Team that's now Atlanta Hawks bailed on Buffalo 70 years ago - The Buffalo News

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Team that's now Atlanta Hawks bailed on Buffalo 70 years ago

Maybe it's appropriate. In a week when the firing of yet another Buffalo Bills head football coach leaves the Western New York sports world in a tumult, we also commemorate the anniversary of an almost forgotten tale of Buffalo sports disappointment. In this case, the bad news was delivered on what’s supposed to be the most joyous day of the year.

The Atlanta Hawks were born here, created by some game-changing basketball pioneers, but the franchise didn't stay.

Seventy years ago this week, on Christmas Day, general manager Leo Ferris of the old Buffalo Bisons revealed his National Basketball League team would be leaving Western New York and moving to Moline, Ill.

The decision drew a few scattered sighs from the Buffalo media, but not much else. World War II was barely over, and attention was focused on the more popular and established “ice herd,” the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League. The basketball Bisons – the “cage herd,” as the newspapers called them – officially survived in Buffalo for just 38 days of that young season in the NBL, a predecessor of the National Basketball Association.

They started off with a 50-39 opening night victory on Nov. 8, 1946, over the Syracuse Nationals. A civic parade in their honor, featuring many military units and the Gordon Highlanders, was washed out before the game, which in hindsight seems a fitting omen. The team's last Buffalo appearance was a 50-38 loss to Sheboygan on Dec. 16, 1946, at the old Memorial Auditorium.

That departure never drew the kind of lingering sadness as the loss, decades later, of the old Buffalo Braves of the NBA. The stay of the NBL squad was so brief that the NBA itself, on its official Hawks website, doesn't acknowledge Buffalo as the origin point for the franchise.

Still, for one fleeting moment, the three big Upstate cities - in the Bisons, the Rochester Royals and the Nats of Syracuse - all had teams in basketball's highest pro leagues, at the same time. And the characters brought together for that brief juncture in Buffalo, in 1946, would play a role in changing basketball history.

The franchise is now the Atlanta Hawks, a pillar of the NBA. Before it got there, the club made stops in Moline, Milwaukee and St. Louis. Ben Kerner, a partner of Ferris and another Buffalo export, eventually took control of the team, and the Hawks would win an NBA title for him in St. Louis. Sports Illustrated called him "the wiliest and most successful promoter in basketball."

Yet it is the legacy of Ferris – or, more accurately, some high-profile work by members of his family – that provides a living reminder of the power of what began in Buffalo. A great-nephew in Massachusetts, Christian Figueroa, 37, is waging a national campaign to give Ferris his due as one of the founders of the NBA.

The early years

Figueroa describes Ferris as a brilliant innovator, overlooked for all too long by sports historians. Ferris struggled with Huntington’s disease and was left unable to speak before his 1993 death in Syracuse, Figueroa said, making it impossible for him to defend his own accomplishments.

Leo Ferris, Buffalo Bisons basketball GM, announced the team was leaving Buffalo on Christmas Day, 1946.

Last week, the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame announced that Ferris, for the second year in a row, is on its list of nominees for enshrinement. Looking back on it, the Buffalo businessman shot like a comet across the basketball horizon: Over nine years, he put together a string of astounding achievements, then was gone from the game.

He came to Buffalo in the late 1930s, a former high school basketball standout in Elmira whose passions also included his skill as a magician; Figueroa has found news clippings that note Ferris taught courses in magic at Buffalo's YMCA. He took a job with Sportservice and the Jacobs family, and later – after returning from military service – ran his own advertising firm with Kerner.

In 1946, his life changed when he organized the NBL franchise, turning for help to the Erie County American Legion.

Consider what Ferris accomplished, Figueroa said: With the support of the legion, a main sponsor, he put together the club that is now in Atlanta. He brought Kerner, another important NBA pioneer, into the game. In Buffalo, he signed William “Pops” Gates, a groundbreaking African-American ballplayer who became a Hall of Famer and helped break down walls in that segregated era.

After the team left for Moline, Ferris would be named president of the NBL. His role was serving as the chief combatant in a furious battle for survival with the larger Basketball Association of America.

Through a brilliant gambit, Ferris helped force the merger that created the NBA. He signed the "Fabulous Five," the stars from a great Kentucky collegiate team, and basically gave them their own franchise, in Indianapolis. On the day the NBA was created from the merger of those leagues, Ferris was a central figure: In a wire photograph that ran across the nation, he was shown side-by-side with such legends as Maurice Podoloff, the NBA’s first president, and Ned Irish, founder of the New York Knicks.

Coverage from The Buffalo Evening News and The Buffalo Courier-Express as the Bisons leave town for Moline. That team, today, is the Atlanta Hawks. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

He would later tell The Courier-Express that he grew homesick in Moline for his upstate family. So he sold his shares in the Blackhawks to Kerner, then went to work in Syracuse. Ferris helped build the Nationals team that won the NBA championship in 1955. The squad included such basketball greats as Dolph Schayes and Earl Lloyd, who’d already become the first African-American to play in the NBA.

Leo Ferris with Nat Hickey, original coach of the Buffalo Bisons. Hickey used to check into games in his mid-40s,  the oldest player to enter a pro game in modern history. (Buffalo Courier-Express image courtesy of Christian Figueroa)

With team president Danny Biasone and Emil Barboni, a Syracuse scout, Ferris convinced the NBA to adopt a 24-second shot clock – an innovation that ended the stall tactics that were killing the game, and turned it instead into a jubilant, high-scoring celebration.

Leonard Koppett, the renowned sportswriter who covered the NBA's formative years, used to say: The clock brought fans back to the NBA. It saved professional basketball.

And Leo Ferris was part of the conception of that idea.

All of that was built upon what he started in Buffalo. Yet Ferris left the Nats just before they won the NBA title, amid an internal dispute. While he became a successful realtor in Syracuse, his contributions were gradually forgotten. Now Figueroa – an opera singer who has performed at Carnegie Hall and who sang the national anthem at Fenway Park – is leading a campaign to have his uncle enshrined in basketball’s Hall of Fame.

“He made absolutely amazing contributions to basketball,” Figueroa said.

How the Hawks began

All of it started with the short-lived Bisons, of the National Basketball League. Their coach was Nat Hickey, who as a minor league baseball manager had worked with the great Stan Musial. In a Dec. 7, 1946, road loss to Youngstown, at age 44, the Buffalo coach put himself into the lineup, out of frustration – and managed to score six points.

It wasn’t the only time he made a spontaneous decision to play during the season, and he would do it again a year later, at 45, while coaching the Providence Steamrollers. Hickey is often credited as the oldest man to ever play in the NBA, or its immediate predecessors. The Bisons also featured Dan Otten, who at 7-feet tall was reportedly the tallest man in professional basketball.

Christian Figueroa and his son, named Christian Charles Figueroa, wearing T-shirts that celebrate their "Save Ferris" campaign. (Image courtesy of Christian Figueroa)

It wasn't enough to keep the team in Buffalo. The Bisons offered thousands of seats for a dollar apiece, but struggled to draw crowds. When barely 1,000 spectators showed up for the loss to Sheboygan, Ferris – described by Myron Calandra of The Evening News as “the 29-year-old Army veteran who traveled more than 25,000 miles in building Buffalo’s player roster” – told local reporters he needed at least 3,600 fans per game to break even.

“If anyone can sell pro basketball here, it is this Ferris fellow,” wrote News sports columnist Cy Kritzer. “He has the zeal of a crusader for the game.”

That zeal would work for Ferris elsewhere – but not in Buffalo. He tried to sell shares to own a part of the club for $1,000. A similar effort, a few years later, would save the Syracuse club when Ferris was general manager of the Nats.

With the Bisons, it fell flat, although Ferris would always argue that professional basketball – with proper backing – could succeed in the city. The Bisons left town for a December road trip with their future in doubt. Before long, Ferris canceled two home games scheduled for the last week of the month in Buffalo. The decision was clear, the next step basically a formality:

On Christmas Day in 1946, from the road, his public relations director announced the Bisons were moving to Moline, where they became the Blackhawks – and eventually, by the time they played in Milwaukee, simply the Hawks. The announcement hardly triggered much sorrow in Western New York. Kritzer, in a year-end summary of 1946, simply referred to the team as one of the city’s “financial flops.”

No one could foresee the changes triggered by that Buffalo club. The Bisons survive today as the Atlanta Hawks, an NBA mainstay. As for Ferris, he played a key role in establishing the NBA, then settled in to strengthen the Syracuse franchise. He was a pioneer in such innovations as bringing in major performers – including Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis – to boost crowds by appearing in NBA arenas.

The shot clock

No contribution was more important than his role in developing the shot clock. Basketball historian Bill Himmelman once said there were two critical moments in basketball history:

There was the day Dr. James Naismith nailed a peach basket to the wall in Springfield, Mass.

And there was the day in 1954 when the NBA turned on the shot clock for the first time, during a scrimmage in Syracuse.

Joan Figueroa, Christian's mother, remembers her uncle as “very friendly, very warm and very handsome, a real talker; when he walked into a room, you knew something was happening.” As for Christian, he sees larger recognition for his great-uncle as justice long overdue. Both Ferris and his daughter, Jamie, died of Huntington’s disease, a devastating and heartbreaking condition. Jamie's obituary noted her father's role in creating the clock.

Leo Ferris, later in life, with his wife Beverly and daughter Jamie, in Syracuse; Ferris and his daughter both died from Huntington's disease (family image).

Others in the family embrace an obligation, Figueroa said: They will fight for a proper place in history for Ferris.

“If Leo makes the Hall of Fame, it would be the final affirmation of a life well-lived,” Figueroa said. “Once you’re enshrined, as the saying goes, you live forever. He walked this Earth. He was special. For Leo, the hall would be the end of a very long journey.”

If so, the trail began in Buffalo – a launching pad for a visionary who changed the game.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. You can email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com, leave a comment at the end of the piece or read more of Kirst's work in this archive.

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