Thursday, February 26, 2009

1976-77 Season

It didn’t take long for changes to arrive in Memorial Auditorium. Only a few days after the end of the 1976 playoffs, Jack Ramsey left the organization on May 3. It was a mutually agreeable parting, but it’s mostly remembered for a quote from the team’s public relations director, Mike Shaw, about the departure: “He wasn’t fired, he just wasn’t re-hired.” The Braves won 137 games in the previous three seasons; only Boston, Golden State and Washington won more.

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.

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