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Arena needs a testimonial to the NBA Braves

During the Hall of Fame ceremony for Dominik Hasek on Saturday night, I looked up from the press box in First Niagara Center to imagine Hasek’s jersey, which will be retired next season, hanging from the rafters.

Sadly, I was also reminded that there is no Buffalo Braves banner hanging in our downtown arena, no evidence that an NBA team played here for eight remarkable seasons and remains a vital part of our collective sporting memory.

The same thought occurred to me a week or so ago, when we hosted an NCAA Tournament subregional that was the most well-attended in the entire nation. For the fifth time since 2000, we showed the world that when it comes to the big events, we’re still a good basketball town, deep down inside.

It’s the small, gracious gesture that continues to elude us. It’s about time we had a remembrance of the Braves in that arena. Yes, the team left 36 years ago to become the Clippers. But a lot of people who love their hoops have fond memories of Bob McAdoo, the late Randy Smith, Ernie DiGregorio, Dr. Jack Ramsay and the rest.

This shouldn’t be such a heavy lift. An arena that hosts five major NCAA events in 14 years should be able to arrange an NBA preseason game and raise some kind of banner, or banners, to honor the Braves.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Mayor Byron Brown, who played a year of JV basketball at Buffalo State. “The time is right, and I think it can only bring positive recognition to the community. I think a lot of people still talk about the team and what it meant to the community to this day.”

Brown was a huge fan of the Braves. He has an orange seat from the old Aud signed by McAdoo. He has a basketball and photo autographed by Randy Smith, who was his idol as a kid growing up in Queens. The mayor says his admiration for Smith was a big reason he chose to attend college in Buffalo.

He’s not the only one who thinks it’s a great idea. Mark Poloncarz, the county executive, likes the idea, too. (Anyone for Gov. Cuomo?)

“It’s not asking for a whole lot,” Poloncarz said. “I could certainly support that endeavor. I think they would fill the place. There’s enough of a fan base. I grew up watching Van Miller call the game. When they left, I became a Lakers fan. My brother was a Celtic fan. We had constant battles.”

This is not a novel idea. John Boutet, the site and exhibit chairman for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, formed a committee five years ago to pursue a banner-raising. Tim Wendel, the Lockport native who published a history of the Braves in 2009, was on the committee. So was Ted Powell, whose father, the late Bob Powell, covered the Braves for the Courier-Express.

Boutet met with Mayor Brown. He designed a sample banner, which sits in the Sports Hall of Fame display outside the Sabres Store. He had a letter published in The News.

“There had been some small efforts as far back as 2002, if I remember correctly,” Boutet said, “and no one seemed to get far with it. We met with Mayor Byron Brown, who was all for it. Basically, he said it was up to the Sabres. They had to be the ones to champion it.

“I had talked with Larry Quinn several times. He never even gave me the time of day. He didn’t want to talk about it.”

Maybe it’s time to revive the campaign. Banner or no banner, it would be nice to get an NBA preseason game here. The last one was in October 1999. We’ve had five NCAA subregionals since the last NBA game.

Next season will be McAdoo’s 20th as an assistant coach for the Miami Heat. It would be good to honor McAdoo, a Basketball Hall of Famer and former league MVP, by hosting a preseason game and raising a banner in First Niagara Center.

The dream game would be against the Clippers. Boutet called the Clipper offices in L.A. and says they’re receptive. He said the Clippers honor their Buffalo heritage with orange throwback jerseys and Braves bobbleheads. Why not something in their original home? Why, the Canadiens have an Expos banner in the Bell Centre, honoring the Expos.

Kenny Martin Sr., who was McAdoo’s closest friend in Buffalo and still speaks with him every day, said he was hoping to approach Pat LaFontaine about bringing back McAdoo for a Braves event. His son, Kenny Martin Jr., is vice president of community affairs for the NHL.

“The Buffalo Braves had a very strong following during their time in Buffalo,” said Michael Gilbert, Sabres vice president of public and community relations. “From time to time we will receive an email from a fan who would like us to honor the Braves in some form but there certainly hasn’t been strong outpouring of support to do something over the past few years.”

“Dr. Jack” Ramsay, who coached the Braves in their heyday, likes the idea. Ramsay, who turned 89 last month, is gravely ill with marrow syndrome, a condition that inhibits the body’s ability to produce enough blood cells. Until a year ago, he was still doing color on national NBA radio broadcasts.

When I called Ramsay in Florida a week ago, he initially wasn’t up for an interview. But when I mentioned the Braves, he said, “Let’s try and do it.”

He spoke only briefly, for maybe a minute. His breathing was labored, and Ramsay had to battle to get the words out.

“I remember there was a lot of affection for the Braves,” he said. “In later years, you would see people on the street and they would remember that team with a lot of affection. It was nice to know this team was remembered so favorably.

“Yeah, I enjoyed coaching them. It was a fun team to coach as well.”

Ramsay didn’t have the strength to go on. But he had said enough. A fun team that inspired great affection, one that people remember fondly. Those Braves teams deserve to be remembered in a more lasting fashion. What’s really sad is that when it finally happens, if it happens, Dr. Jack probably won’t be around to see it.