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Remember the Buffalo Braves?

I do, and I have many good memories about Buffalo’s eight years in the National Basketball Association. One thing that still bothers me, however, is the impression that many people seem to have that the Braves left town because Buffalo didn’t support its NBA team. That, in my opinion, is just not true.
A few news items led me to ponder the demise of the Braves 30 years ago. Just last week US Senator Charles Schumer proposed that the NBA Toronto Raptors return the NBA to Buffalo by playing a few regular-season games here. The Raptors responded that they might play some pre-season games in Buffalo, but would keep all of their regular-season games in Toronto. It was also reported recently that two minor league basketball teams in two different leagues, the Buffalo Sharks and the Buffalo Dragons, will play this season. Coincidentally (I think) it was also recently announced that, after 41 years in the NBA, Seattle SuperSonics were moving to Oklahoma City.
The Sonics had been purchased by a group led by an Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett a couple of years ago. The team’s play declined under the new ownership, going from a 52-30 record and first place in their division in 2005, to the worst record in the history of the franchise last year, 20-62 (It helped that Seattle had traded its two best players, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis). Bennett insisted that the team was losing money and needed a new arena. When the team didn’t get a new, publicly financed arena, it announced plans to relocate to — you guessed it —- Oklahoma City.
There were two years left on the team’s arena lease, but after much legal wrangling the City finally relented and negotiated a settlement that gave it up to $75 million, the team’s name, logo and history, and a vague promise from NBA Commissioner David Stern that Seattle would be considered to have another NBA team sometime in the future.
Here’s a little Buffalo sports history: The Buffalo Braves started play as an NBA expansion team in 1970, the same year the Sabres joined the NHL. The Braves situation was unsettled from the start. The franchise was originally awarded to a group of investors headed by Phillip Ryan and Peter Crotty. When that group had problems in stepped local businessman Paul Snyder, who had sold his Freezer Queen company to Nabisco. The team’s general manager was Eddie Donovan, the former St. Bonaventure coach who had helped build the New York Knicks into an NBA champion as that team’s GM.
Buffalo struggled early, but things started improving when the team hired head coach Jack Ramsay in 1972. The emergence of the 1972-73 Rookie of the Year, Center Bob McAdoo, and the development of guard Randy Smith, a 1971 seventh round pick from Division III Buffalo State, keyed the improvement. In the 1973-74 season, bolstered by the addition of veteran forward Jim McMillan and rookie point guard Ernie DiGregorio, the Braves posted a winning record (42-40) for the first time and made the playoffs. (By the way, the Braves played some regular NBA season games in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden during that season). Buffalo then lost a highly controversial playoff series to the Boston Celtics, who went on to win the NBA title.
The Braves improved to 49-33 and made another trip to the playoffs in the 1974-75 season, as McAdoo won the MVP award (he averaged 34.5 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.12 blocks per game). Buffalo’s attendance was good for that era, an average of 11,397 a game. The Braves lost a heart-breaking seven-game playoff series to Washington. After the season Donovan left the Braves and returned to the Knicks’ general manager’s post.
In the 75-76 season the Braves again made the playoffs with a 46-36 record, and knocked off Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, Buffalo lost in the next round to Boston. The Celtics went on to win the NBA title. Shortly afterwards Ramsay left the team (“He wasn’t fired, he just wasn’t re-hired,” according to the Braves). Ramsay went on to coach Portland, taking a team that had never had a winning record to the 1977 NBA championship.
By then Snyder was clearly trying to sell the team. He argued that he had difficulty maximizing revenue because the Sabres and the local college teams controlled most of the best playing dates at the Aud. Snyder had worked out a deal with Irving Cowan, who intended to move the Braves to a new 15,000 arena in Hollywood, Florida, but the City of Buffalo was granted an injunction halting the move. Snyder eventually sold 50 percent of the franchise to businessman John Y. Brown, Jr., who had previously owned the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. (Later Brown bought the other half from Snyder, and then sold part of the franchise to Rochester businessman, Harry T. Mangurian, Jr.). Few Buffalonians believed that Brown intended to keep the team in Buffalo.
A provision in the transaction stipulated that, if Brown sold the contract of any Braves player, the money would go to Snyder and the purchase price would be reduced. Not surprisingly, the Braves started losing some top talent. Buffalo acquired former ABA star Moses Malone, a future NBA MVP, but sent him to Houston after just two games. In the middle of the season, the Buffalo Braves traded McAdoo, a three-time NBA scoring champ, along with Tom McMillen to the New York Knicks for back-up center John Gianelli and cash. Attendance declined as the team got worse and questions about its future abounded.
One of the bright spots in the 1976-77 season was Adrian Dantley, who became the third Brave (following McAdoo and DiGregorio) to win the Rookie of the Year Award, but he would be traded the following season.
The Braves again missed the playoffs in 1977-78, and the team’s poor performance, loss of star players, and uncertainty about the franchise’s future led to lower ticket sales. Even though the Braves’ home attendance fell to 6,258, Buffalo still outdrew Detroit and New Jersey.
The Braves had signed a 15-year Aud lease the previous year, but it contained an escape clause should season tickets drop below 4,500. On May 8, 1978 the inevitable happened: the Braves exercised their option to break the lease based on that clause.
Brown looked at various cities he could move the team to, including Dallas, Minneapolis and Birmingham. Eventually he decided to negotiate a deal with the then-owner of the Celtics, Irv Levin, in which the owners would swap franchises. Brown liked the prestige of owning the Celtics, and Levin wanted to own a team in his native California. With the assistance of then-NBA general counsel David Stern, the complicated transaction was worked out. The Braves moved to San Diego and became the Clippers, and Brown and Levin exchanged franchises.
They both started in 1970, but the Sabres are still in Buffalo while the Braves are long gone–and it’s not just because Buffalo is a “hockey town.” Certainly, the Sabres had a strong hockey base to draw from across the border, and a strong minor league hockey tradition. However, Buffalo had a thriving college basketball scene at the time, as Buffalo’s “Little Three”–Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure–was very competitive. In fact, Bona went to the NCAA Final Four in 1970, and might well have won if Lanier had not gotten hurt. However, other than drafting Randy Smith, the Braves didn’t do much to build on that tradition.
Perhaps more importantly, the Sabres had solid local ownership and built a stable franchise, unlike the Braves.
Early on, both teams made personnel decisions that had long-term impacts. Consider their first drafts: the Sabres used their first overall pick to select the crowd-pleasing Gilbert Perrault, who went on to play his entire Hall of Fame career with Buffalo. The Braves didn’t have the first overall draft pick, but they squandered the picks they did have. They traded their franchise’s first draft choice, the ninth overall, to the Baltimore Bullets for guard Mike Davis, who had an undistinguished two-year career in Buffalo. Buffalo also had the fifteenth overall pick, which most fans hoped the team would use to pick local favorite Calvin Murphy of Niagara. Murphy was only 5-9, but he was an exciting player and in college was one of the nation’s top scorers. Instead, the Braves chose Princeton’s John Hummer, a 6-9 defensive-minded forward whose lackluster three-year Braves career epitomized the team’s difficulties.
Murphy went on to play in the NBA for 13 seasons, scoring nearly 18,000 points. (Actually, I would have really liked it if the Braves could have worked out a deal to move up in the draft and select St. Bonaventure’s Bob Lanier. The 6-11 Buffalo native was drafted first overall by Detroit and went on to score over 19,000 points and grab over 10,000 rebounds over his 14-year NBA career). Having outstanding, exciting local talent like Murphy or Lanier at the beginning of the franchise would have been ideal. Still, the Braves did make very good deals and draft picks — they just didn’t hold on to many of them for long, except for Randy Smith.
The Braves were also unable to hold on to general manager Eddie Donovan and coach Jack Ramsay, both of whom played major roles during the team’s successful years.
Despite their problems, the Braves’ attendance figures were pretty good when compared to the rest of the league. During the 1974-75 season, the last year Buffalo made the playoffs, the Braves outdrew NBA teams in larger cities such as Washington, Philadelphia and Detroit. In fact, that year the Braves were not far behind Boston in average attendance (11,397 to 11,860), even though the Celtics had won the NBA championship the year before.
The Braves played in an era when the NBA struggled to survive. The league had to show the 1981 NBA Finals on late-night tape delay because their network partner, CBS, couldn’t sell it on prime time. However, the NBA started to turn around the year after the Braves departed. That’s when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA and the sport started to soar in popularity.
Still, it’s important to remember that the Braves spent more time in Buffalo than the Clippers did in San Diego. In 1984 the Clippers, with attendance averaging fewer than 4,500 fans per game for the third consecutive season, moved north to Los Angeles.
The fact is that the Braves were doing well until an owner took over the franchise with the intention moving the team somewhere else — the same thing that happened in Seattle this year. Clearly, pro basketball never got a fair shot in Buffalo. Buffalo’s loss of the Braves in 1978, just like Seattle’s loss of the Sonics in 2008, was due more to poor management and a decision by ownership that it didn’t just want to be there, rather than a lack of support from the City or fans.
To read more about Buffalo Braves history, check out the following web sites:

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