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.