When Will We Raise a Banner for the Buffalo Braves?
by Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
Time to do the right thing. The thing that Buffalo sports fans have pleaded for. It is time, once and for all, to commemorate and celebrate our heritage as a great NBA city. It’s time to raise a banner to the rafters at HSBC Arenashowcasing the Buffalo Braves, and paying tribute to the two icons of the franchise, Bob McAdoo and the late Randy Smith, who gave this city some of its most epic sports moments.
Everyone knows the story of the Buffalo Braves. Entering the NBA as an expansion team in 1970, the team enjoyed its greatest success in the mid 1970s, advancing to the playoffs and facing the Boston Celtics twice in three years. But financial problems, a bad lease, and mediocre attendance beset the franchise. The team was eventually sold, then was swapped with another ownership group in a complicated arrangement, with the Braves winding up in San Diego and renamed the Clippers after the 1977-78 season.
Buffalo’s storied and revered NBA franchise has been front and center in the news all year, as the walls of Memorial Auditorium have come tumbling down.
Last winter, fans came to the Buffalo Convention Center to take part in the “Farewell Old Friend” event, where the auction of old seats and other Aud memorabilia took center stage amid a plethora of booths and exhibits celebrating the building’s history.
Grand Island schoolteacher John Boutet has assembled the most comprehensive collection of mementos and artifacts from the Memorial Auditorium era, and was on hand to showcase his collection. Boutet said that his Buffalo Braves memorabilia garnered the most attention from the throngs of people who attended. “So many people stopped by and wanted to talk about the Braves and share their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing how this team resonates so much in this community, considering it’s been three decades since they’re gone.”
As a youngster, Boutet attended many a Braves game at the Aud, and his collection includes laminated ticket stubs, programs, promotional giveaway items, jerseys, and team photos, which he eagerly shares with fans by setting up roving displays at various events. “Ernie DiGregorio stopped by the booth when we were at the Convention Center, and he had tears in his eyes when he saw this stuff,” said Boutet.
Besides Ernie D., former Braves great Randy Smith, and Hall of Fame coach Dolph Schayes, the Braves’ head coach for the teams’ first season and a bit of the second, were also in the building. Still spry and healthy at 80 years old, Schayes clapped and exclaimed, “There’s my logo!” as soon as he saw the poster with the original design—a circular Native American headdress surrounding a standing Buffalo.
In May, author Tim Wendel introduced his coffee table book, Buffalo, Home of the Braves, to positive reviews. Wendel, once a copy editor for the Courier Express, now teaches writing at John Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., and has authored six books. “So much of sports is remembering and treasuring the past,” said Wendel during a phone interview last week from his home in Vienna, Virginia. “The Buffalo Braves are a big part of our past and always will be.”
In doing interviews and research for the book, Wendel was astounded at the level of enthusiasm displayed by former Braves players and others associated with the franchise. “I would call them and they would ask how much time I needed. The interviews always went much longer. To a man they were caught up in their accomplishments and what happened with this team and what it meant to them as a player and as a person.”
Wendel said that there’s still a lot of passion and excitement when it comes to the Buffalo Braves. “And when you think about it, the Braves were really ahead of their time. They had that up tempo style of play, surrounded a great cast of shooters around one superstar. Really every player on that team could shoot. And the other thing why these players speak so fondly of Buffalo is that they really all came of age right here. Bob McAdoo admitted to me that had it not been for his time in Buffalo, he would not have made it to the Hall of Fame.”
Wendel was also pleased to hear how much the players loved playing at the Aud. “All of them, they so fondly remembered the fans. That’s what they loved about Buffalo. Jack Marin [who joined the Braves in 1974] shared with me how he always could see the rim. It was always there. These guys really loved and revered the building.”
No matter what sports venue you visit, banners and rings of honor are a common sight. While some teams hang ridiculous banners trumping up silly things like attendance champions or the ubiquitous “Fans #1” proclamation, most franchises take the issue of banner-raising and presentation very seriously. As they should.
As for displaying the banner and names of departed teams or players, across the spectrum of venues in the four major sports there is ample historical precedent. In Montreal’s Bell Centre, there hangs, amidst all the Stanley Cup banners and the retired numbers of the gods of hockey who donned the Canadiens uniform, a banner commemorating the now defunct MLB Montreal Expos, accompanied by the retired numbers of its four greatest players. “Youppi,” the Expos popular mascot, has been adopted by the Habs, and a Youppi museum and childrens’ play area can be found in the concourse of their arena.
Two upstate New York cities, Rochester and Syracuse, won NBA championship titles during the league’s early days. The Rochester Royals’ 1951 championship banner and display is in the atrium of Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena. The Syracuse Nationals’ 1955 championship flag hangs from the rafters at the Onecenter in Syracuse, a reconstituted banner that was re-hung with great pomp and ceremony back in 1997.
Other cities with long-gone franchises and superstars also pay homage to their heritage. In Hartford’s XL Center (nee Hartford Civic Center), a banner commemorates the departed Hartford Whalers. In the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, there hangs the retired number of “Pistol Pete” Maravich, whose greatest playing days were spent with the NBA New Orleans Jazz. And when the NBA returned to the Crescent City in 2002, another banner was hoisted at the New Orleans Arena in his honor.
Minneapolis honors its first NBA franchise with a banner at the Target Center, celebrating the Hall of Famers who played for the Minneapolis Lakers dynasty of the 1950s. And a statue of basketball icon George Mikan sits outside the arena.
Can something similar be put together here in Buffalo? It’s up to the Buffalo Sabres, as prime landlords of HSBC Arena, to get the ball rolling.
The Sabres’ front office took more than a passing interest in inviting Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo to Buffalo and “retiring” his number in the early 2000s. Former Sabres executive vice president Ron Bertovich, a basketball guy through and through, had suggested introducing the proposal via the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame committee. One idea then was to schedule a preseason NBA game involving the Miami Heat, where McAdoo serves as an assistant coach, so that McAdoo could receive the ultimate honor in front of his basketball peers.
Sadly, right around that time the Sabres fell into financial turmoil and bankruptcy. By the time the dust had settled, Bertovich was gone, a new management team under owner Tom Golisano was in place, and the idea has since languished.
#11 Bob McAdoo
McAdoo had a 14-year NBA career with several NBA teams, but in Buffalo he had his best individual accomplishments. McAdoo’s playing days in Buffalo produced numbers and achievements rivaled only by the true icons of Buffalo’s modern pro sports scene.
In just four plus (1972-76) seasons with the Braves, McAdoo won the 1973 Rookie of the Year, the 1975 NBA Most Valuable Player Award, appeared in three All-Star Games, and was the NBA’s scoring champion in three consecutive years (1974, ’75, ’76). It was his heyday as a Buffalo Brave that eventually earned him induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame back in 2000.
McAdoo’s MVP award puts him in select company with Dominik Hasek, Thurman Thomas, and O.J. Simpson (as well as Cookie Gilchrist and Jack Kemp in the AFL) as athletes who won such an award in one of the major pro sports leagues wearing a Buffalo uniform.
#9 Randy Smith
When Randy Smith was drafted by the Buffalo Braves in 1971 in the later rounds, nobody expected this little-known player from Buffalo State College, a backwater Division III program, to flourish at the NBA level.
Yet Smith confounded all the naysayers and critics by becoming one of the most prolific and exciting players on the court, with his tremendous fast-break style and leaping ability. Heimmediately became a fan favorite.
The face of the short-lived Braves franchise, Smith played in seven of the Braves’ eight seasons and was an All-Star in two of them, earning All-Star game MVP honors in 1978. In total Randy had a 12-year NBA career in which he finished as the record holder (since broken) for consecutive games played (906).
After the Buffalo Braves franchise was brutally ripped away from the city back in 1978, Bob McAdoo went on to great things in his career. He won two championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers. Late in his career he moved on to play in Europe, pretty much breaking every single record there was to be broken. Yet when he was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, he entered the Hall as a Buffalo Brave, and stepped onto the podium wearing the Buffalo cap.
He remains one of Buffalo’s best ambassadors. In an interview we did a few years back, he spoke wistfully of his time in our city. “In 1974 and 1975, we were just one player away from taking it all. We were that close,” said McAdoo. “That team was like a family. The owner Paul Snyder, Van Miller on the mike, Jack Marin, Gar Heard, Randy [Smith] and Ernie D. We knew the fans sitting in the golds on a first-name basis. Those were great fans in Buffalo. Buffalo didn’t deserve what eventually happened to their team. It was all very sad.”
McAdoo regularly comes back to Buffalo to visit with friends, and told us that he would gladly come to accept this honor if it were bestowed on him. “It really isn’t up to me to lobby for or ask to have my name and number hung. If the fans want it, then so be it. But I will say that if it ever does happen, this honor would equal, if not surpass, any of my other achievements, and that includes winning those championships in LA or my induction into the Hall of Fame.”
Randy Smith’s story is much sadder, and only magnifies the urgency of getting this done. Smith died suddenly on June 4 of a heart attack at the age of 60. During his career in Buffalo, Smith confounded all expectations with his tremendous speed, fast break style of playing, and leaping ability. He was a perfect complement to McAdoo, and had a breakout season in 1975-76. Amidst the turmoil of the team’s sale and imminent departure, few remember that he was a terror at the 1978 NBA All Star Game, where he came off the bench to score 27 points and earn game MVP honors.
How would this come off? To begin with, the Sabres would have to apply to the NBA to officially “retire” the numbers of McAdoo and Smith. The Los Angeles Clippers, the successor to the Braves franchise, would also have to sign off. The NBA also controls the Braves’ old logo and branding. According to people close to league affairs, none of those hurdles is insurmountable.
After that, it would be a matter of planning and scheduling the event. Again, perhaps a preseason game with McAdoo’s Miami Heat playing against a team of local interest, such as the New York Knicks or Toronto Raptors—or even the Los Angeles Clippers. Every player who ever wore the Braves uniform could be invited, as well as Dolph Schayes and coach Dr. Jack Ramsay. Van Miller as emcee. Heck, invite Paul Snyder, so that Buffalo fans could heap their scorn upon him one last time. Now that would be a catharsis. (In all fairness, Snyder tried his darnedest to make things work in Buffalo. From the get-go, he was beset with a lousy lease and no concession rights, and was treated as the poor stepchild of the bigger and more popular Sabres.)
We asked Boutet if the fans would really still care after so much time had passed. Boutet replied, “Make this a family style affair and make it affordable, and fans definitely will come. I have no doubt that we could fill the place, and that people would come to celebrate the memories of this team. Fathers could point at that banner and tell their sons, ‘Yes, we were a great NBA city.’”
Wendel echoed that sentiment. “Would fans support such an event? I would say definitely so. Just the remembrance of Randy’s passing, and all the enthusiasm for the book, tells me that there is still a great interest in the team. This is an idea where the time has come.”
Mayor Byron Brown chimed in on the Braves banner idea last winter. “Back in my younger days I attended many a Buffalo Braves game and remember Randy Smith, Ernie D., and Bob McAdoo,” Brown said. “Anything my office could do to bring this event to fruition I would be glad to support.”
But will the Buffalo Sabres do it? What the Sabres need to learn is something that we already know: Out there is a legion of fans who remember the magic moments at Memorial Auditorium when the greatest basketball players in the world graced our home court. There are still many members of the electronic and print media who covered the Braves, and who are still in town, and who would certainly add their voices in favor. Mayor Byron Brown is on board, and certainly there are other elected leaders who would light up and beam if you mentioned Ernie D., Elmore Smith, Bob Kauffman, Jim McMillian, the much maligned John Hummer, Adrian Dantley, and of course Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith.
To the people of this region, to the Buffalo Sabres: Now is the time. It’s time to honor two of the greatest players to ever wear a jersey bearing the word “Buffalo,” to raise a toast in memory of one of the most exhilarating, exciting, and saddest chapters in this community’s sports history. It is time to raise a banner, so that future generations and our children will always know that our community was Buffalo, Home of the Braves.
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