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Braves still have a hold on Buffalo

One thing that became clear since the story ran about the Buffalo Braves is that an older generation still cares about them 38 years after their departure. Over the past few days, people have passed along tales about going to games or listening on transistor radios during their youth.

Some wonder whether the team could return to a city on the rise after pulling out of decades of economic hardship. Sorry, the Braves aren’t coming back to Buffalo. The NBA doesn’t need them, and Buffalo still doesn’t have enough big businesses to support the Bills, Sabres and Braves.

“Buffalo has a hard time supporting two major franchises because so much of sports today is the corporate sponsorships and all the things that go with it,” former Braves owner Paul Snyder said. “We don’t have the corporations here. We just don’t.”

However, it doesn’t mean the players couldn’t be invited back for recognition and a walk down memory lane. They would find Chippewa Street, a vibrant strip that made a comeback from what stood as Buffalo’s red-light district in the 1970s. The landscape downtown has dramatically improved in recent years.

Memorial Auditorium closed in 1996, leaving behind most remnants of the NBA in Buffalo. Even though the Braves didn’t play at First Niagara Center, it would be nice if the building acknowledged their existence. The Braves remain an important part of Buffalo sports history and should have a place in the arena.

After all, the Braves and Sabres have won the same number of championships. Maybe the Raptors could play the Clippers in Buffalo. The Braves, and the Bills, played enough games in Toronto. Perhaps the Clippers would even do our town justice by wearing Braves’ uniforms once a year.

It’s a decision for someone else.

At the very least, the arena should have a banner commemorating the Braves while honoring their best players. They could start with Bob McAdoo, who along with late coach Jack Ramsay deserves banners in the rafters. Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio had an enormous impact in their time here.

So far, the idea has been greeted mostly with indifference. It’s time to remember the Braves while we still can, if it’s not already too late. In recent days, I’ve learned that basketball fans who remember them can’t get enough. The good news is that I happen to have some leftover notes.

[Photo Gallery: The Buffalo Braves through the years]

• Ernie D was the Braves’ first-round pick in 1973 after a terrific career at Providence College, but he also was taken by the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. He never had any intentions of signing with Kentucky, which was owned by John Y. Brown.

Instead, Ernie D used the Colonels as leverage for a bigger contract with the Braves. He ended up signing a five-year deal worth $2.5 million, the biggest rookie contract in NBA history. A few years later, when Snyder joined ownership forces with Brown, Ernie D began planning for his departure.

“As soon as he bought the team from Snyder, I knew I was gone,” DiGregorio said. “I was gone. He knew what he doing. He knew he was selling the team.”

• DiGregorio rented a place in Harrogate Square Apartments in Williamsville early in his career. It wasn’t long before he discovered two other young superstars who lived in the same complex while making their mark on Buffalo: Rick Martin and Gilbert Perreault.

“I would open my sliding-glass doors, and you could always see them in the back having a couple of beers,” Ernie D said. “They would be outside when it was snowing and everything. They looked like they were having a lot of fun.”

• Former Niagara coach Frank Layden, who left the university to coach in the NBA and became general manager of the Utah Jazz, mentioned in February that he was celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary. Said the quick-witted, self-deprecating funny man, after he was told being married that long was a skill: “It’s not a skill. For Barbara, it’s a prison sentence.”

• Longtime basketball fans knew Johnny McCarthy starred at Bishop Timon and Canisius College before joining the Celtics and later coaching the Braves. But how many knew he was the first NBA player to record a triple-double in his playoff debut?

McCarthy had 13 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for the St. Louis Hawks in a win over the Minneapolis Lakers on March 16, 1960. The only two other players who recorded a triple-double in their playoff debuts were Magic Johnson in 1980 and LeBron James in 2006.

“I didn’t even know,” McCarthy said. “There was a blurb in the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Times) after LeBron. I was down there visiting my son, Timmy, and I saw that. There was no big deal with triple-doubles.”

McCarthy played for the 1963-64 Celtics team that beat Wilt Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors for the NBA title. The Celtics team included seven future Hall of Fame players – John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Clyde Lovellette, Frank Ramsey and Bill Russell – and coach Red Auerbach.

Havlicek’s last game in the NBA was against Buffalo on April 9, 1978, which also marked the last Braves game. Havlicek led all scorers with 29 points, the highest point total for a player in his final game before Kobe Bryant dropped 60 in his final game two weeks ago.

“It’s a small world,” McCarthy said.

• It’s a small world, indeed.

Randy Smith played 12 seasons in the NBA after the Braves plucked him from Buffalo State in the seventh round of the 1971 draft. He played his first season under McCarthy, who was hired one game into the 1971-72 season. Dolph Schayes was fired after losing the season opener.

The Braves picked Smith on the advice of scout Joe Niland, who was revered for his keen eye in evaluating players in several sports. Niland was behind McCarthy landing a scholarship with Canisius. He also was a scout for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s and was an aide to General Manager Bill Polian during the Bills’ glory days.

Niland died in 2007, but his impact continues. His son, Joe, is coaching at the University of Alabama-Mobile. Another son, Dave, coaches at Penn State-Behrend, which adopted the Braves’ signature “B” for their uniforms for a few years. His daughter, Bridget, is the athletic director at Daemen College. His nephew, John Beilein, of course, is coaching at Michigan.

• Tony Masiello was a terrific player at Canisius who was drafted by the Indiana Pacers, an ABA team at the time, but was cut. A year later, in 1970, the Braves gave him a peek before cutting him. A few years later, he was involved with city government and eventually became mayor of Buffalo.

“I played in the Little Three with Bob Lanier and Calvin Murphy,” Masiello said. “Randy Smith was at Buff State, and I was at Canisius. They went on to the NBA. I went on to the Common Council. I still laugh at that.”

• Smith and Ernie D spent several years working about 10 miles apart in separate casinos in Connecticut – Smith at Mohegan Sun and DiGregorio at Foxwoods – and remained friends long after they retired.

“He had muscles on top of muscles,” DiGregorio said. “He was in phenomenal shape. And he smoked cigarettes! He smoked cigarettes at halftime!”

Smith, who was known for enjoying the nightlife and wearing mink coats during his career in Buffalo, died unexpectedly in 2009 at age 60. As the story goes, several women showed up to his wake claiming to be his current girlfriend. McAdoo and Ernie D laughed when hearing the story. Neither was surprised.

“Randy was something else,” Snyder said. “Randy was the nicest guy, but he was always screwed up with girls.”

Snyder told a story about Smith buying a Bentley that he couldn’t afford after signing his contract in the mid-’70s. Smith didn’t realize that much of the money in his deal was deferred. Before the car was repossessed, Snyder refinanced payments and kept the Bentley in his company parking lot until Smith paid the balance.

• Former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who served as general counsel during the Braves’ time in the league, on the state of the NBA in the 1970s: “All of our teams were a mess. The New Orleans Jazz were a mess. Buffalo was a mess. Denver was a mess. It was easier to define which teams were not a mess because it was a smaller number.”

• My interview with DiGregorio, the first for the story, took place in the breakfast lounge at the Comfort Suites on Main Street in Buffalo. A woman clearing tables nearby overheard our conversation about the Braves and dropped what she was doing. She was asked if she remembered the Braves.

“I loved the Braves,” she said. “McAdoo and Randy Smith, Ernie D. Oh, yeah, I remember all of them.”

“You know what Ernie D is doing right now,” she was asked.

“What?” she said.

“He’s waving to you,” Ernie D said with a laugh while holding up his hand.

The woman, stunned by the coincidence, immediately gave DiGregorio a hug. He gave her a personalized autographed photo, wearing No. 15.

“I used to go to games all the time,” she said. “That was the team back then. I loved McAdoo and Randy Smith and Ernie D, I mean, you. Downtown was booming back then.”

Downtown has changed over the years. But to the people who remember them, the Braves still matter.

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