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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Campaign to honor an NBA founder comes home, to Buffalo

This was the place, the end point of the pilgrimage. Christian Figueroa and his family spent almost seven hours last week driving from their Massachusetts home in order to climb onto an elevator in the Convention Tower on Court Street, known for years as the Walbridge Building in downtown Buffalo.

The Figueroas were headed for the fifth floor, toward the locked door of a vacant office suite. No plaque or interpretative marker speaks to its deep meaning in basketball history.

Yet Figueroa carried a stack of old clippings, offering detailed proof of a relationship that started in that space.

His great-uncle, Leo Ferris, was one of the founders of the National Basketball Association.

For the past few years, Figueroa has led a campaign to reawaken interest in Ferris, one he hopes will reach a crescendo at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Mass.

In 1946, Ferris ran a small Buffalo advertising company from the fifth floor. It is where he laid the groundwork for joining with the Erie County American Legion to create a forgotten professional team, the Buffalo Bisons, a team that still exists today as the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA.

That office is also where Ferris built a partnership with a friend, Ben Kerner, who went on to eventually succeed Ferris and win an NBA title as owner of the Hawks, when they were in St. Louis.

Team that's now Atlanta Hawks bailed on Buffalo 70 years ago

Most important, the Walbridge Building is almost certainly where Ferris —who started his career in advertising and concessions with Buffalo's Jacobs family - made the calls and held the talks that helped establish what became the NBA itself.

Almost no one remembers. That is exactly why Figueroa, 39, an opera singer and actor who has performed the national anthem before games at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, needed to see the place before his family drove on toward a visit to Niagara Falls.

"These beautiful historic buildings," Figueroa said from Court Street, looking around downtown. "So many things are unchanged, still the way that Leo saw them."

Ferris lived in Buffalo for a dozen years, Figueroa said, from 1937 to 1949. In his spare time, Ferris was president of the Magicians Guild of Buffalo. He was also a former high school basketball standout in Elmira who had faith in the postwar future of the professional game.

He believed in it enough to be the driving force behind the Bisons of the old National Basketball League,  created through an unusual alliance with the American Legion. Among the stars was William "Pop" Gates, a future Hall of Famer and one of pro basketball's African-American pioneers.

The team survived for less than two months in Buffalo before Ferris, worried about lagging attendance, announced on Christmas Day of 1946 that he was moving the franchise to Moline, Ill. He quickly approved of renaming the club as the "Blackhawks," a nickname eventually whittled down to today's Hawks.

Leo Ferris, as a young man. (Family image)

Still, he kept his home and main office in Buffalo. In 1946, he assembled a key meeting of the NBL at the Hotel at the LaFayette, where another eventual Hall of Famer, Ward "Piggy" Lambert, signed on as league commissioner.

The other owners would soon entrust Ferris with a key mission. The league had franchises in places like Oshkosh, Toledo and Syracuse. It was his job to force the larger Basketball Association of America, which included the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, to think about a merger.

Ferris succeeded. Owners from the two leagues quietly met at the old Statler, in 1947, in an early step toward considering the possibilities. Ferris, who served for a time as NBL president, was relentless. In an especially brilliant move, he signed the entire “Fabulous Five,” a legendary Kentucky team, and essentially gave the players their own franchise in Indianapolis.

The jolted BAA agreed to make peace. A new league, today's National Basketball Association, was created at a meeting in New York City, 69 years ago this month.

In the center of a celebratory photo captured by the Associated Press, standing with such legends as Walter Brown of the Celtics and Ned Irish of the Knicks?

Leo Ferris.

While Brown and Irish were enshrined years ago in the basketball Hall of Fame, Ferris is not there. He was like a comet that burned bright and disappeared, his career as a game-changing executive ending after less than 10 years in basketball. He died in 1993 of Huntington's disease, a devastating illness that stripped him of his mobility and his voice.

Figueroa’s dream coincides with next year’s 70th anniversary of the birth of the NBA. The way he sees it, that would be a perfect year for the hall to enshrine the Buffalo guy who helped create the league.

“Uncle Leo,” Figueroa often says, “deserves it.”

If you need proof, Figueroa has it. He found a 1949 clipping, for instance, in which Indiana sportswriter John Whitaker called Ferris the most influential owner in basketball, the “minister, ring bearer, best man” at what Whitaker described as “the shotgun wedding” that created the NBA.

With promotions and the game itself, Ferris was an innovator. In 1954, as general manager of the Syracuse Nationals, Ferris joined team president Dan Biasone and Emil Barboni, a Syracuse scout, in pushing hard for a new idea known as the 24-second clock, a rule change finally adopted by the NBA.

The clock put an end to boring hold-the-ball tactics, and played a direct role in Syracuse's winning its only championship. The late Leonard Koppett, the great sportswriter, often said, point blank, that the shot clock added excitement, brought in new fans and saved the league.

But Ferris was gone. He and the Nats had an internal dispute about his role, and he left the team for a long career in real estate. While the NBA became a colossus, few remember the Buffalo guy whose vision was a major part of the foundation.

At the Walbridge Building, Figueroa and his 8-year-old son wore T-shirts that read, “Save Ferris.”

An old Courier-Express spread in 1946 welcoming the Buffalo Bisons, a team that still exists today as the Atlanta Hawks.

Figueroa's wife, Michelle O'Berg Figueroa, is a television journalist. What drives her husband, she said, is the idea of family honor, the notion that a relative who accomplished so much — and was so beloved by Figueroa's mother and grandmother — receives such little credit.

In the last few years of his life, Ferris was unable to share those tales himself. He died of Huntington’s, the disease that threw a shadow over the family. It claimed the life of his mother before him, Figueroa said, as well as all three of his children – including his youngest, his daughter Jamie, who died at 53 in 2013.

After the death of Beverly Ferris, her mother, Jamie's condition eventually put her in a nursing home, and it is her memory that especially inspires Figueroa. In many ways, his campaign is already a success. He has created a Facebook page and Twitter account, to honor Ferris. He catalogs every historical document he finds.

Thanks to his great-nephew, Ferris has received glowing treatment from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and National Public Radio’s “Only a Game.” For the last three years, he has also been selected as a nominee for induction into the hall in Springfield.

That is far as Ferris has gone, a barrier that haunts his great-nephew. History, Figueroa said, can so easily be lost. The evidence is clear in Buffalo, where many of us remember the old Braves of the 1970s in the NBA, but there is almost no memory of the short-lived basketball Bisons.

Little Christian Charles Figueroa, who loves his father, certainly does not forget. Last week in Buffalo, he shared a quiet confession. On his eighth birthday, he made this unspoken wish when he blew out the candles on his cake.

“I wished,” he said, “for Leo Ferris to be in the Hall of Fame.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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