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‘Ernie D’ returns to local basketball scene to assist 716ers

There’s a new face on the Buffalo sports scene. Actually, it’s an old face in a new role. It’s Ernie D.

Ernie DiGregorio, the former Buffalo Braves NBA Rookie of the Year, has signed on with the Buffalo 716ers team of the American Basketball Association as director of community relations and fan enhancement.

“My goal is to build a brand and be the face of the franchise,” DiGregorio said.

Ernie D will not have anything to do with the coaching or acquisition of players for the 716ers. His job will be to represent the team and build support from the Western New York business community.

The 716ers played last season in the Premier Basketball League, which has been dominated by the Rochester Razor Sharks, whose owner also is the league chairman.

DiGregorio last played for Buffalo in the 1976-77 season, when he was traded by team co-owner John Y. Brown to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I think that was John Y’s way of getting even with me,” DiGregorio said. “When I was coming out of college he offered me a lot of money to play for the Kentucky Colonels in the ABA, but I signed with Buffalo because playing in the NBA was something I wanted.”

DiGregorio was the third pick in the 1973 NBA Draft after leading his hometown Providence College team to the NCAA Final Four. Even though the Friars lost to Memphis State, seeing a lead vanish after star forward Marvin Barnes was hobbled by an ankle injury, Ernie D made headlines for his behind-the-back fullcourt pass to teammate Kevin Stacom for a basket. Some still refer to it as the greatest pass in basketball history.

When Ernie D arrived, so did the Braves. They made the playoffs for the first time in his rookie season, when a rebuilt team that included newcomers Garfield Heard and Jim McMillian, along with holdovers Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith, lost in Game Six of a first-round series with eventual champion Boston.

Ernie D suffered a knee injury the next season but was back in with the 1975-76 team that lost to the Washington Bullets in the playoffs. Much to his disappointment and that of his fans, DiGregorio’s role diminished and he was not happy with coach Jack Ramsay.

All that was long ago. DiGregorio said he made his peace with the late Hall of Fame coach several years ago.

“He was a smart man and I really respected him. I talked to him on the phone after he had become ill. Even now when I watch games, I remember things he used to teach us.”

After being with the Braves for most of the franchise’s highlight moments, it was coincidence that he played for the Boston Celtics in the Buffalo Braves’ final game on the last day of the 1977-78 NBA regular season. It also was John Havlicek Day at the old Boston Garden and the Celtics’ hero was honored on his final Sunday afternoon on the historic parquet floor.

DiGregorio had joined the Celtics that season. He recalled “advice” Havlicek gave him in one of his first practices with Boston.

“Havlicek told me, ‘Ernie, this is your chance to impress Red Auerbach because he watches these practices very closely.’ ” DiGregorio said. “I looked up in the stands to see where Red was sitting and he had fallen asleep.”

Ernie D remembered teammates who have passed on like Randy Smith, Dale Schlueter and Bob Kauffman as well as Ramsay, assistant coach Bob MacKinnon and general manager Eddie Donovan, team broadcaster Van Miller and Bob Powell, who covered the team for the Buffalo Courier-Express. One of his first stops in Buffalo was a visit with former Braves owner Paul L. Snyder, looking for any advice he might offer on operating a sports team in Buffalo and dealing with the local business community.

He’s lost contact with some of the old Braves, although he would visit with McAdoo when the Miami Heat would come to Boston. McAdoo was an assistant coach of the Heat until this season.

DiGregorio’s role with the 716ers should be right up his alley. He spent 18 years as a host at the Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Eastern Connecticut not -12.

Buffalo’s first home game on a 14-game league schedule will be Dec. 12 against the Northern Indiana Monarchs at the ECC Flickinger Athletics Center.