Original Old School: When The Buffalo Roamed
There was once a great NBA franchise in Western New York: the Buffalo Braves
Papers have been handed in. Finals are finished. School’s out for summer. But we still have a history class or two that hoopheads don’t want to miss. Today’s lesson? The Commish is here to lecture on the Buffalo Braves. The who? You read right. The Buffalo Braves. The NBA franchise that once called Western New York home. The franchise that’s now known as the L.A. Clippers. The precursor to the Seattle Sonics. A team that skipped town and never looked back. Want to learn more about the Braves, and Vince’s deep connection with them? Imbibe this Old School feature that first ran in SLAM 120.–Ed.
I left my hometown of Buffalo, NY, in ’97, and have spent the past 11 years on a nomadic quest up and down the East Coast. At every stop, I hate telling new acquaintances that I’m a Lakers fan. It’s truly a loathsome task, always inviting a smirk and some kind of smarmy tripe about bandwagons. It usually goes something like this:
RUBE: “So, Vince, you’re from Buffalo. Well, then you must love your Bills.”
Me: “Oh, no doubt.”
RUBE: “Sabres, too, huh?”
Me: “Nah, I don’t do hockey.”
RUBE: “Who does? What about hoops? Knicks fan, right?”
Me: “Actually, I’m a die-hard Lakers fan.”
RUBE: “Are you kidding me?! What’s your favorite OutKast song, ‘Hey Ya’?!”
That’s when I have to go through a lengthy explanation about my first sports memory being the ’85 Finals and my Pops’ zealous support for L.A. in the face of what he considered a racially charged love-fest between America and the Celtics. And as an unabashed Buffalo homer, I have to make it abundantly clear that the Buffalo Braves left me, not the other way around. Had I grown up with a hometown team to root for, maybe Adrian Dantley, Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith or even Moses Malone would have been my childhood idol, not Magic Johnson. But, of course, the Braves ghosted on Buff in ’78, less than a year before I was born and only eight seasons after they arrived. Other than the fact that hockey sucks, the Braves void is probably why I’m so apathetic toward the Sabres. “Screw the Sabres. I want my Braves.” That’s how I’ve felt all my life. It’s like getting a candy bar when you wanted an ice cream cone. You’re like, “Get that Nutrageous outta my face! I want my Cold Stone!”
In all likelihood, a good portion of you have no idea that the city of Buffalo ever housed an NBA squad. But we did. The Braves arrived in Buffalo in ’70, moved to San Diego in ’78, and then moved up the left coast to become the Los Angeles Clippers. I know, right? When I told a friend of mine the premise of this piece, he quipped, “Could be worse—they could have stayed and played like the Clippers.” Touche, but you won’t find too many Buffalonians or former Braves viewing things through that lens of good humor. Braves owner Paul Snyder—a man some blame for the exodus—is right there with them.
“I loved the Braves. The city of Buffalo loved the Braves. It’s terrible how things happened,” is how he expresses his regret. Snyder is the man who sold the team to John Y. Brown, who almost immediately packed the organization’s bags and booked.
I talked to many of the Braves former greats as well as Braves coaching icon Dr. Jack Ramsay, and although they have fond memories of their time in Buffalo, they all look at how the team was dismantled and exiled as one of the great tragedies in League history.
“Man, every time I run into any of the guys, even as middle-aged men, that’s the first thing we talk about,” is what Bob McAdoo, the greatest Brave of them all, tells me. “It hurt. They never gave us time.”
At the beginning of the ’76-77 season, the Braves—following three straight winning seasons that ended in the Eastern Conference Semis—had three future HOF studs (McAdoo, Dantley and Malone) and another All-Star (Smith) playing in what had become a basketball city. But Malone lasted just two games and McAdoo 20 before both shipped somewhere else to win rings. They weren’t traded as much as they were sold. Dr. Jack had left before the season began, missing the circus’ intro. Dantley was gone the year after. Only Smith was left in ’78 to witness the franchise’s sordid demise and exit.
About six months later, I was born in a city scorned by the NBA, with resentment and despondency replacing what had been a healthy hoops fandom.
You feel me, Seattle?
The pre-Braves years in the Buffalo area weren’t exactly basketball-dormant. We had Calvin Murphy balling at Niagara University from ’67-70 and, during those same years, Bob Lanier was on his All-American grind at St. Bonaventure and future Braves-great Randy Smith was holding it down at Buffalo State. Buffalo would come to be known as a hockey town and, later, a Bills town; but it has long been a haven for hoops heads, just like its big brother city downstate to the east. So when the Braves arrived in ’70, they capitalized on a thirsty fan base in a sports-crazed city.
“Aw man, it was wild. Them fans in Buffalo, they were crazy. They loved the Braves,” is how newly elected Hall of Famer and short-time Brave Adrian Dantley remembers his Rookie of the Year campaign. “It was so loud. We had a great thing going for that short period.”
Paul Snyder rose to prominence in the Buffalo business community as owner of Freezer Queen, a local company that made frozen dinners. Snyder told me that he wasn’t, and still isn’t, an NBA fan; he bought the Braves from the NBA as a businessman. But once he bought them, he was committed, interested and involved. You might call him a precursor to the hands-on owner, a paradigm for the Mark Cubans of the League. Snyder hired Dolph Schayes as the team’s first coach, kept him through the first season and then, after a blowout loss to Seattle in the season-opener, abruptly canned Schayes. Johnny McCarthy was up next. He was kicked to the curb at season’s end. Enter Dr. Jack.
“He wanted to do everything,” recalls Dr. Jack. “He was a contentious guy. He had a reputation of going into the locker room and chewing everybody out. But I told him that I can’t take the job unless he agreed to stay outta the locker room and let me coach.”
And he did…at least for a couple years. After a rocky first year, the Braves settled in to a groove in the ’73-74 season.
“That’s when we knew that we had something,” says Smith. “McAdoo and I would sit on the bench during our first season together and say, ‘Man, I can play better than that guy.’ So when we got our chance, we took off.”
Let’s pause here and render due praise to McAdoo, one of the greatest and most unique talents in the history of the League. He was a 6-9, 210-pound center with the range of Gilbert Arenas. He also dominated the glass like Dwight Howard. In his second season, he averaged 30 and 15, then 35 and 14, then 31 and 12. He was a better Dirk Nowitzki before Dirk existed. In part because the Los Angeles Clippers treat the Braves years like they never happened—no banners or retired jerseys—the great Bob McAdoo is probably the most under-appreciated star of his or any other generation.
McAdoo teamed with Randy Smith—a precursor to Latrell Sprewell, stylistically—and players like Ken Charles, Ernie DiGregorio (’73-74 Rookie of the Year), Jim McMillian, Gar Heard, Bob Kauffman, John Shumate and Lee Winfield and went after it. The Braves weren’t quite Goliath League monsters—that kinda stuff was still Boston, New York, Chicago and Washington territory. But Ramsay took the Braves personnel and fashioned a fleet so quick and relentless that they’d run you right out of the downtown Buffalo Memorial Auditorium—or your house, for that matter. They were like today’s G-State Warriors.
“They called us thoroughbreds,” remembers McAdoo, the perfect center for that type of squad. “Randy was the single fastest player the League had ever seen. Ernie had the passing. We were a show.”
Buff took notice. The Aud was almost always packed, and if the Lakers or Bullets were in town, it was a madhouse. When the division-rival/bully Celtics came through, it was sheer mania. That’s how it’s done in Buffalo. Buffalonians are obsessed with their food and sports, so you have a lot of fat people walking around in jerseys looking for a game to watch and a team to root for while drinking heavy beer and eating hot wings. It’s a wonderful thing, actually. Except, trouble always lurked.
“He (Snyder) always resented that the Sabres were the prime tenants in the Aud and got all the Sunday games,” recalls Milt Northrop, former Braves beat reporter for the Buffalo News. “And then Canisius [College] had first option on Saturday.”
To hear Snyder tell it, that’s what murdered pro basketball in Buffalo: Sabres Sundays and Canisius Saturdays. Snyder claims the NBA gave him five years to secure regular weekend play dates—prime days for home games—to share in League proceeds. It never happened. The Sabres reached an agreement with the Aud first and Canisius had a prior relationship. The Braves were stuck playing Fridays and Tuesdays, competing against—get this—“high school dates,” or so Snyder claims.
“I didn’t want to own the team outside of Buffalo,” says Snyder. So, in ’76, he looked for a buyer. He found Brown, a former owner of the Kentucky Colonials of the ABA. “Only after I made the deal did I start moving players.”
They made a deal, all right. It stipulated that if Brown sold the contract of any Braves player, the money would go to Snyder and the purchase price would be reduced. The fire-sale commenced and Brown got it for cheap. The team that remained was mostly a roster full of castaways and scrubs. Buffalo knew what was going on—Brown was kidnapping the Braves.
“The team was disintegrating before their eyes,” says Dr. Jack, who watched from afar. “It’s very rare that a city will support an organization that is making no effort to win.”
The outrage we see in Seattle wasn’t there in Buffalo. The stay was too brief and the final years were too disrespectful. There was an air of “good riddance.”
Growing up, my crew and I were a splintered bunch of NBA addicts, which sucked. If you’ll allow me a sweeping generalization for one moment, I’ll contend that the NBA is the No. 1 League in most urban hoods. We like our football, and a couple guys baseball, but most young black dudes are NBA cats. Well, us Gen X Buffalo dudes didn’t get the chance to galvanize around the Braves.
I was a Lakers fan, my boy was a Knicks fan, my other boy was a Pistons fans, another dude was a Bulls fan, and on and on. (No one was a Boston fan.) Not to mention that in just a few short years, the Braves were largely erased from the public consciousness. Oh, there was some old-head reminiscing at Randy Smith’s annual Summer League and you’d get a McAdoo mention every blue moon, but the city was scarred because things went down so ugly and unseemly. First you have a compelling, exciting, burgeoning franchise; next thing you know, Moses is in the ’83 NBA Finals wearing a Sixers jersey, playing McAdoo in a Lakers jersey. It beat us down.
If you drop into a bar on Chippewa or Hertel or Elmwood these days, chances are you’ll have to personally request that one of the televisions gets switched to an NBA game. You’ll see a Dominick Hasek or Thurman Thomas jersey on the wall, but no McAdoo or Smith throwbacks. For a cat like me, that’s depressing.
Can I get an amen, Seattle?
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing commentator for ESPN and writes the weekly “From The Floor” column for NBA.com. You can email him your feedback at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.