Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Humble Beginnings

Chapter One: 1970-71 Season

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On January 20, 1970, the National Basketball Association voted to expand by four teams. Along with Portland and Cleveland, an NBA franchise was awarded to a group of investors headed by Phillip Ryan and Peter Crotty for Buffalo.

The age of sports expansion had been well under way since the late 1960s. The National Hockey League, for example, had doubled the number of its franchises from six to 12 in one grand move. The NBA had expanded to Seattle and San Diego in 1967; and to Milwaukee and Phoenix a year later. While some contended that the talent pool wasn’t there to support so many new teams, the NBA was eager for new markets in large part because it was at war with the rival American Basketball Association.

The ABA had been around since 1967 and was developing a strong following in some parts of the country. The ABA, with its distinctive red, white and blue ball, emphasized slam dunks and high scoring. The rival league was driving up player salaries and many owners in the older NBA were becoming increasingly concerned about the bottom-line. New teams to the NBA paid escalating franchise fees. In the case of the new kids on the block – Portland, Cleveland and Buffalo – the entry fee was $3.7 million.

Days after the announcement was made, it became apparent that the Buffalo group didn’t have deep enough pockets to operate a team at the most expensive rung of professional basketball. In looking back on the team’s checkered past, it was the first sign of trouble for a ballclub that would soon rank one day among the best in the league and in the next breath be spirited away from town in the most bizarre bait-and-switch move ever seen in professional sports.

Location-wise, Buffalo appeared to be a solid enough choice for NBA expansion. Even though its metropolitan area population was 1.3 million, the lowest of the new expansion cities, Buffalo’s economy was built upon the rock-solid basics that once made the Great Lakes such a vibrant area – shipping, hydroelectric power and steel. In addition, the area had a rich basketball history at the college level. Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure formed the “Little Three,” and Calvin Murphy (Niagara) and “Buffalo” Bob Lanier (St. Bonaventure) had recently received All-American honors.

The New York Knicks’ Eddie Donovan, who had played and coached at St. Bonaventure, was hired as the team’s first general manager. Besides being a great judge of talent, Donovan was also known as the guy who coached the Knicks the night the 76ers’ Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in Hershey, Penn. That still ranks as top individual scoring night in NBA history.

The team’s nickname, Braves, came from a contest with 14,000 entries. Dave Lejewski of Dunkirk had the winning entry and was awarded season tickets. Neither Lejewski, nor anybody else in Buffalo for that matter, was exactly sure what kind of team would be taking the floor at Memorial Auditorium. In the NBA draft, the Braves had the ninth pick in the first round. Unlike Buffalo’s new hockey franchise, the Sabres, the Braves missed out on top talent their first season. (The Sabres were able to select scoring star Gilbert Perreault with the top pick and they never looked back in building their team.) The first four selections in the NBA draft proved to be bona fide stars. Lanier, the star from St. Bonaventure, went No. 1 to Detroit, followed by Rudy Tomjanovich (San Diego), Pete Maravich (Atlanta) and Dave Cowens (Boston). After that, the draft dropped off, so Donovan traded the franchise’s first draft choice to the Baltimore Bullets for guard Mike Davis. Davis had been on the NBA’s all-rookie team in 1969-70.

The Braves had another pick in the first round – No. 15. Local fans clamored for the new club to take a chance on Niagara’s Murphy. Murphy had proven to be one of the greatest scorers in college history. But he stood only 5-foot-9. For that matter, there was another dynamite guard still available when it became the Braves turn to choose – Nate “Tiny” Archibald from Texas-El Paso. Yet as the moniker indicates, Archibald wasn’t a towering giant, either.

In the end, Donovan played the percentages and selected 6-foot-9 forward John Hummer from Princeton. He was a solid rebounder and played good defense. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great shooter, even from the free-throw line. It wasn’t until the third round that Donovan threw a bone to the locals by selecting Chip Case of Virginia. Case had played his high school basketball in suburban Lockport, N.Y.

Predictably, the rest of the squad was stocked with rejects from other teams. Besides Hummer, the Braves’ original starting five included Herm Gilliam, Don May, Dick Garrett and Nate Bowman. The best player on the squad that inaugural season proved to be Bob Kauffman, a former first-round pick with Philadelphia. With the new team lacking in height, Kauffman took over the center spot, even though his natural position was forward.

Dolph Schayes, a one-time Hall of Famer for the Syracuse Nationals, was the coach. His expertise was talking up the team to the local media, which was important because the Sabres were already off to head start with the public.

But before the first season got underway, the team needed to add one more individual. When the Braves’ original investment group began to fall apart, the NBA approached Paul Snyder about taking over the franchise. Snyder had made his money in the food industry. Despite his small stature, his firm handshake and riveting gaze soon gained anyone’s attention. In the spring of 1970, Snyder sold Freezer Queen, a frozen-food company, for a generous profit to Nabisco. The time seemed right to try something different, like owning a professional basketball team.

When the NBA called, the Braves had almost completed preseason play. While the team was the usual collection of cast-offs and misfits, it was easy to daydream about greater glory. Next season the team would likely have a top draft choice. Kauffman was somebody to build around. The team was Snyder’s for the asking, but he would have to act quickly. A new season, the Braves’ inaugural one, was about to begin.

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