For 40 years, Bob McAdoo has yearned for a LeRoy Neiman original that stands as the centerpiece in Paul Snyder’s sprawling Williamsville mansion.
Neiman, the famous mustachioed artist, completed three pieces in the 1970s that captured Buffalo sports at their finest. The city at the time had enough room and vibrancy for three professional teams and was home to three superstars in their prime.
O.J. Simpson was a national celebrity, but he shared the Buffalo spotlight with Gilbert Perreault and McAdoo. Neiman painted all three in separate pieces that were given to owners of the three professional franchises: Ralph Wilson of the Bills, Seymour Knox of the Sabres and Snyder of the Braves.
The Simpson piece depicts a young running back cutting through the Chiefs’ defense. Perreault drives the net with linemates Rene Robert and Rick Martin, the French Connection forever linked to Sabres’ history. McAdoo jumps toward the basket against Bill Bradley, the former Knicks great and future U.S. Senator.
While an art aficionado might speak to Neiman’s idiosyncratic means, his relationship with the human body or the depth of his work, the piece is a simple and painful reminder for 40-somethings and older who coveted Buffalo’s pro basketball team.
Snyder recently disclosed how the Buffalo you see today easily could have been a pro basketball town, how it would have come at the expense of the Sabres, how a powerful priest played a role in the Braves’ departure because he wanted to save college basketball.
Over two regular seasons beginning in 1974-75, the Braves went 95-69 and were a team on the rise. Yet in 1976-77, they employed three head coaches, sold off the league scoring champion and finished 30-52. The following season the slide with a gutted roster reached 27-55. Two months later the franchise bolted.
How did it all unravel?
What exactly happened?
For nearly four decades, similar questions have chased Snyder like a dark secret from his past. Invariably, someone will pull him aside for casual conversations at dinner parties or business functions and ask in a whisper, you know, just between friends, what really happened with the Braves?
“They asked,” Snyder said, “but I didn’t answer. ... Why generate news that doesn’t help me? I’ve avoided all that.”
At age 78, he could be living on his own tropical island but instead he still arrives early to the office and stays late. No longer needing to dodge questions about the Braves to protect his business interests, he agreed to speak about the franchise.
“At this point, to be frank, what I’ve done here and in my career speaks for itself,” Snyder said while sitting in his Snyder corp., office in Fountain Plaza. “I don’t need anybody to tell me I’m good, bad or anything else. My record says what I am.”
Many local basketball fans viewed him as a greedy man who sold the Braves to profiteer John Y. Brown – more on him later – for an easy score knowing they would be relocated. The record shows Snyder actually saved the Braves and spared the NBA from embarrassment years before their demise.
“This is the first time I’ve ever gotten into this with anybody,” he said. “Maybe it’s a good thing for this to happen. At this point, this is history. People are going to be excited or surprised or whatever, but it doesn’t mean much to me, personally. I feel what I did involving the Braves was terrific.”
Many theorized the Braves left because attendance was poor. Wrong.
Or they were losing money. Wrong.
Or Snyder sold out his adopted hometown. Wrong.
The Braves attendance, pathetic when stacked against today’s figures in pro sports, was consistent with the NBA at the time. Snyder broke even or turned a profit every year.
And he certainly didn’t need the money.
Buffalo sports fans who suffered through four Super Bowl losses and two Stanley Cup final defeats, people who lived through Wide Right and No Goal, forget another narrow miss with the Braves. If they would have survived for two more years, the Braves would have prospered when the NBA took off in the 1980s.
Who knows? By now, we could be talking about the year Buffalo won an NBA title.
The Braves had the makings of a great team before being torn apart. They became the Clippers, who eventually moved from San Diego to Los Angeles and sold in 2014 for $2 billion.
The Braves’ departure forever altered the course of Buffalo sports. Their history was shaped by backroom politics, asinine basketball decisions, a lack of foresight and influential businessmen who were stripped of their leverage.
“Where would we be right now if Buffalo had a team all those years?” asked Ernie DiGregorio, the former guard and one-time fan favorite. “It would have been unbelievable. That’s what’s so disappointing. You had it. Everything was there. It was something really special, and it’s a real travesty that it left Buffalo. It’s really sad.”
“I’m very sympathetic to the fact Buffalo doesn’t have a basketball team,” Brown, the owner who orchestrated the move, said by telephone. “It’s a great sports market. You love your hockey. You love your football. I like Paul and have a lot of respect for him, but we didn’t understand the potential for pro basketball. It was a business we didn’t understand, I guess.”
A double play
In the 1960s, Buffalo’s two favorite teams were the Bills and Canisius College basketball. The Bills won American Football League titles in the two years preceding the first AFL-NFL championship, now known as the Super Bowl. Winter months were spent following Little Three hoops in smoke-filled Memorial Auditorium. Canisius, led by future Braves coach Johnny McCarthy, had a prominent program since the 1950s. Bob Lanier was a homegrown star who played for St. Bonaventure. Niagara had 5-foot-9 scoring machine Calvin Murphy.
It wasn’t the NBA. In Western New York it was bigger.
“Canisius basketball reigned supreme,” said Tony Masiello, the former Canisius star who later became Buffalo’s mayor. “People don’t remember the intensity and significance of Canisius and Little Three basketball on a Saturday night in the Aud. Until the Sabres and the Braves came, Saturday night was owned by Canisius College. It was the night out on a Saturday night in Buffalo. Every Saturday, it was a packed house.”
The city was thriving. The NHL and NBA were looking to expand. In 1970, the NHL added a natural hockey outpost in Vancouver and a budding one in Buffalo. The NBA that same year welcomed Buffalo, Cleveland and Portland.
NHL expansion in Buffalo came with no major hitches. Brothers Seymour and Northrup Knox had their finances in order and negotiated a deal with the city that gave the Sabres favorable playing dates at the Aud without interfering with Canisius hoops. They were born-and-raised Buffalo insiders with political connections.
The Braves were a different story. The franchise was granted to partners of Neuberger, Loeb & Co., an investment firm based in Manhattan. According to the New York Times, the company made a series of mistakes that led to lawsuits and a temporary collapse shortly after it purchased the Braves.
Snyder, a college football player and wrestler who grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from the University at Buffalo, founded frozen-food giant Freezer Queen in 1958. In April 1970, he sold his interests in the company for $22 million, or about $142 million in today’s dollars, to Nabisco and became its largest stockholder.
He was 33 years old and had more money than he needed. He had purchased Darien Lake, leading to the theme park you see today. He had started other successful companies. Everything he touched was turning to gold. And along came the opportunity to buy a pro basketball franchise for $4 million.
“I was on the high of my life,” Snyder said. “I had just sold my company. I was on top of the world. I already owned Darien Lake. I owned a lot of real estate. So I was on a roll. I had been an athlete in college. I knew a lot of people in sports and was friends with Ralph Wilson. I followed sports.”
The NBA had taken over control of the Braves from Neuberger-Loeb when Snyder took his son, Paul, to a preseason game in Niagara Falls. It was the first time Snyder had been to a professional basketball game. The Braves beat the 76ers on a last-second shot in overtime. The timing was perfect.
“I take my son to Niagara Falls to see his first NBA game and the damn game goes into overtime and the Braves ended up winning,” Snyder said. “It was really exciting. I decided to see if I could buy the team on the spot. It was on emotion. My son was all excited, saying, ‘Dad, we got to do this,’ so I bought it.”
Snyder’s first move was writing a check to the NBA and securing the team. His second move was firing anyone working for the Braves who had been connected to Neuberger-Loeb. For months, while unwitting fans watched the games, he untangled a legal and financial mess left for him by the initial owners.
“I was buying it to save the team,” Snyder said. “I thought I was doing something good for the city. An NBA team probably would be good. It might be exciting to own. But I bought it feeling that I would put a group of people together and stay an owner or I might not. It was a temporary deal.”
“Paul did save the team,” Masiello said. “He doesn’t get credit for that, but he did.”
A problem unsolved
Snyder knew nothing about owning a sports franchise. Like many before him and many more who followed, he quickly learned it’s not like owning a business in the real world. He soon encountered a problem he never solved that would lead to the team’s departure.
The Sabres had first priority in securing dates at Memorial Auditorium. Canisius was next in line. Snyder was left with days during the week and some weekend dates but he, and the NBA, couldn’t finalize a schedule until the Sabres and Canisius finished theirs.
The delay impacted the league’s ability to negotiate and finalize television agreements, particularly for Saturday night games. The NBA gave Snyder five years to solve the issue or the team would be ineligible for league revenue sharing. Revenue sharing was a key source of income for the Braves. The Sabres wouldn’t budge, and Snyder didn’t blame them. He turned his attention to Canisius’ president, the Rev. James Demske.
The two were good friends. Demske later officiated the weddings of Snyder’s children. He offered Demske $125,000 – per date – to surrender certain Saturday nights to the Braves. Demske declined because he feared giving up the dates would cause irreparable damage to college basketball in Western New York.
“To be honest with you, you really have to give Father Demske a lot of credit for having the” strength “to stand up and not take that money,” Snyder said. “He didn’t do it. Canisius would have got the money, but he looked at it like he was saving St. Bonaventure and Niagara – and he really was.”
Fast forward to 2016. The NBA is a multibillion-dollar industry, an international giant in the sports world. Interest in local college basketball dwindled in the years that followed. Bigger schools formed power conferences and tapped into millions of dollars in television and sponsorship money.
Canisius and Niagara, unable or unwilling to keep up with the times, fell behind. Crowds dwindled. These days, the two programs draw 2,000 fans on a good night.
Madison Square Garden houses the Rangers, Knicks, concerts, the circus, wrestling, boxing and other attractions, but Buffalo couldn’t figure out how to manage the Sabres, Braves and college hoops?
“I never heard that and don’t believe it,” said Frank Layden, the former Niagara coach who left for the NBA in the 1970s and later became general manager of the Utah Jazz. “It’s an exaggeration. There was room for everybody. I don’t buy that it couldn’t be worked out. Canisius and Niagara could have played in the afternoon. C’mon.”
Every person interviewed for this story recalled the dates being the primary issue. The problem wasn’t resolved within the five-year window. Snyder’s only other choice was building a new arena and going head-to-head with the Sabres and Canisius. That option didn’t make financial sense. The Braves’ departure was inevitable.
“I agree with that assessment,” former NBA commissioner David Stern, general counsel for the league at the time, said by telephone. “The economics of the team at that time and in that market did not work. If you have a basketball and hockey team in the same building under the same ownership, that’s one thing. But when they’re competing with each other for dates, whichever team is in second place is severely disadvantaged.”
The Braves had three rookies of the year (McAdoo, Ernie D and Adrian Dantley), the NBA’s most valuable player (McAdoo) and an All-Star Game most valuable player (Randy Smith) in a six-year stretch. Other greats such as Moses Malone and Nate “Tiny” Archibald passed through town.
“What kind of front line do you think you would have had in Buffalo with these young guys playing on the same team?” McAdoo said. “I talked about it with those guys. All they could do is shake their head. It was a front line you keep together for five to 10 years. Three of their young players ended up being three of the best players this league has ever seen.”
McAdoo, Dantley, Malone and Archibald, along with Jack Ramsay -- who coached the team from 1972 to '76 -- were all inducted into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame. McAdoo, Malone, Archibald and Ramsay won NBA titles. Dantley won two scoring titles and had scored the ninth-most points in NBA history when he retired in 1991.
Smith, the former Buffalo State star, played 12 NBA seasons and died in 2009 at age 60. He once played 906 consecutive games, a record later broken by A.C. Green. Ramsay died two years ago.
“It was a great core,” Ernie D said. “There was no question we could have built on that and been better and better every year. (Snyder) had his mind made up that he was going to sell the team. Everybody wishes they would have kept the team here. It would have been so much more exciting. It was very disappointing, but that’s what happens when people want to make money. Money dictates everything.”
Unknown is how good the Braves could have become if they had the patience to keep their own players, added more through the draft and were on solid ground in Buffalo. In 1979-1980, the season after the Braves left Buffalo, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson began leading the league to unprecedented heights.
“It had all worked well,” McAdoo said, “until the,” NBA-ABA “merger came and, from my understanding, John Y. Brown came through.”
Oh, yes, John Y. Brown.
Brown, the son of a congressman, was an astute businessman who purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from founder Harland Sanders and made a fortune. He also was a passionate basketball fan who owned the Kentucky Colonels and helped build the American Basketball Association to compete against the NBA.
“The problem with entrepreneurs is that we don’t make good owners,” said Brown, who later became governor of Kentucky. “We see problems and want to fix it. We want to change it. Entrepreneurs are people of disruption or reaction. We want to change it and take the risk. Basketball is a team game.”
The ABA lured great college players such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone, David Thompson and George Gervin while stealing a few NBA players, including Rick Barry and Billy Cunningham. The league, founded in 1967, ran into financial trouble after overpaying for players in bidding wars with the rival NBA.
Snyder helped merge the two leagues, in part because he thought joining forces with Brown would give him more leverage in negotiations with city officials over arena dates. It was a shrewd move that backfired. Snyder knew he needed to sell while he could.
Brown owed Snyder a substantial amount of money from their initial partnership – neither would say how much – and Snyder collected his debt when Brown started selling off players. The Braves turned from a team on the rise to one in ruins. The first blow was when he sold forward Jim McMillian. The biggest came when he traded McAdoo along with Tom McMillen to the Knicks for center John Gianelli and, most important, a load of cash.
McAdoo was a most valuable player and four-time all-star who wanted to be paid like one after his five-year contract expired. In the final year of his deal, the Braves played him four fewer minutes per game, limiting his production, and traded him for cash 24 games into the 1976-77 season.
The Braves were 10-14 with McAdoo averaging 23.7 points when the deal was made on Dec. 9, 1976. They went 20-38 the rest of the way with Gianelli averaging 7 points. Tates Locke, Bob MacKinnon and Joe Mullaney all served as head coaches.
But the trade served a purpose. Brown gave some of the proceeds to Snyder.
“They did some really ridiculous stuff,” McAdoo said. “And this was after I won my third scoring championship. Can you imagine them telling Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Stephen Curry not to score as many points because they wanted to hold their contract down? It was ludicrous. I look at it now. It was a ludicrous thing to do.”
Malone, acquired for $300,000 from the St. Louis Spirits, played a grand total of six minutes over two games and was traded to Houston because, according to Brown, Locke didn’t like him.
“He thought he was lazy because he was slumped on the bench or something,” Brown said. “He talked Paul into trading him.”
Dantley played one season in Buffalo and was traded to Detroit. Soon after, Brown and Celtics owner Irv Levin began negotiations that would allow them to exchange franchises. Levin wanted a team near his home in Southern California but the league wasn’t surrendering its hold on Boston. Brown believed the Braves were finished in Buffalo.
Snyder, who had refused offers to sell the team to businessmen in Florida and Toronto on separate occasions, had sold his remaining percentage to Brown during the 1977-78 season, reportedly for about $6.2 million. Their divorce led Brown to partner with Rochester businessman Harry Mangurian.
The Braves had an escape clause in their Aud lease that allowed them to leave town if they weren’t generating enough revenue. The Buffalo News reported at the time that they needed $55,000 at the gate – the equivalent of 5,500 fans paying an average of $10 per ticket. The remnants of a good team were barely worth the price of admission.
Was that a ploy to devalue the franchise, triggering the clause and enabling the Braves to leave? Looking back, it appeared that way. Brown shopped the Braves in Dallas, Minneapolis and his beloved Louisville. Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin was among many who wanted the franchise to remain in Buffalo.
Brown and Mangurian clearly had other ideas.
“I didn’t come in there as a bandit to take the team,” Brown said. “Paul had been looking in Miami. The only reason I got involved with Paul was that he wanted to move the team. We were trying. It wasn’t like we were making selfish decisions. We just didn’t know how it was going to work. We just felt like we didn’t have a future there.”
Brown and Levin traded enough players that they essentially swapped franchises. Brown landed in Boston while Levin took the Braves. Stern came up with the idea from the NFL after Carroll Rosenbloom, who had owned the Baltimore Colts, swapped franchises with Rams owner Robert Irsay in 1972.
“John was a character,” Stern said. “He was always looking for the next transaction. I was trying to keep it orderly. San Diego had been talking about an expansion team. They seemed to be a potentially relevant NBA city. The deal was ultimately made. Irv took the roster of the Braves and added some Celtics.”
It was merely the final blow for a team on its death bed in Buffalo.
On July 7, 1978, with all the pieces in place, NBA owners voted 21-1 for relocation of the Braves. Just like that, the franchise was gone for San Diego.
What might have been
Perhaps everything worked out for the better. Buffalo probably couldn’t have maintained three professional sports teams over the long haul because it didn’t have corporate money to support them.
Buffalo evolved into a hockey hotbed and has become an important U.S. market for the NHL. The region’s interest in the sport has never been higher when adding up youth, high school, college, junior and women’s professional hockey.
“I don’t care who it is or how you look at it, if the Braves wouldn’t have left Buffalo, the Sabres would have,” Snyder said. “The Braves had three times better TV ratings than the Sabres did. We had better radio ratings than the Sabres did. If the Braves would have won, the Sabres would have lost. Who knows whether you’re better off now or not?”
All these years later, Snyder remains certain he would have won the battle if he could have secured the weekend dates in Memorial Auditorium. Maybe they would have landed Bird or Magic or Michael or LeBron or Steph. Maybe they would have won an NBA title. If they stayed, Toronto wouldn’t have an NBA team.
Or perhaps pro basketball would have generated the interest needed to upgrade college hoops, enabling Canisius or Niagara or the University at Buffalo to join a power conference. Or maybe this story would be about how Buffalo allowed an NHL franchise to get away after the Sabres lost to the Braves in a financial war.
Snyder still treasures his days as an owner. McAdoo’s framed autographed jersey hangs in the office inside his home. One of his prized possessions is a photograph of him standing alongside Ralph Wilson and Seymour Knox from the early 1970s, three owners who weren’t sure where Buffalo sports would take them.
“I bought it as a caretaker,” Snyder said. “We just ran out of time with the league.”
To this day, Brown wears a championship ring the Celtics gave him for helping put together their 1981 championship team. The Braves became the San Diego Clippers, who left for Los Angeles. The same franchise Snyder purchased for $4 million sold for $2 billion in 2014.
Buffalo was left to watch.
“That’s the story – what if?” Brown said. “If you look back on it, we were pioneers. We were trying to make a business out of something that didn’t appear over a 20-year period to be a powerful business. I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but we gave it fair try. I wasn’t trying to grab your team. I enjoyed the town. I had fond memories of them. If they don’t have fond memories of me, I hope they forgive me.”
McAdoo, a longtime NBA assistant coach, is now a scout for the Miami Heat and still has strong ties to the Buffalo area. He befriended Ken Martin, of Tonawanda, during his playing days and the two have remained close. Ernie D and Snyder still get together when DiGregorio is in town for various business reasons.
The old Braves reconnected in one way or another when Randy Smith died and again in recent years after Ramsay and Bob Kauffman died. Kauffman was a three-time all-star who played for the Braves from 1970 to '74. Kauffman’s widow sent Snyder a heartfelt letter after her husband passed. McAdoo buried his mother earlier this year, prompting him to think about his own life and his desire for the Neiman piece.
“It would mean more to me than it would to him,” McAdoo said. “I know he paid a lot of money for it, but it’s my portrait. It’s going to be lost somewhere. It should be with the McAdoo family.”
“I know he wants it,” Snyder said with a smile, “but I’m not giving it to him.”