The Toronto Raptors arrived in Buffalo for the start of their eight-day training camp Thursday, and assistant coach John Shumate did not need to consult the official team itinerary. He used to play in this town, and he has his priorities in order.
"I've got to find The Anchor Bar," Shumate said.
Shumate played three seasons for the Braves before they moved to San Diego. In 1977-78, he played on the final edition of the team, which featured such memorable characters as Marvin Barnes, Bird Averitt and Bill Willoughby.
Today, 20 years after the Braves last held an NBA training camp, Shumate has fond memories of his time in Buffalo. And like a lot of people -- most of them still residing in Western New York -- he's never quite figured out why the franchise had to leave here.
"To this day, I get together with old players and we always ask, 'Whatever happened to Buffalo?' " Shumate said during media day at the Erie Community College downtown arena. "None of us can really understand it, because this was one of the great franchises. A lot of players knocked Buffalo because of the weather, but once you got here and learned to cope with the snow, you had as much fun as you had in any sports town.
"When the Braves were here, they were successful," he said. "We had great fan support. For the former players, it's like a part of our life just flew right by us. We don't know all the subtle nuances involved. Why, when, how did it happen . . . I ask 'Mac' (Bob McAdoo) about it, and he just shakes his head."
For the next week, at least, Buffalo will be an NBA city again. Beginning this morning, the Raptors will conduct seven days of morning and evening workouts at ECC. The Buffalo camp will conclude at 7 p.m. Thursday with an intrasquad scrimmage, which will cost $7 and be the only workout open to the public.
The Raptors, entering their third season in the NBA, are looking to improve on last year's 30-52 record. They are also looking to enhance their profile in the Western New York market.
"Without question," said Isiah Thomas, the Raptors' vice president and part owner. "When I first got to Toronto, a lot of people told me how they used to drive down to watch the Buffalo Braves play when they had Bob McAdoo and Jim McMillian. Now, we'd like some of the Buffalo fans to drive to Toronto and root for the Raptors."
Area basketball fans wouldn't mind if Toronto played a home game or two at Marine Midland Arena. The Braves used to play several games a year at Maple Leaf Gardens. If Toronto reciprocated, it would do wonders for their profile here.
"That would be up to the NBA," Thomas said.
Within a year or two, the Raptors could develop into one of the sport's better draws. They have a charismatic star in point guard Damon Stoudamire, the 1996 rookie of the year; a gifted big man in 6-foot-11 Marcus Camby; and the league's latest teen-aged curiosity in 6-8 Tracy McGrady.
The Raptors won nine more games last year than they did in their inaugural season. They're hoping to make a similar jump this year under head coach Darrell Walker, which would put them in contention for their first playoff berth.
"I don't know what everybody else is thinking," said Stoudamire, "but I feel this is kind of a make-or-break year. Hopefully, players will mature and understand their roles better. Last year, we had an identity problem."
Stoudamire played for the winning U.S. team here in the 1993 World University Games. Otherwise, he said he knows nothing about Buffalo, except the names "Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly.
"When I came here in '93, it was fun," Stoudamire said. "I came in the summertime, though. It was humid, about 90 or 100 degrees. I've never been here when it's cold. I just hope it doesn't snow in the next week."