Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Farewell old friend, please...

by Chris Wendel

Yesterday was the final media tour of Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo before the four month demolition process begins. Pictures show how the last 12 years have taken their toll on the remaining seats, facade, and infrastructure.

Looking at the photos of the fraying gold seats that seemed in my childhood to be the holy grail of local sports, was quite disconcerting. I reached the conclusion that it's better to just tear the place down and have certain refined memories in my mind, than to see the Aud suffer, so long in the tooth.

Memorial Auditorium reached the point of no return when the modern age of sports required larger corporate boxes and an arena that insured that the Sabres sustain themselves long term. I get that part.

What was confusing was what to do with the Aud. For awhile there was talk of renovating the existing structure for the proposed Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store. Having recently visited one of the company's other monuments dedicated to fish and game, I have a hard time imagining a stuffed billy goat standing on a fake mountain in the place where McAdoo used to take that outside jumper or a rack of flannels shirts on sale where Coach Ramsay used to roam the sidelines.

After yesterday I've seen enough. Tear it down and let the memories of the grand old Aud live in photos, stories, books, and most importantly in our minds.

Friday, October 10, 2008

What team do you root for?

by Tim Wendel

So, another NBA season is upon us and I find myself in a familiar situation. What team do I root for? Tough question to answer since the Braves blew out of town three decades ago.

In recent years, it’s been easy to ignore this dilemma. You get caught up in the baseball playoffs and by the time the World Series is over, the NFL has gotten downright serious. But this time around, it’s more difficult to shrug off pro hoops. For one, the Olympics kept the NBA front and center over the summer. The U.S.-Spain showdown was a great championship game, perhaps one of the best ever played. Too bad we had to stay up until the crack of dawn to see it.

Of course, another difference-maker is “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” — the book my brother and I have been working on for several years now. The commemorative edition is in the final edits and even though this has dragged like Dean Smith’s four-corners offense, I’ve been reassured that we’ll have copies soon after the holidays. So, what team do I root for? If I play along with the sports regionalization playbook, it’s the Toronto Raptors. They promise to be better with Jermaine O’Neal on board. But when somebody says Toronto to me guys like Wendel Clark and Neil Young come to mind.

In recent seasons, I’ve taken a liking to the Phoenix Suns. Steve Nash is as good a point guard as it gets and he’s another Canadian to boot. Still, I cannot help thinking the door may be closing on the Suns. While I cheered for Los Angeles Lakers when Magic Johnson was running the show, I’ve never been a big Kobe Bryant fan. May be it has something to do with that court case in Colorado. Down in Miami, the Heat haven’t been much since Shaq’s game began to deteriorate and Dwayne Wade started spending more time calling Sir Charles than being on the court. New Orleans has a lot going for it, but the only way I’m see many of those games is to purchase NBA Season Pass.

The last time I parted the curtains and really looked out on the world, the recession was becoming a full-fledged depression. I could root for guys from my alma mater, Syracuse University. Gerry McNamara may make the Utah Jazz and Hakim Warrick will probably see more playing time in Memphis. Still, when you come right down to it, that’s a fantasy way of following the game. So, help me out. I need a bona fide team. A cast of characters I can follow in the box scores every morning.

Any suggestions Braves Nation?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Coming Home, Again

by Chris Wendel
We often hear how today's society doesn't encourage one on one conversations and interpersonal relationships. I write this knowing well that I'm communicating this message via the internet to a community of people that I don't live near and I seldom see in person. Such are the perils of marketing a book when both the editor and author live 500 miles away from the Western New York.

Last night was a chance to see the market for the book "Buffalo, Home of the Braves" up close and in person. The event was the Lockport Rotary Club's "Tip Off " Dinner, a fund raiser for the local YMCA featuring the head basketball coaches from Niagara, Canisius, and the University of Buffalo, along with the headline speaker John Beilein, who now coaches the University of Michigan. The lessons learned from a warm and receptive crowd were that Niagara County is a place where one can feel grounded and sports related memories are slow to wain.

There is an interesting symmetry returning to the roots of where the long journey begins. Beilein's storied career began when he coached middle school in nearby Newfane, New York more than 30 years ago. During his accomplished career he methodically moved up from coaching high school to community college to Division 2 to national prominence at West Virginia, and now Michigan. More impressive than his 554-322 college record is that during his remarkable coaching tenure he has never been an assistant coach.

Beilein was most interesting when he recalled his days growing up in rural Niagara County in the 1960's. He told the story of convincing his dad to buy his first pair of Chuck Taylor Converse high top shoes from Chuck Kenney at Niagara Sporting Goods and the opportunity to play "big time" 7th grade basketball at league at the Lockport YMCA. Beilein describing the experience of a rural farm kid entering the "mecca" of the Lockport Y was funny to hear. Yet many in the audience could relate to the vivid details of his first basketball experiences.

That attention to detail was also evident when Reggie Witherspoon the University of Buffalo coach spoke and described playing under Beilein in the 70's for Erie County Community College. While a younger Witherspoon tried to recount particular games, Beilein could instantly remember recall opponents and individuals.

OK, so you are probably wondering how the Braves fit into all of this. Thanks to the help of my Dad we were able to set up a small table at the event with postcards and posters with book pages of Chapter One of the book.

From a demographic perspective this was definitely the right group; mostly male, many over 40, with an intense interest in basketball. There was a core group that emerged that was on fire with the book concept. Just like Beilein they could recount particular games, players, and circumstances 30 years later. Some were season ticket holders and one actually work on press row for the Braves. We had plenty of feedback and no one questioned the introductory prepublication press of $79

I sought out Witherspoon who I understood has a strong connection to the Braves. Having also grown up in the area, he emphasized his strong sense of pride for the Braves team and their significant role in Buffalo sports history. It's no surprise that Witherspoon has been a proponent of recognizing Braves players like Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith with a banner or retired numbers that could some day be raised for all to see at HSBC Arena.

One cannot forget to mention John Murphy, the emcee for last night's event. John has a strong appreciation for our book project and is someone who has the unique ability to reduce the degrees of separation in a large room of people from six to about two. His graciousness, humor, and quick wit made last night's event all come together.

I left the event realizing that Niagara County still has a strong sense of community. Growing up I thought Western New York was a place that was too slow to change, so at the age of 18 I left and seldom looked back. Years later I embrace the area for retaining its character and for having people like Beilein and Witherspoon, and Murphy who accomplish great things without forgetting where they came from.