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Milt remembers: How the Braves became good, almost overnight

Milt Northrop

Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame member Milt Northrop has seen a lot in his 52-year career at The Buffalo News and even before that. Occasionally he will share some of the events that have left a lasting impression on him. He covered the NBA's Buffalo Braves for all of their eight seasons and in this installment remembers how the Braves built a playoff team in 1973-74.

"Trading noises emanating from Braves' Office," read the headline in The Buffalo Evening News on Aug. 22, 1973. Turned out to be an understatement and prophetic.

That was almost three weeks before Buffalo's National Basketball Association team was to open training camp at Dods Hall on the Fredonia State campus for the 1973-74 season. Just a few days before the team was to open its preseason schedule, General Manager Eddie Donovan completed the second of the two trades that were to transform a team that struggled to a 65-181 overall record in its first three NBA seasons into a playoff team that was one of the most exciting and entertaining in the league.

First, Donovan traded forward John Hummer, the team's first-round pick in 1970, to the Chicago Bulls. Buffalo received forward Garfield Heard in return. Buffalo also received the rights to 7-foot center Kevin Kunnert from Chicago. Kunnert later proved to be a valuable piece in the midseason deal that brought forward Jack Marin and guard Matt Guokas from Houston.

While the Hummer trade was still reverberating a week later with the team already in camp, an even bigger deal was made. The Braves shipped 7-foot center Elmore Smith, their first round pick in 1971, to the Los Angeles Lakers and received small forward Jim McMillian in return.

Overnight, the two deals, added to the drafting of guard Ernie DiGregorio in the first round of the 1973 selections and the presence of young stars Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith, turned the Braves into the most explosive offensive team in the NBA. Buffalo went on to lead the league in scoring at 111.6 points a game and tied for second with a .480 field-goal shooting percentage. Conversely, the Braves finished last in defense, but who wanted to see the walk-it-up the floor style of the New York Knicks 82 games a year?

Coach Jack Ramsay finally had a team that could play the up-tempo game he preferred. The season before he gritted his teeth almost nightly with a team that lacked a pure point guard, scoring punch at small forward and the overall athletic ability that could handle the defensive pressure in the backcourt he had so much success with as a college coach at Saint Joseph's. And, as effective as Elmore Smith was in blocking shots and rebounding, he was not the good passer or a nifty ballhandler that Ramsay preferred from his post player.

The newcomers, especially rookies DiGregorio and guard Ken Charles from Fordham and McMillian, who had played on a championship Lakers team in his second pro season, brought a winning attitude. In the early scrimmages and intrasquad games at Fredonia, the spirited young players dominated the workouts.

"Right now  I wouldn't try to assess any of the rookies," veteran forward Bob Kauffman told Steve Weller, the News' sports columnist at the time. "For the first few days they're always excited and running round like a bunch of puppies in a pen. When they settle down and quit trying to be whirlwinds, then you'll start to see good basketball."

"Puppies?"

The rookies loved it and quickly rallied around their nickname.

The Braves held an intrasquad game open to the public on their first Friday night of camp. Again, DiGregorio, Charles and the rookies stole the show. More surprises came the next morning. Buffalo cut veteran guard Dick Garrett, forward Bill Hewitt and third-year guard Fred Hilton, a second-round pick after Elmore was selected in 1971. It was a sure sign that Ramsay's second Buffalo team would be much different than the first.

The following Monday, the Braves announced the McMillian trade at a noon press conference in Memorial Auditorium.

Much was new, but when would it become apparent how good the Braves would become?

The preseason opener was against the Boston Celtics in Augusta, Maine. The Celtics won, 96-88, as they always seemed to do against the Braves. From Maine, the Braves flew to New York the next morning to face Boston again in the first game of a doubleheader in Madison Square Garden. It was there that the new-look Buffalo team opened a lot of eyes in the Mecca of basketball. They wiped out the Celtics by 40 points, 140-100. McMillian, who had reported to the team only four days before, scored 25 points. Heard came off the bench in place of Kauffman and scored 16 points, took down 13 rebounds and blocked several shots in just 25 minutes.

"I think this is going to be a good team," Ramsay said. "We still need more time to put things together, but the nucleus is there. We don't want to break it up."

The Braves went on to win five of the eight preseason games and won the regular season opener before their largest opening night crowd yet (11,462), edging a good Houston team, 116-115, on a 23-foot jumper from the right wing by McAdoo with 2 seconds left in overtime. McAdoo, who would soon be on his way to the first of his two league scoring championships, had 31 points and 21 rebounds. Niagara great Calvin Murphy scored 31 for Houston.

The team didn't exactly take off from there. The next game was a loss, as usual to the Celtics in their season opener in Boston. In fact, four of the next five games were losses, and Buffalo won only one of seven road games in the month of November (one of those losses was in Toronto, where the Braves played nine times that season). The one win was impressive, though, 112-101, over the Capital Bullets with Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Phil Chenier, Kevin Porter and Mike Riordan at Cole Field House in College Park, Md. The Braves raced to victory as the Bullets seemed to plod.

The next milestone came at the turn of the New Year. Buffalo won three of four games on a Western trip to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, losing only by three to the Lakers. It was the team's most successful West Coast trip ever. Heard had 31 points at Portland in a game where Ernie D scored 20 and had 25 assists, a season high in the NBA.

A week after Marin and Guokas had joined the team at the Feb. 1 trade deadline, the Braves  broke through for only their second regular season win over the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. They had gone 0-11 there over three plus seasons. Marin had 10 points and Guokas six in a 103-100 overtime victory on a Saturday afternoon at MSG. It was a glorious day for the few Braves fans who traveled to the Big Apple and we celebrated well into the night at such First Avenue hotspots such as Maxwell's Plum and the original Friday's. Reality intruded the next day, however, in a loss to the Cavaliers in Cleveland, but the dominance by the Knicks was over for good. Buffalo was 8-8 at the Garden over its last five seasons in the league before the franchise was moved.

There was still one dragon to be slain. The Celtics. Buffalo had gone 0-5 against Tom Heinsohn's team for the season including a two-point loss the day after Christmas in the Aud. That extended Boston's regular season total dominance over the Braves to 22 straight before the teams met on Feb. 27 in Providence, R.I. Two of the three road games against Boston that season were played in Providence, Ernie D's home town. The Braves finally broke through the second time, 122-104. There's one proviso, however. Celtics great and Braves nemesis John Havlicek did not play that night because of a hamstring injury. It was the first of six games Hondo was to miss over a seven-game stretch. The one game he did play was a 110-94 Buffalo win in the Aud two nights later.

By this time a playoff berth was clearly in sight for Buffalo. The clincher came in Toronto of all places, where the Braves defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 122-112, to go 39-35 for the season and mathematically eliminate the last possible challenger, Atlanta, from wild-card consideration.

Playoff basketball had finally come to Buffalo, and the town was abuzz in hoops, after the excitement the year before over the Sabres' first playoff run. One problem, the opponent was those Celtics, who were on their way to building a post-Bill Russell mini-dynasty.

Ramsay was superb at getting a team ready for the playoffs. His teams played magnificently, winning on the road in playoff openers at Washington in 1975 and at Philadelphia in 1976. The same in the 1974 opener at Boston, but the Braves could not sustain it. After taking a 50-41 halftime lead and an 81-69 advantage into the fourth quarter, the Braves' Achilles heel, rebounding, and fatigue did them in. They were outscored, 38-16, in the fourth quarter and lost, 107-97. Buffalo was outrebounded, 58-42, and were minus-7 in turnovers as well.

Buffalo won Game 2 and Game 4 at the Aud, but the Celtics won on their home court again, 100-97, to take a 3-2 series lead heading into the Darell Garretson game in a Friday night at the Aud in Game Six. Garretson's foul call against McAdoo put Jo Jo White of the Celtics on the line in a tie game with 1 second remaining. McAdoo had fouled a desperation shot by White nearly 30 feet from the basket on a broken play. White made both free throws to end the game and the series, 106-104, and suck the last bit of drama out of Buffalo's season.

Boston went on to defeat the aging Knicks in five games, then won a Game 7 on the road against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Braves were left with some consolation. Besides winning the scoring championship, McAdoo led the league in field-goal percentage and was third in both rebounding and blocked shots and was runner-up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for league MVP honors. DiGregorio was NBA Rookie of the Year after he led the league in assists at 8.2 per game and free throw shooting (.902).

It was the start of an exciting era which lasted only three years before the moves of owners Paul L. Snyder and John Y. Brown left a promising team in tatters.

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