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"Buffalo, Home of the Braves" Chapter Excerpt

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Braves Chapter 3

Chapter 3 (text version)

Doctor Jack. Few sports stars, even those who are All-Stars and win championships, are known by their first name or a nickname. But such is the case with Dr. Jack Ramsay. He went on to coach Portland to an NBA title and later gained more notoriety as the radio analyst for ESPN. But to hear Doctor Jack tell it, so much of his success began when he was brought in as the third coach in as many seasons for the Buffalo Braves.

Soon after the team finished its second season, John McCarthy was dismissed as coach. While team owner Paul Snyder had said he was looking for disciplinarian, even a dictator, as his new coach, he ended up selecting a cerebral student of the game, who had a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. After growing up in Upper Darby, Penn., Ramsay built his coaching foundation in Philadelphia. After four years as a student at St. Joseph’s, he returned to his alma mater and guided the Hawks to their first Big 5 championship in 1955-56. In 11 seasons at St. Joe’s, his teams went 234-72.

In 1966, Ramsay moved to the professional ranks as the general manager for the NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers. Still, his heart was in teaching and soon enough he was back on the sidelines, coaching the lowly 76ers. But the glory days in the City of Brotherly Love had faded for now. The team won only nine games in Ramsay’s last year there and soon Doctor Jack was looking for a job.

In his biography at the NBA Hall of Fame, Ramsay is described as a “quiet leader,” “a teacher” and “a true basketball aficionado.” He was also savvy enough to realize that he had entered into a situation in Buffalo with an owner who demanded success and was always prepared to give his two-cents worth. So, before Ramsay signed his contract, he made Snyder pledge that he won’t enter the Braves’ locker room after a game. That it would be the coach’s domain. Ramsay was able to make that arrangement stick until close to the end of his tenure in Buffalo.

“Before I signed a contract, I said to (Snyder), ‘I want to run the team.’” Ramsay recalled. “If you don’t find that to your liking, then get somebody else. While I’m the coach, I need to run the team. I can’t have you coming in the locker room. Snyder said. “Oh, that’s good. I think that’s terrific.’ For my first three years in Buffalo, he advised by that.”

Unfortunately, Ramsay’s tenure in Buffalo extended to four seasons.

At his initial press conference as the Braves’ head coach, Ramsay said the team had plenty of potential. Yet in the next breath, he added how important team defense was.

“The teams that play good defense are the teams that win championships,” he said. “Defense is the guts of the game and good defense promotes a lot of your offense on steals or making your opponent take bad shots.”

Ramsay had high hopes for 6-foot-11 center Elmore Smith. Smith had made the NBA’s rookie team, but he had lost out to Portland’s Sidney Wicks for rookie of the year honors. The Braves’ other Smith, Randy, didn’t garner any votes.

In the beginning of his Braves tenure, Ramsay envisioned Elmore Smith as his defensive foundation. “He can be a great shot-blocker and we’ll want him to jam up the inside lanes. He’ll get his point naturally, but it is on defense where he can become effective.”

For his part, Smith was happy to Ramsay arrive. “Last season I didn’t know if I was a forward, guard or center,” the “Big E” told Sports Illustrated. “We’ve got a system now.”

Publicly, Ramsay played up about the team’s promise. Privately, though, he told Snyder and Donovan that the team couldn’t contend with its current core of players. The owner and general manager and soon got busy. Unlike other owners, Snyder took an active part in signing players, and his pursuit of University of North Carolina star Bob McAdoo turned into something out of a spy novel.

McAdoo had reportedly signed a contract with the Virginia Squires, which had made him the No. 1 pick in the ABA draft. That news apparently scared off the Portland Trail Blazers, which had the top choice in the NBA draft. Although McAdoo visited Portland, the Trail Blazers decided to draft 6-foot-11 center LaRue Martin out of Loyola University in Chicago. Many still consider Martin the worst first pick ever in professional basketball.

There were conflicting signs if McAdoo had indeed signed with the Squires, and Snyder decided to aggressively pursue the former Tar Heel star. Negotiations between the Braves and McAdoo’s agents began in secret at the Charter House Motor Hotel in Buffalo. But almost as soon as talks began, The Courier-Express’ Jim Baker was tipped off that McAdoo was in town and negotiations were under way. Baker called the hotel and the desk clerk told him that neither McAdoo nor any of his agents were registered at the hotel. But then she said, “You don’t mean the Paul Snyder party, do you?”

“Why, yes, indeed,” Baker answered.

“They’re all in Room 304, shall I ring?” the clerk offered.

“No, don’t bother,” Baker replied and he hurried over to the hotel.

Outside the Charter House, he saw that the lights were on in 304 and he hurried upstairs with photographer Ron Schifferle in tow. There they found Do Not Disturb signs hanging from the doorknobs for Rooms 304 and 305. Baker knocked, but nobody answered.

Baker headed outside and saw that the lights in Room 304 had gone out. Soon afterward McAdoo was spotted leaving the lobby in a hurry.

“They were in Room 304,” the desk clerk said, “but they might not be there now.”

Baker continued to case the joint, making several laps of the hotel. Back inside he saw Braves GM Donovan on a phone in the lobby. He waited until Donovan finished the call and then confronted him upstairs outside Room 304.

“McAdoo?” Donovan replied. “I don’t know anything about him. I’m just here having dinner with Paul and Arnold (Gardner, team attorney). They’re in that room.”

But then the door to Room 304 opened and there, eating dinner with Snyder was McAdoo. Donovan didn’t say another word. He went back inside and the door to Room 304 closed behind him.

Days later, McAdoo signed a three-year contract with a base salary of $1 million with Buffalo. But he had indeed signed a contract with the ABA Squires earlier, so Snyder filed in U.S. District Court on McAdoo’s behalf. According to the Braves’ suit, the Squires contract should be set aside on the grounds that McAdoo (then just 20 years old) was technically a minor at the time of that signing.

Eventually, the Braves bought out McAdoo’s ABA contract for $200,000 and Snyder reportedly destroyed the original Squires contract himself. McAdoo was in Buffalo to stay. The case never went to court.

“I ended up in Buffalo because the NBA was where I wanted to play,” McAdoo said years later. “That’s why the Virginia Squires and the ABA never were front and center. At first, I thought I was going to Portland as the first pick. But they didn’t want to pay the money they had paid out for Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie, their first-round picks the previous years. So, we told them that it wasn’t going to work out. They went with LaRue Martin and I decided to sit tight and see what Buffalo did with the second pick. In the end, it all worked out. I was in the league where I wanted to be.”

From his first practice with the Braves, McAdoo was adamant that he should be in the starting lineup. Yet Buffalo already had Elmore Smith at center and All-Pro Bob Kauffman and often Randy Smith on the front line. That left McAdoo playing a lot of small forward, chasing such smaller players as John Havlicek, Bill Bradley and Lou Hudson. “Sometimes,” he later told Sports Illustrated, “I wasn’t even in it.”

Publicly, Ramsay didn’t want to push his young star into a starting role. “Bob gives us a potentially very strong front line,” he said at the time, “and a lot of flexibility and depth, which it lacked until his signing.”

But McAdoo was a young man in a hurry. Teammates remember him as having a chip on his shoulder about what he could do and how soon he could do it in the NBA.

“I’m really 6-foot-9 ¾,” he said when asked if he was too small to play center at his listed 6-foot-9. “I played center at North Carolina, but it was an offense with really three forwards and two guards.”

Left unsaid was McAdoo wouldn’t find having Ramsay go to such an offensive scheme with the Braves. But Ramsay had bigger problems as Buffalo began its third season in the NBA. “We were not a good defensive team,” Ramsay remembered. “We did not rebound well, either. We could get out and run the ball and there was some speed on that team.”

Guard Walt Hazzard, a k a Mahdi Abdul Rahman, was the floor leader, but there were questions about his stamina. During the offseason, Abdul Rahman had participated in a distance-running program at UCLA. The same program had previously paid big dividends for Laker guard Gail Goodrich. The Braves’ training camp was certainly for the fit, with Ramsay setting the example, often taking dips in the hotel pool.

Also, at training camp, Rudy Martzke was hired as the club’s public relations director. Martzke, who would later become the influential television columnist for USA Today, already had a job lined at a dog track in Florida. His wife wanted the family to stay in warmer locales and forget about winters up north. But there was something about the personalities assembling in Buffalo – Ramsay, Donovan, McAdoo, even team owner Snyder – that made the Braves’ opening appealing. Despite his wife’s protestations, Martzke headed to Buffalo to check out the team’s opening.

“It was at Jack’s first rookie camp and a bunch of us were back at the hotel bar afterward,” Martzke said. “Eddie Donovan started to swap stories with the newspaper guys and I backed off. I didn’t know where I stood in this equation and Eddie said, ‘It’s OK, Rudy. You’ve got the job.’

“Well, I didn’t tell my wife for a few days. She had made me promise her that I wouldn’t take this job up in Buffalo because of the winters. I didn’t have the heart to tell her over the phone. So, I waited until I got back home.

“We moved as a family to Buffalo on the Fourth of July. We had two young sons and the baby got pneumonia that first weekend. It was like 55 degrees out and we just froze.”

Despite the new faces and the accent on fitness, the team appeared only marginally better than the previous two years. The backcourt was struggling as Hazzard, despite the off-season running, was indeed was past his prime. Donovan picked up Dave Wohl off waivers from Portland and traded a draft choice to Detroit for Howard Komives. But it soon became apparent that a more radical plan was needed. Donovan suggested that Randy Smith be returned to the backcourt, freeing up more playing time for McAdoo. Ramsay replied he’d think about it.

Any playoff aspirations pretty much disappeared in two lop-sided games in October. On Oct. 20, the Celtics opened up a huge lead on the Braves. Both teams began to play their bench-warmers and the Braves improbably scored 58 points in a 12-minute span, setting an NBA record. Randy Smith had 23 points in that fourth quarter to set a franchise record. Although the Braves still lost, Ramsay started to seriously consider Donovan’s suggestion of more playing time for Smith and McAdoo.

The next night, Buffalo scored a record-low 63 points against Milwaukee. In the 91-63 defeat to the Bucks, Buffalo hit the fewest field goals in its young history (25) and shot only 27.5 percent from the floor. The poor shooting outing came even though the Bucks were missing MVP center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was at home with the flu.

Soon afterward the Braves’ entire starting five was on the bench by the second quarter in a 107-86 defeat to the New York Knicks. Doctor Jack fined his players $100 each for lackadaisical play after a loss to the Washington Bullets. Nineteen games into the new season, the Braves had won all of three games.

“My first year in Buffalo, we weren’t very good,” Ramsay said. “But I’d left Philadelphia, which was in total disarray, so I didn’t mind too much. At least in Buffalo, there was some light at the end of the tunnel.

“We were a young team. Nobody expected miracles and we certainly didn’t supply any. Not that season.”

Still, amid the defeats, Ramsay saw occasional flashes of brilliance. Kauffman played in the All-Star Game. Down the stretch, McAdoo took a turn at center and scored 39, 39 and 45 points on the road.

“McAdoo was sensational,” Van Miller recalled. “He was so quick. He could really fill the net up. But McAdoo wasn’t really a center. The only opposing center who really held his own against him, except when somebody like Wilt Chamberlain would get him low in the blocks, was Dave Cowens. But Cowens was with the Boston Celtics and that’s the team the Braves couldn’t seem to ever beat when it counted.”

Randy Smith recalled, “McAdoo and I were the 11th and 12th man on the team as that season began. He was a rookie and I was in my second year. We’d sit there and watch those guys make all those mistakes and we’d be on the bench, knowing we could do better than that. We had to be better than that.

“Slowly, the coaching staff began to see the same thing. First, coach Ramsay gave Mac a chance to start and he must have scored 30 points right off. So, I knew he wasn’t coming back to the bench anymore. So, I knew I had to make the most of the opportunities I had to stay out there on the floor with him.”

That became easier for Smith when Hazzard was placed on waivers before Thanksgiving. “Since we’ve had a lack of substantial success, I thought it would be better to go with our younger players,” Ramsay explained to the local media.

Further helping Smith’s cause was Fred Hilton’s growing reputation as a streaky shooter and little else. When Ramsay was asked in early February why Hilton only played when Buffalo went to its three-guard offense, he replied, “I’ve got five guards on this team and I rank Hilton fifth among the five. … The No. 1 quality for a guard is defense.”

Hilton took issue with that statement: “I can play defense. My coach at Grambling told me I’m the best defensive guard he ever coached.”

But that didn’t cut it in the Braves’ new world. At the end of the season, Hilton was waived by the team and out of the league soon afterward. Meanwhile, Randy Smith became a starter at guard.

“That Freddie Hilton was put on this Earth to shoot,” Van Miller recalled. “In a game, he’d come across the time line and you could just tell that he was going to put up another jumper. You could tell by his body language, the way his eyes lit up, and sure enough most times that’s exactly what he did – he shot.”

While Doctor Jack was often portrayed as a quiet teacher of basketball, behind the scenes he was speaking his mind. Ramsay was often in Donovan’s office, pushing again for more roster moves. “By the end of that first season, I told Eddie Donovan that we weren’t going to make it with most of these guys,” Ramsay said. “We had a slew of players who had some skill, but they weren’t good enough to play in the NBA. So, I convinced Eddie that we should really revamp the team and keep Randy Smith, Bob McAdoo and Bob Kauffman.”

Ironically, the big name missing from that list was the Braves’ shot-blocking center – Elmore Smith. The guy Ramsay was ready to build the team around back in the preseason.

On paper, the Braves made no progress in their third season. They finished the 1972-73 season, with a 21-61 record. That was a game worse than either of their first two seasons. After starting the season 4-19, the Braves had ended the season by losing 11 in a row and 26 of their last 30 games. As a result, the team’s average attendance fell to 7,847, which didn’t make Snyder happy. Still, Ramsay saw reason for hope. Despite often playing out of position at small forward, McAdoo averaged 18 points and 9.1 rebounds a game and was named the NBA’s rookie of the year.

Off the court, Snyder announced that the Braves would play nine games in Toronto next season. At the time, Snyder said his primary reason for buying the Braves was not to make money. Still, if he could show that Toronto was a bona-fide basketball market, he and the Braves would eventually profit. Due to its proximity, Toronto was regarded as Buffalo territory, according to NBA bylaws.

Snyder told the local press that an indemnification fee paid to the Braves for a Toronto franchise could easily start at $1 million. While he envisioned the Braves now playing more games in Toronto, Snyder remained adamant that the team’s primary home would remain the city of Buffalo.

“The Braves will stay in Buffalo forever,” he said. “… at least as long as I own them – and I have never entertained any ideas of selling them.”

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