidified to a certain extent," Ramsey said. "Ernie's knee injury was critical as far as his career was concerned. In my opinion, he did recover from that time, and didn't play the caliber of basketball that he did in his rookie year. But team-wise, we recovered quite well."
In part, that's because McAdoo wouldn't let the team collapse. He turned in an even better season than his 1973-74 campaign. Just as an example of the year, McAdoo set a team record with 52 points against Boston on Feb. 22, and 51 against Houston on Mar. 22. He also averaged a league-leading 43.2 minutes per game, which he said didn't wear him down.
"I was out to win," McAdoo said. "I wanted an NBA championship. We weren't deep at center, so Jack Ramsey had to play me. We had to have our top five out on the court, so I was playing 44 to 46 minutes per night."
DiGregorio was replaced in the starting lineup by Kenny Charles, as Weiss wasn't up to the task of starting at that point in his career. Charles wasn't up to DiGregorio's standards offensively -- who was? -- but he was a much better defensive player. That changed the Braves' approach. Helping the backcourt was a step up by Randy Smith.
"Randy had been growing each year of his professional experience, and he added to take on added responsibility," Ramsey said. "It made him do things he hadn't done as well. He worked hard, he practiced hard, and he achieved a great deal."
Injuries also hurt a bit up front. Jim McMillian missed 20 games with an appendicitis and Gar Heard missed 15. Jack Marin filled in at small forward, and Donovan acquired Jim Washington from Atlanta to add a little depth.
The Braves also lost their general manager during the season, a very odd event. Donovan returned to the Knicks in March of 1975 after a dispute with Snyder. The Braves filed tampering charges against New York, but that didn't go anywhere. Donovan eventually came back to Western New York in 1986 when he took a job as a vice president at St. Bonaventure.
The Braves didn't need a general manager at that point in the season. It was time to get ready for their second straight playoff appearance, earned with a 49-33 record. If anyone could get them past the powerful Washington Bullets, McAdoo could. He led the league in scoring again (34.5 ppg, the peak of his career) and was named the league's Most Valuable Player and a first-team All-Star. McAdoo and Smith were the only Buffalo players to play in all 82 games.
But DiGregorio wasn't going to be part of that playoff effort. Ramsey had benched him during the last month of the regular season.
"It definitely hurt. There's no question about it," DiGregorio said. "As far as the coach not believing in the things I could do, that didn't help matters. I think I was the kind of player that you either loved me or hated me. If they thought I could do it, they'd go with me. With Buffalo, when I came back, the team established a pattern where the coach wasn't going to break me into that lineup because they were winning. That was his perogative."
Average home attendance jumped to 11,397 per game that season, and they were ready for the series with the Bullets. The Braves got the jump by winning the opening game in Washington, 113-102 ("We were absolutely terrible. The only sure way to keep McAdoo from going to the basket is to put a bomb in his car when we get to Buffalo," said Bullets' coach K.C. Jones at the time), but lost at home, 120-106, two nights later. The teams traded home victories for the rest of the series. McAdoo provided a highlight when he scored 50 in Game Four. "When Mr. McAdoo gets hot all you got to do is give him the ball and get out of the way. Nothing's easier. We could be down by 50 and if Mr. McAdoo gets hot we'll get back," Charles told Sports Illustrated.
The Braves were a game better than the 1974 edition, but it still wasn't enough. Washington didn't need any last-second dramatics to take Game Seven, 115-96, due in part to a 13-point first quarter by Buffalo.
Now the Braves had to figure out how to get over that first-round hump, and find someone who could help them do it.
For statistics on this season, click here.
The Buffalo Braves had something of a 400-pound elephant in the room when they considered the upcoming 1975-76 season.
Ernie DiGregorio had tried to come back from his Nov. 1974 knee injury, but wasn't particularly effective. Knee surgeries were much more invasive back then, as the days of arthroscopic surgery hadn't arrived yet. DiGregorio had the summer to rehab, but there were still good-sized questions about his future. He clearly had lost a step in the spring, a step that he really couldn't afford to lose. Would he get it back over the summer? And how would having one of the highest-paid players on the team sit on the bench go over with fans and, more importantly, management?
It was a major problem facing Bob MacKinnon, the team's new general manager. MacKinnon had Western New York ties, having played and coached at Canisius College. He was an assistant coach and scout for the Braves for a while, and then had coached the Spirits of St. Louis of the ABA in the 1974-75 season.
MacKinnon obviously couldn't do a great deal about DiGregorio, and had to wait and see how the guard would be at training camp. His first assignment was to get the roster ready for that camp, starting with the draft.
The first draft-related deal was an odd one; the second was even odder. For starters, the Braves shipped a first-round draft choice in 1975, the 16th pick, to Phoenix for a first-rounder in 1976. Remember, the Braves figured to have a 1974 first-rounder arriving in Tom McMillen, so there was a quality player coming. And Phoenix figured to give the Braves a better pick than number 16 in 1976. However, the Braves could have gotten some help at guard with that pick. Phoenix took Ricky Sobers, who became a starter as the Suns made a dramatic and unexpected trip to the NBA finals in the spring of 1976. Kevin Grevey, Gus Williams, Lloyd Free and Bob Gross also were available.
The Braves then sent a future first-round choice to Washington for Dick Gibbs. That was rather stunning. Gibbs had played in the NBA for four seasons at that point. He had never averaged more than 10.8 points per game. With the Bullets in 1974-75, Gibbs had averaged 3.3 points per game.
What the Braves obviously didn't know was that Gibbs had been having problems with alcohol since high school. Those woes continued through college and into the pros, where he felt overwhelmed. I had a real fear and insecurity of not succeeding,' Gibbs said later. "I always told myself, 'This is my life, this is all I have.' "
Gibbs may have had some good moments on the court with Washington, but he says it was the season that started him on the road to oblivion. "I was out in bars, meeting women, drinking and abusing drugs,‘ he said. I validated myself with women. It was part of my quest to feel good.‘ Therefore, Gibbs wasn't in any shape to contribute much.
Without its first two draft picks, the draft wasn't going to be of much help to Buffalo. No one taken by the Braves ever played a game in the NBA.
The Braves started the season well enough, winning their first four games, but slumped to 9-10 by the beginning of December. Buffalo did put together enough wins to get to 10 games above .500 by the end of January, and stayed right there more or less by the end of the season.
The nucleus of the team was still in place. McAdoo was McAdoo, still unstoppable for the third straight year. He scored 50 points against Cleveland on Nov. 20, and topped it with 52 on March 17 against Seattle. He was even scoring in the all-star game, netting 22 points in 29 minutes. A Sports Illustrated article called him "the quickest tall man, finest shooter and most astounding outside scoring machine ever to play basketball." Bill Russell, then coach of the Seattle SuperSonics and someone who knew more than a lot about basketball said, "He's the greatest shooter of all time, period. Forget that bit about the 'greatest shooting big man.' "
McAdoo's major playmate had become Randy Smith, continuing his path toward becoming one of the most improved players in NBA history. Smith was on his way to averaging more than 20 points per game in a season for the first time in his career. Both men represented the Braves in the NBA All-Star Game this year.
Jim McMillian and Gar Heard were still the starting forwards for most of the season, with Don Adams, McMillen and Dale Schlueter serving as the backups. (Buffalo sent Jack Marin to Chicago for a first-round draft pick early in the season.)
At guard, Ken Charles and DiGregorio were roughly splitting the minutes opposite Smith. That wasn't a good sign for DiGregorio, who still hadn't come all the way back from the knee injury. Bob Weiss was the fourth guard, and Gibbs could play a bit in the backcourt as well. It was pretty clear past the halfway point of the season that the old breakneck Braves weren't coming back, and that these Braves were a little too small to match up with good teams.
MacKinnon tried to change that with a good-sized deal on Feb. 1. He sent Heard and a draft choice to Phoenix for John Shumate, a 6-foot-9 forward/center from Notre Dame.
"I felt we needed more strength inside," Ramsey said. "I think that was a good trade for Buffalo. Garfield never was a strong player. With the front line we had, and our inability to really run to be an outstanding fast-break -- we were good but not outstanding -- I think it was imperative to get more strength inside."
The Braves clinched a playoff spot with four games left in the regular season. They finished 46-36 to second place in the Atlantic Division of the NBA, thanks in part to the end of the New York Knicks' long run. McAdoo led the league in scoring (31.1), field goals, field-goal attempts, free throws, and free-throw attempts. Somehow, he didn't make the first or second all-NBA teams. Smith did make the second team, and Shumate was picked for the all-rookie team.
The team averaged 10,212 in attendance that season, down a shade from the previous year. That was in spite of the fact that the Braves drew a crowd of 19,226 for a January game with Boston. That remains the largest indoor crowd for a sporting event in Buffalo history.
The NBA had a new playoff format in 1976, and the Braves were involved. They had to play a best-of-three series against the Philadelphia 76ers in an opening round. The games were played within four days. Buffalo opened the series in Philadelphia and broke serve, taking a 95-89 decision. Heading back home, the Braves no doubt figured on winning there and advancing to the next round. Instead, they were clobbered, 131-106, before 12,049.
That brought it down to one game, in Philadelphia. What's more, it came down to the final moments. McAdoo was fouled with the Braves down two points and 17 ticks remaining. McAdoo hit one, and then a fan grabbed the support of the basket and shook it just before McAdoo took shot two. The fan was carted away, but the hoop may still have been moving a bit when McAdoo calmly tied the game with the second of two free throws. Buffalo went on to a 124-123 win in overtime for its first (and as it turned out, only) playoff series win. Here's how all of Game Three looked on TV:
Next up, Boston (sigh). The Celtics still had a powerhouse, with the familiar cast of characters of Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and Jo Jo White. Boston ran off wins in the first two games at home. In the second game, an injured Havlicek was replaced in the starting lineup by Steve Kuberski - who had been signed by Buffalo early in the season and then waived after a month. Kuberski had 12 points in the win. The Braves tied the series at home with two wins, as DiGregorio provided something of an offensive spark and even pushed himself back into the starting lineup.
"Ernie had been playing better as the season progressed, and I think he really got himself psychologically prepared to play against Boston," Ramsey said. "Boston was a good team for Ernie to play against. They played an open style. You got into a running game with them. Their guards were not defensively strong, so it gave him a chance to play at his best. He sparked us off the bench a couple of times, and then he started the last two games of that series. Maybe significantly or maybe not, the games that we won were the games that he did not start."
Those last two games were the last gasp, in fact the last of a three-year run. Boston won Game Five at home, and then closed out the Braves, 104-100, in Game Six. Braves announcer Van Miller fondly remembered those two series with the Celtics in 1974 and 1976.
"It seemed to me in those Boston series, we really captured the flavor of what it's all about in the NBA," he said. "We went into Boston. We were up by 17 points in the first game in '74, and lost it. The Celtics were a great team then, but that to me is the essence of the NBA, and that's when we had it in Buffalo."
Life for the Braves was never the same after that. The storm clouds around the franchise had been developing for some time. In midseason, McAdoo has asked out of an upcoming game because of back problems. When Snyder told him to get a second medical opinion, McAdoo refused ... and was suspended for a game, on Christmas Eve.
Snyder also was involved in a major blow-up with Ramsey. The owner told Ramsey to start DiGregorio, as Snyder thought Ernie D would sell tickets to Buffalo's Italian-American population. The coach, who had absolutely no respect for Snyder's basketball knowledge, told him no. The two sides also argued over a contract extension. It all made a divorce seem close to inevitable. Indeed, Ramsey negotiated with a representative of the Portland Trail Blazers during the Celtics' playoff series.
For essentially the next two years, actual on-the-court basketball in Buffalo took a back seat to off-the-court shenanigans.
For statistics on this season, click here.
Tates Locke was hired to replace Ramsey on May 6. Locke was a convenient choice, since he had served as an assistant coach and scout for the team. He also had an interesting basketball pedigree. Locke was the head coach at Army who hired an assistant by the name of Bobby Knight. Locke went on to Miami (Ohio) and then to Clemson University. That team had success but at a price: The Tigers went on NCAA probation for several violations, and Locke’s reputation was damaged along the way. Locke’s time at Clemson is said to be part of the inspiration for the movie “Blue Chips,” which starred Nick Nolte.
Locke received some help for his roster at the NBA draft. Buffalo had the sixth pick in the first round as a result of the trade with Phoenix the previous year, and it used it on Adrian Dantley of Notre Dame. Dantley had received national attention for his college play, but there were some questions about how well he’d do in the pro game. He was a 6-foot-5 forward who mostly played close to the basket. Would he be able to do that in the pros? Was he quick enough to be an NBA small forward? Dantley was the extent of the draft’s contributions to the roster, as most of the other good picks had been traded away.
With peace with the ABA finally arriving, the franchise would have Dantley in uniform for Opening Night. But what would that uniform say on the front? Owner Paul Snyder had tried to jumpstart a season-ticket drive that summer. When the results didn’t meet his standards, Snyder gave Irving Cowan the option of buying 100 percent of the Braves for $6.1 million. The deal was announced on June 14, shortly before the NBA meetings. Cowan was a former Broadway producer whose wife’s family owned the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida. He was planning to move the team to a 15,000-seat arena in Hollywood. The “Sportatorium” would have needed some severe upgrading to meet NBA standards. It opened in 1970 and didn’t have air conditioning until 1976.
At the time there was some speculation that the deal might not have gained approval from the NBA’s Board of Governors. However, the next day the city of Buffalo had filed a $48 million anti-trust suit against the NBA, and a breach of contract suit in State Supreme Court against the team. An injunction against the move was granted. Cowan stayed away from basketball after that, moving into horse racing in the 1980's. Even though the Braves signed a 15-year lease within a month, it’s fair to say that the proposed move didn’t fill anyone in Western New York with confidence about the future of the team. Besides there were escape clauses tied to the sale of season tickets. And the anxiety level only increased with the next major announcement, that Snyder had sold 50 percent of the team to John Y. Brown.
Brown (the "Y" in his name didn't stand for anything) was no stranger to publicity. From 1964 to 1971 he had built Kentucky Fried Chicken into one of the nation’s fast-food outlets. Along the way, he had purchased the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, and signed such players as Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel. Brown’s wife, Ellie, had a large role in the affairs of the Colonels. The Kentucky franchise didn’t survive the merger, and Brown obviously hadn’t gotten basketball out of his system when he bought half the Braves.
At his introductory news conference, Brown tries to easy the fears of Buffalo’s fans by saying that he had no intention of moving the team, and said the Braves were the finest young team in pro basketball.
“My commitment here and to Paul is to do the best we can up here,” Brown said. “The media might look at our team on a more positive basis than they have in the past. We’ve got six All-Americans. We’ve got three of the nation’s leading scorers. We were the second or third leading draw on the road last year, and we certainly are one of the most exciting teams in the sport. ... I think we have the nucleus of a championship team here, and that’s what we’re after."
Brown obviously was going to have a say in the composition of the roster. Buffalo had previously traded Ken Charles and Dick Gibbs to Atlanta for Tom Van Arsdale, who refused to report before ever playing a game in Buffalo. Then as training camp approached, captain Jim McMillian was sold to the Knicks.
"I knew when they traded Jim McMillian that I was going to start right away," Dantley said later. "I was glad that they did that. That was the start of my career. I was very close to Bob MacKinnon, and he made the decision. That was a great opportunity for a rookie.
"They (the fans) were saying, 'Let's see you replace McMillian, rookie.' But as soon as I got 15 points and 19 rebounds in my first game I stopped hearing about McMillian."
Bird Averitt was acquired in the ABA dispersal draft for $125,000. Averitt was someone who had never seen a shot he didn’t like, but he was shy compared to Johnny Newmann, a former collegiate scoring leader who had faded after a promising start in the ABA after leaving the University of Mississippi early.
The biggest issue on the mind of the Braves’ front office entering the season was the status of its best player, Bob McAdoo. The center was said to be still upset about his suspension the previous season. He was less than thrilled about Buffalo’s potential as a basketball town, saying everyone seemed to be playing hockey in the streets. And, McAdoo thought he could receive more attention elsewhere. Considering his contract was scheduled to expire at the end of the 1976-77 season, there was plenty of reason to be nervous that the best player in Braves’ history would bolt.
Buffalo responded by trying to buy an insurance policy. The Braves traded a first-round draft choice in 1978 and a reported $232,000 (correct) to Portland for Moses Malone on Oct. 18. The Blazers had taken Malone in the ABA dispersal draft, but they already had Bill Walton at center and Maurice Lucas at power forward. There wasn’t much playing time left over there.
Malone already had made basketball history of sorts in his career. He came out of Petersburg, Va., in 1974 as one of the nation’s best high school player. When he announced he’d attend the University of Maryland, coach Lefty Driesell did cartwheels. Then Driesell turned sad when Malone instead turned professional and signed with the ABA’s Utah Stars. No one had jumped from high school to the pros before.
Malone played the 1974-75 season in Utah (averaging 18 points and 14 rebounds as a teenager) and the 1975-76 campaign with St. Louis. He clearly was a talent, and acquiring such talent was a great idea.
However, Malone arrived in Buffalo and reportedly demanded that he be guaranteed 24minutes a game of playing time. That was difficult for any team to do in terms of undercutting a coach’s authority, but it was particularly difficult on a team with McAdoo at center. Brown said later that Locke didn't like Malone and wanted the center gone. Malone played a total of six minutes in two games with the Braves (both wins to open the season), and was with the team less than a week. He was traded to Houston for $100,000 and first-round picks in 1977 and 1978 on Oct. 24. Malone had a fabulous pro career, and in hindsight his demand for playing time didn’t seem too unreasonable.
There was no way the Braves could have known that. In hindsight, though, the thought of all that frontcourt talent made MacKinnon wistful years later.
"If we had kept that one club together, maybe we could have won the championship," he said years later. "We had Moses Malone, Bob McAdoo, Shumate and Dantley, all on one club. To let that slip through our hands was very poor."
Buffalo got off to a 7-4 start before a six-game losing streak sent it tumbling under .500. It had acquired Jim Price from Milwaukee for a first-round draft choice. He added a little depth at backcourt behind starters Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio, but it was still a bit of a high price for a player who seemed to have peaked two years before. Up front, Dantley and John Shumate formed an all-Notre Dame starting forward duo, and Tom McMillen and Don Adams were the primary reserves.
By the end of November, the Braves were 9-12 and didn’t seem to be going anywhere in the standings. Locke had benched McAdoo and Smith for selfish play on occasion. Symbolically, the mood was set on Nov. 30 when a snowstorm hit Western New York. Only 994 showed up for a game with Seattle. The only reason the game was played was that the Sonics had arrived in Buffalo before the storm hit. This would be the season of Buffalo's famous "Blizzard of '77," as the Braves and the rest of the area suffered through one of the worst winters in area history.
On Dec. 6, Snyder called a news conference to announce that McAdoo had been offered a $500,000 contract, second-most in the NBA behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If it wasn't accepted, McAdoo would be traded. McAdoo’s agent said he would not accept the offer.
“I was in a situation in which I was going to play out my contract and get what I deserved," McAdoo said later. “I knew I was in the top five players in the league, and I wanted to be paid accordingly. He wasn’t willing to do that. The $500,000 figure was garbage. I wasn’t offered that at all. If I was offered that, I would have played there.”
On Dec. 9, Buffalo finally pulled the trigger on a trade that destroyed most of the team’s remaining credibility. McAdoo and McMillen were sent to the New York Knicks for John Gianelli, a borderline NBA starting center, and $3 million. Lots of cash. Millions of dollars, in fact. Snyder went for that deal instead of working out a trade with Seattle involving Tom Burleson and Leon Gray. McAdoo heard about it, oddly enough, while Christmas shopping in Toronto with Randy Smith.
With no confidence that the Braves could re-sign McAdoo, they took the best available offer for him. The team’s fragile relationship with its fans could be heard shattering. The average attendance per game dropped by 2,000, despite the announcement that the Braves had waived their escape clause and would be back in 1977-78.
While the Braves were never the same without McAdoo, it’s interesting to note now that McAdoo was never the same once he led Buffalo. McAdoo averaged about 26 points per game in about two seasons with the Knicks. Then he was dealt to the Boston Celtics, a trade engineered by Celtics owner John Y. Brown – more on that in the epilogue. McAdoo bounced from the Pistons to the Nets to the Lakers, where he finally found a bit of a home as a member of the Los Angeles bench and won a championship.
McAdoo spent four years with the Lakers and one with Philadelphia, before crossing the ocean to play in Italy for several years. Then he came back and went into coaching. It was an odd career path, but he did make it to the Hall of Fame – mostly because of his three-plus fabulous years in Buffalo.
McMillen was overlooked in the trade, but he was still a second-year player who was thought to have some potential.
"Tommy's salary was too big and he wasn't playing up to expectations," Snyder said. "They gave us the opportunity to package him with McAdoo."
"I guess I was a newcomer to the NBA, and didn't understand the total dynamics of the NBA," McMillen said later. "In retrospect, everything worked out all right for me."
Even with McAdoo’s status finally settled, the team wasn’t done churning players. On Dec. 13, Price was sent to the Denver Nuggets for Gus Gerard and Chuck Williams in a deal designed to build a little depth.
David Thompson, the Nuggets' superstar, added a postscript about the trade in his book, "Skywalker." He said, "When Gus told us that he was going to Buffalo, that was like hearing that somebody was being sent to Siberia. Nobody's career continued after a stop in Buffalo. It was like the elephant graveyard of the NBA."
About a month later, Buffalo sent a first-round pick – where were they coming from? – to Golden State for George Johnson, a shotblocking center of limited offensive skills.
Smith and Dantley were doing some scoring, and DiGregorio was at least playing regularly even if his assist average was down almost 50 percent from his rookie year. But the players almost needed introductions before every practice. Locke never had a chance to build any sort of chemistry, and he was relieved of his coaching duties on Jan. 25. The Braves were 16-30 at the time.
MacKinnon took over the coaching duties for a short time, and then handed them over to Joe Mullaney for the rest of the season. At least the player transactions stopped for the rest of the season. Buffalo quietly played out the rest of the season, going 7-15 down the stretch to finish with a 30-52 record. In one of those losses, Alvin Adams of Phoenix scored 47 points to set a record by a Braves' opponent. Only seven of Buffalo's victories that season came on the road. The Braves used 19 players in 1976-77, a club record.
Smith and Dantley both averaged more than 20 points per game, and Dantley won rookie of the year honors – Buffalo’s third such award in four years. Dantley said he was able to push the distractions of the season aside.
"I was pretty strong mentally and just happy to be playing my rookie year," he said later. "When you're a rookie, you're not really concerned about all the things that might happen on the team. You main concern is playing as much as you can."
Shumate was at 15 ppg, while DiGregorio was around 10 and led the league in free throw shooting (.945). The Braves clearly needed more talent at that point, and perhaps a little focus about their direction. But more than anything, they might have needed some peace and quiet.
Fat chance. Brown had bought full ownership of the Braves from Snyder in late March. That formally marked the end of Snyder's attempts to make pro basketball work in Buffalo.
"He (Snyder) told me that of all the decisions he's made in all the years he's been a businessman, there's only one he regrets. That's letting the Braves go," Bob Kauffman said many years later.
With Brown now fully in charge, the 1977-78 figured to be anything but dull.
For statistics on this season, click here.
With the Buffalo Braves coming off their bleakest season since 1972-73, job number one was to improve the morale of the franchise. Toward that goal, the Braves made a couple of hires that added people who could only be considered raging optimists.
Norm Sonju came out of absolutely nowhere. He had been working for ServiceMaster Industries – a contract cleaning service -- when he was named president and general manager of the Braves. It could be argued that the team needed some cleaning up, but that didn’t make his appointment at all expected. Sonju’s only connection with sports was through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Baseball Chapel. Sonju was a whirlwind upon arriving, talking to everyone and anyone about the future of the team.
"Let’s face it, the Braves’ organization has made some mistakes in the past, but we intend to right all the wrongs," Sonju said at the time.
Reporter Milt Northrop of the Buffalo Evening News thought Sonju tried to do too much when he came to Buffalo.
“He used to sit in his office until 10 or 11 at night, personally answering letters,” he said. “You know the number of crank letters you get. Some people write and make a valid point, while others say something that’s out in left field. Well, he answered every one of them personally. He could have written some kind of form letter."
Cotton Fitzsimmons wasn’t quite as talkative as Sonju, but he knew his way around the NBA. He had been a coach in Phoenix and Atlanta, and was well regarded around the league. Fitzsimmons had been the director of player personnel for the Golden State Warriors in 1976-77, and he was happy for the chance to coach again. He signed a four-year deal on Aug. 5. Fitzsimmons, too, was known being upbeat. His personal motto was "You're not going to make me have a bad day."
Some optimism was needed, because there certainly wasn’t much in the community at the time. In his book “Ice to the Eskimos,” Jon Spoelstra writes about how he was named vice president of marketing for the Braves in the summer of 1977. He was told that the Braves had about 5,000 season tickets for the upcoming season. Spoelstra writes that, in fact, the Braves lied. The actual number of season tickets in August was 50. Five-oh. “We sold about 3,000 season tickets (actually, closer to 2,500) in an impossible situation using the embryonic principles of jump-start marketing,” Spoelstra writes.
The team obviously was in need of a complete makeover for the upcoming season. Brown started on draft day, when he was in possession of the third pick in the draft. He called the Milwaukee Bucks and talked to owner Jim Fitzgerald and general manager Wayne Embry. According to Embry’s book, “The Inside Game,” Brown told them that he wanted to change the, um, complexion of the team.
“I need a white center,” Brown said.
Let’s think about this one for a second, going beyond the obvious ignorance involved. Who was the best player in Braves’ history? What player's departure had fans running away from the turnstiles? Bob McAdoo, an African-American center, both times.
Milwaukee not only had a center who passed Brown’s test, but he was available. The Bucks figured to take Kent Benson with the first pick in the upcoming draft, so Swen Nater was expendable.
"Have we got a guy for you," Embry told Brown.
The Bucks traded Nater and the 13th pick in the first round to the Braves for the third pick in the draft, and used it on Marques Johnson of UCLA. The Braves had hopes of taking Cedric Maxwell at number 13, but Boston took him at 12. Disappointed, Buffalo sent its new first-round pick to Chicago for a second-round pick (Kentucky guard Larry Johnson) and $125,000. None of the other Buffalo picks played in the NBA, and Johnson added little to the Braves. The last pick of that first round, Norm Nixon, became a starter on some championship teams in Los Angeles. Brad Davis and Rickey Green also went late in the first round. Think one of them could have helped?
Having spent the summer studying the situation, the Braves swung into action with a series of trades:
•Sept. 1 – Adrian Dantley and Mike Bantom (signed that day as a free agent) to Indiana for Billy Knight.
•Sept. 1 – George Johnson and a first-round draft choice to New Jersey for Nate Archibald.
•Sept. 2 – John Gianelli and cash to Milwaukee for a first-round pick.
•Sept. 7 – Ernie DiGregorio to Los Angeles for financial considerations.
•Sept. 9 – A third-round draft choice to Atlanta for Bill Willoughby.
Whew. No wonder the media guide had a picture of the Buffalo skyline instead of a specific player or two on the cover. What did the revised roster look like? Nater was the starting center, backed up by free agent Jim McDaniels. Knight and John Shumate were the starting forwards, with Willoughby and Gus Gerard as reserves. At guard, Archibald and Randy Smith figured to be a dynamic backcourt, with Chuck Williams on the bench. They added forward Wil Jones and guard Ted McClain as free agents during training camp, sending draft choices to Indiana and Denver respectively.
So the Braves would be different in 1977-78. But would they be better? As of the start of training camp, that was hard to tell. Knight was at the peak of his career, coming off a 26.6 points per game average the previous season. Of course, Dantley was good too.
"I was kind of shocked that they traded me, but after finding out about John Y. Brown's background I really wasn't upset at all," Dantley said later. "I knew he wanted some ABA players."
Shumate was back. Nater figured to be an upgrade at center over what was around the previous year. Smith was ready for the best year statistically of his career. Archibald had been one of the league’s leaders in points and assists for several seasons, and was only 29. That was a good starting lineup, but there certainly wasn’t much depth.
All of that movement left little time to pause to consider the end of DiGregorio’s time in Buffalo. The point guard certainly needed a fresh start in 1977, but he never came close to getting his career on track in Los Angeles and Boston in 1977-78, and was done at the end of the year. Ernie D had overcome some long odds to reach the NBA and had provided plenty of thrills in Buffalo. It was too bad he had to leave with the proverbial whimper instead of a bang.
Western New York’s look at DiGregorio’s replacement at point guard didn’t last long. In fact, those who didn’t show up for an exhibition game against Detroit in the Aud missed Archibald’s career in Buffalo. He tore his Achilles tendon and was out for the season.
"There was a picture of me standing right over Tiny. I happened to be sitting in the end zone, 10 feet from where that happened when he landed on (Bob) Lanier's foot, 48 hours before our first game," Sonju said. "I can honestly say that I, more than any other person in that arena, knew what that meant. Our whole offense was geared to Tiny holding the ball. ... He truly was a great player. With him handling the ball, dishing off the ball to Randy Smith and Swen Nater, a big strong center, there was a chance that the team could have been good enough to make the last playoff spot."
The injury ruined the 1977-78 season before it even started. Not that many could replace Archibald, but a thin team couldn’t afford that sort of loss.
Buffalo got off to a decent start that season despite the lack of a point guard. Buffalo settled in around .500 for most of the month of November. The team was 9-9 on Nov. 23 when the Braves made one last swing for the fences. They sent Shumate, Gerard and a draft choice to Detroit for Marvin Barnes and draft choices.
In explaining the deal at a news conference, Sonju said, “When John Y. Brown makes up his mind on something, he is tenacious and sticks with it.”
On a franchise that had more than its share of characters over the years, Barnes was in his own class. The 6-8 forward first became known when he played at Providence College, teaming up with DiGregorio. He was a physical force as a power forward with the Friars. If he hadn’t gotten hurt in the NCAA Tournament, Providence might have given UCLA at least a scare in the Final Four of 1973. Barnes signed with St. Louis of the ABA out of college, and had two good seasons there before the franchise went under. Barnes wasn’t a regular in Detroit, and he certainly had potential. His ABA success obviously gave him credibility with Brown.
However, he carried some baggage. For example, in high school Barnes tried to rob a bus while wearing his high school varsity jacket with his name on it. In college, Barnes was charged with assault for hitting a Providence teammate, Larry Ketvirtis, with a tire iron. He pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain. Barnes said later that he merely punched the teammate, but pled guilty so he could go on probation and turn pro. Barnes and tire irons seemed to go together in the public’s mind after that.
Later, it was revealed that Barnes slowly was turning into a serious drug addict during the late 1970’s. He later admitted that he took cocaine while on the bench during his days with the Celtics.
Barnes’ addition helped draw more than 15,000 fans to his first home game, a loss to Philadelphia. The Braves soon handed out posters of Barnes with the caption, "Buffalo is Marvin’s Garden," but it didn’t help him much. His stats were close to those of Shumate; the Braves needed the Barnes who tore up the ABA.
In December, the Braves started losing games in bunches. The team went 3-10 in December, 3-9 in January and 3-10 in February. Barnes briefly skipped out on the team in an effort to renegotiate his contract, and was suspended immediately. He was gone for two weeks. Any hope for a playoff run was about dead. Along the way Brown added someone to share the losses, both fiscal and basketball. Rochester native Harry Mangurian bought a 50 percent interest in the team, although Brown still ran the show.
Smith – on his way to playing the final 535 games in Braves’ history -- was about the only attraction left for the second half of the year. He qualified for the NBA All-Star Game and had the game of his life. Smith hit a 30-footer and a 40-footer (over Bill Walton) at the end of quarters, finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 29 minutes. Smith was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. There was no doubt he belonged with basketball’s best now.
"I wanted to win it, but I thought it was a little bit far-fetched since I wasn’t even starting," Smith said later.
"I had the keys to that new car they used to give to the MVP when the first half ended," said Philadelphia’s Doug Collins. “But Randy took them right out of my hands in the second half.”
Here are the highlights from that game, courtesy of YouTube:
Knight averaged more than 20 points per game when he was in lineup, as a knee injury cut into his playing time. Nater was effective at center, and went on to lead the league in rebounding. Otherwise, the bodies kept coming as the Braves searched for any sort of answers. Among the players imported during the season were Larry McNeill, Mike Glenn, Gary Brokaw and Scott Lloyd. Bird Averitt even came back for a second act.
Nothing worked. Attendance was sinking. The announced average for the season was 6,157, and that was probably inflated by giveaways. Even the weather seemed to work against Buffalo in its last two seasons, as Buffalo had two of its worst winters in history. Five games were postponed during those two seasons.
As for Sonju, he says he spent a great deal of time putting out fires started by rumors.
"I was not there when the team threatened to move to Miami," he said. "Those rumors would happen weekly. I remember coming to my office one day, and all of the press was there. You knew something had happened. Then I heard someone had said the team was moving to Louisville. Another day it was Miami. It got to be so bad that it bred insecurity for everyone.
"I was committed to do everything humanly possible to make sure the team could not move. I had an obsession with it. It didn't happen."
Sonju didn’t help matters when he was quoted in a story as saying he’d rather sellout a 9,000-seat arena in Dallas than sell 6,000 seats in Buffalo.
“It was incredible. I couldn’t believe the man said it, and John Y. Brown couldn’t believe it,” said reporter Chip Draper of the Courier-Express. “Norm swears it was a private conversation with a former Braves’ employee, Rudy Martzke of the (Rochester) Democrat who used to be the PR man for the Braves. Rudy swears up and down and Rudy practically begged him to write it. Maybe it was to scare the people of Buffalo to make a mass contribution to keep the team here.”
While no one said the franchise was going to be moved at the end of the season, it sure felt that way in the final weeks and days.
Buffalo’s last home victory came on March 17, as the Braves beat the Milwaukee Bucks, 136-127. The team lost its next 11 games, and beat Chicago on the road to set up the final weekend of the season. The last home game was on April 8, 1978, against New York. Bob McAdoo was there to help push his old team out the door, leading the Knicks with 31 points to a 118-107 win over Buffalo before 11,801.
The next day, the Braves finished their season in Boston. The Celtics were in the midst of going 32-50, as the great teams of the 70’s finally had collapsed. John Havlicek had previously announced his retirement. It was fitting from a Buffalo standpoint that he go out against the Braves, and help beat them. After all, he had been a major reason why the Celtics had always beaten Buffalo during the Braves' eight-year history whenever it seemed to matter. Boston won the game, 131-114, and Havlicek had 29 points -- including 11 in a span of three minutes, nine seconds. Also playing the final game of his NBA career that day for Boston were Ernie DiGregorio and Dave Bing. Smith was kicked out of the game, while Nater scored the last Buffalo basket.
The Braves finished 27-55, and seemed destined to be somewhere else by fall. But where?
For statistics on this season, click here.