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Sean Kirst: For Buffalo hoops pioneer, one Hall down and one to go

Sean Kirst

For a Buffalo basketball pioneer, it's one Hall of Fame down ....

The big one yet to go.

Leo Ferris, whose Buffalo Bisons of 1946 are now the National Basketball Association's Atlanta Hawks, was named last week to the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame. For family members of Ferris, who went on from Buffalo to become a founder of the NBA, the significance went beyond a regional hall of fame:

Ferris helped change basketball itself, while in Syracuse. They could not understand why he never received local acclaim to reflect that level of achievement.

For the same reason, his advocates are now looking toward the game's highest honor, in Springfield, Mass.

On National Public Radio: Overdue acclaim for basketball pioneer Leo Ferris

Raised in Elmira, Ferris learned his business skills in Buffalo, working for the Jacobs family. He was both a magician – an actual magician – and a basketball visionary. In 1946, he created the Bisons in the old National Basketball League and later moved them to Illinois. He brought Buffalo's Ben Kerner, who'd emerge as another renowned hoops executive, into the game.

Ferris also became league president and a main warrior in the effort to force a merger with the Basketball Association of America.

He succeeded. The new league he helped to found was called the NBA.

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In 1949, Ferris – homesick for Upstate New York – returned from Moline to become general manager of the Nationals. In Syracuse, he played a central role in building a team that would win the 1955 NBA championship. He signed such players as Earl Lloyd, who'd already made history as the first African-American to play in an NBA game.

He reorganized the club and championed such innovations as bringing in nationally known entertainers, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, for performances linked to the games. Dolph Schayes, the star on that team, would later become the first coach of the Buffalo Braves.

Most important, with Nats president Dan Biasone and Emil Barboni, a scout, Ferris played a key role in developing the 24-second shot clock – which transformed the NBA from a boring grind of hold-the-ball into a fast-moving ballet. Such historians as the late Leonard Koppett, a writer who was there at the beginning, have said the shot clock saved professional basketball.

The original Buffalo Bisons, 1946; the team is now the Atlanta Hawks. (Buffalo Courier-Express)

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"We are thrilled that for a third time in under 12 months, Leo is being recognized by a regional Hall of Fame for his many contributions to the game of basketball," said Christian Figueroa of Massachusetts, a great-nephew, who has studied Ferris' career. He referred to halls in Chemung County and Illinois, which also honored Ferris.

Yet Figueroa said the great campaign remains the same:

The family believes Ferris should be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. He has twice made it to the final nominating stage, but has yet to be inducted.

Ferris died of Huntington's disease, a devastating illness that strips away many essential functions, including the ability to talk. His wife Beverly, who never gave up on her dream that Ferris would receive the recognition he was due, died before any of it happened. His daughter Jamie was also lost to Huntington's.

"It would have meant the world to Beverly and Jamie to see Leo enshrined at the Naismith," Figueroa said, "so we won't stop until we get this done for them."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at, leave a message below or read more of his work in this archive.

Christian Figueroa holds an image of Leo Ferris at news conference for the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame. (Family photo)

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