A View from Calico Jack’s – 12/8/2008

Braves Old World

I’ve got nothing to add to what you’re already thinking. When probably the best player in your team’s history gets sentenced to up to three decades in prison – and that’s the BEST Buffalo professional football news of the week – it speaks volumes about the current situation. Congrats to the college team for getting a bowl berth…but I don’t even know if I knew Buffalo had a college team until this weekend (only a slight exaggeration).

OJ did get me thinking about the Bills and Buffalo sports teams of the past. I’m guessing there are people reading this who primarily know OJ as a felon who, like Pete Rose, in some way was once better known for his athletic prowess. The reality is that OJ, severe character deficiencies and bad manners aside, was not only one of the greatest running backs the NFL has ever seen, he was one of the greatest stars the league has ever seen. I can’t think of anyone in the current or recent NFL who is similar – maybe Shaq in the NBA.

Which conveniently brings me to the NBA. In the crowd at Calico Jack’s last week were two people – myself included – wearing Buffalo Braves gear. That fact, combined with a NYCBBB co-founder’s question of “Who are the Buffalo Braves?” are leading me to shift gears this week to a proud, too-brief period in Buffalo professional sports history – the Buffalo Braves of the NBA.

The Braves were sort of the Bills of the 1970s – often bad, periodically knocking on the door of true contention. The Bills, for their part, were busy being the Detroit Lions of the 1970s – they just plain stunk most of the time, other than when OJ was running for more than 2,000 yards.

I was a Braves nut as a small kid. In fact, I was far more a Braves fan than a Bills fan, heading to Memorial Auditorium as often as my father’s work schedule, fatigue and limited budget would allow. They won their debut game in 1970 against the Cavaliers…and it was generally downhill from there as they competed in the tough Atlantic Division against the Celtics, Knicks and 76ers. The team memorably passed on local Niagara University superstar Calvin Murphy in the first round of its first draft – Calvin, my favorite player given that I was a kid from Niagara Falls, wound up in the Hall of Fame. But, despite some lousy years, the Braves eventually made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons – and had the league’s third-best record in the 1974-75 season. Alas, those exciting seasons never led to long-lasting playoff success.

The team’s history gets dicey and rather complicated from there. Long, convoluted story short, the Braves’ owner desperately wanted to sell the team, and in fact made a deal to move them to Hollywood, Florida. When that deal fell through, the owner signed a new long-term lease with the Aud and soon after sold half of the team to a gentleman named John Y. Brown – husband of former Miss America and NFL studio hack Phyllis George. John Y. eventually secured full ownership. Ultimately, in a move of remarkable creativity and chutzpah, John Y. and the Celtics’ owner swapped team ownerships – with the Braves’ new owner promptly moving them to San Diego in 1978, and then soon after to LA, where they have since languished as the Clippers.

Despite their too-brief history, many Western New York natives including this one remember the Braves fondly and especially reminisce about the team’s stars and not-quite-stars. Following is a synopsis of 10 of my favorite Braves – by no means the team’s Best of the Best, but guys who were favorites of mine for a variety of reasons:

Bob McAdoo: He’s the guy who most often causes people to recall that Buffalo actually had an NBA franchise. The center and power forward was the team’s one legit star, winning the rookie of the year, a Most Valuable Player award and THREE consecutive scoring titles. He’s in the NBA Hall of Fame and is currently assistant-coaching the Miami Heat. I met the guy a couple of years ago and he’s still at least 6-9 nearing 60.

Randy Smith: To me, he was the Braves’ heart and soul. A Buff State grad, Randy was once the sport’s iron man, holding the record for most consecutive games played (906). He was a point guard and MVP of the 1978 all-star game.

Bob Kaufmann: Bob was a forward and the Braves’ first “star,” although I use that word liberally. He was good, though, and had a great 1970s porn-guy moustache. He was the third player taken in the 1968 draft, by the former Seattle Super Sonics (one day, some loser like me will write a “hey, remember the Sonics?” column). Bob made three all-star squads before falling out of favor in Buffalo. He briefly head-coached the Detroit Pistons after he retired.

Elmore Smith: I mainly remember him because he was a seven-footer at a time when it didn’t seem like everybody in the NBA was so big. I was amazed by the guy’s size when I saw him in person. He played only a couple of seasons with the Braves, but was a strong shot blocker and rebounder.

Garfield Heard: You’ve gotta love the name if nothing else. His main claim to fame came as a Phoenix Sun, sending a championship game against the Celtics into a third overtime. Many consider the game, eventually won by the Celtics, as the greatest NBA game ever. He head-coached for a bit (the Dallas Mavericks and Washington Wizards, where he was fired by new part-owner Michael Jordan).

Adiran Dantley: I choose to mention him for two reasons. One, he was a real star, and gives credibility to the Braves franchise even if he only played in Buffalo for a single season – winning Rookie of the Year and promptly being traded. Leave it to a Buffalo team. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career. The other reason I mention him is because he hated Isiah Thomas when they were teammates. I, too, hated Isiah Thomas. I seem to recall Dantley’s mother – mother! – calling out Isiah once. Great.

Ernie DiGregorio: “Ernie D,” another Braves Rookie of the Year, is better remembered as a hero of the Providence Fryers college team, and was considered one of the college game’s most exciting players. He never materialized into a superstar, but all the white Italian guys I grew up with loved him because he was also a white Italian guy. By the way, the Braves had a bunch of rookies of the year in their short history; three in just five years. I’m not sure any other NBA team has more in the league’s long history.

Tom McMillen: A decent ballplayer but I mention him mainly for his post-NBA career; he became a congressman, and then formed a homeland security company after 9/11. He was on the 1972 Olympic team that lost unfairly to the Russians.

Swen Nater: A big, doofy white guy with a funny name, which was really funny to me when I was a kid. Still kind of funny to me, actually. Looking at his record, he was a decent center, but I don’t recall thinking that at the time. He was a part of two championship UCLA teams.

Dr. Jack Ramsey: The Marv Levy of the Braves. I loved the guy; he and Marv, along with Sparky Anderson in baseball, are my favorite head coaches or managers ever. He was brilliant academically as well as from a sports perspective, and managed to lead the Braves to their only three playoff appearances in four seasons as a head coach. He coached the Portland Trail Blazers to a championship soon after, and to this day commentates for ESPN – looking as spry in his 80s as Marv does.

That’s my look back on the Braves. If nothing else, if you didn’t know who they were before, at least you’ll believe they actually existed. I apologize for any errors due to my faulty memory. One thing I definitely know for a fact is that I haven’t been an NBA fan since the Braves moved away.

E-mail feedback and comments to Phil Mann at
pjmann at nyc.rr.com