This is part of a series looking at Buffalo sports' greatest what-if's. Today: What if the Braves remained in Buffalo?
Four years after the Buffalo Braves had rid themselves of an old nemesis with the 1978 retirement of John Havlicek of the Boston Celtics, a new seemingly insurmountable obstacle stood in their path in the Atlantic Division of the National Basketball Association — Larry Joe Bird of those same Celtics.
In 12 games against Bird between his rookie season, 1979-80, and the 1982-83 campaign, Buffalo had lost all 12 to Bird and the Celtics. It extended the overall losing streak against Boston to 17 games.
This is the scenario the Braves would have faced had they somehow managed to stave off relocation at the end of the 1977-78 season. It’s hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which the Braves stayed and thrived in Buffalo. What if the Braves hadn’t moved? The answer probably is not pretty.
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There was no doubt that co-owner John Y. Brown intended to move the team before the 1978-79 season. The only question was where. Brown and his general manager Norm Sonju went on a shopping spree all over the United States, looking for a locale. Miami, Birmingham, Dallas, Minneapolis, San Diego, Memphis and Brown's hometown, Louisville, were mentioned.
The search was torture for those Buffalo fans who had held out hope the team could be saved. After all, they had been put through this before by the previous owner Paul L. Snyder, who first had hinted about moving to Toronto or splitting the season between Buffalo and Toronto in 1970 and then in 1976 when he had a deal in place to sell the team to South Florida interests before pulling back.
Louisville, for one, was wary and did not respond enthusiastically to Brown's overtures. Louisville fans resented the fact that John Y. took the $3 million buyout from in the NBA-ABA merger of 1976 rather than have the Kentucky Colonels join Denver, New York Nets, Indiana and San Antonio in moving to the NBA. Supposedly, Brown used the payoff to purchase a half share of the Buffalo Braves from Snyder, who had grown frustrated trying to make it big in Buffalo.
Brown's new partner with the team was Harry Mangurian, whose family ran a furniture business in Rochester. The Rochester ties led Western New York NBA fans to believe his interest would strengthen the team, rein in Brown's erratic management style and financially strengthen the team. Mangurian was a multi-millionaire with a net worth reportedly over $100 million because he was a successful condominium developer in Florida and horse race breeder. By this time his interests lie more in Florida than Western New York. As it turned out his presence did not help the Buffalo situation.
The NBA had granted Brown and extension in the deadline for a decision of where the Braves would play the 1978-79 season. It was expected to happen at the NBA annual meetings in San Diego in late June. It didn't. However, the plan to move the franchise was hatched there. NBA legal counsel David Stern brokered the deal that would have Brown taking the Braves corporate entity to Boston and owner Irv Levin of the Celtics, whose business interest were on the West Coast, taking the Celtics to San Diego. There would be a shuffling of players to retain the team identities.
The Buffalo News broke the story a few days after the NBA meeting had ended. The deal was officially announced at a special NBA Board of Governors meeting at the O'Hare Hilton in Chicago.
“That’s the story – what if?” Brown told the News in 2016. “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.”
Nothing could save the Braves now, it was thought.
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However, let’s imagine the City of Buffalo went through with its threatened antitrust suit against Brown, Levin and the NBA, and that it received a temporary injunction delaying the transaction and the franchise shifts for nearly five years before Brown and Levin were able to go on their merry way with the NBA's blessing.
It would have been four miserable seasons, even though the NBA was on the brink of a new golden era with Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson coming into the league for the 1979-80 season.
Dallas, armed with a new arena, joined the league in 1980 as an expansion team with Sonju as president. The price for admission? The Mavericks paid $12.5 million, almost twice what the Braves sold for in 1977.
Television ratings and rights fees were going up, from $1.5 million to $20 million for 1985-86, and so were the value of franchises. It was just a tip of the looming iceberg. It was reported that 18 of the 22 NBA franchises lost money in 1978-79, but many were soon to become profitable. An NBA franchise fee price would be prohibitive for whatever markets are available now in North American. An expansion to a city the size of Buffalo is impossible to imagine.
Lack of foresight by Snyder, Brown and others prevented Buffalo from riding the crest of the coming wave that was to engulf the NBA.
Instead, the Braves suffered both on and off the court until they were finally gone.
As the prime tenant in Memorial Auditorium, the Sabres had first choice on game dates and received a share of concessions for all events in the building. Canisius College had first call on its traditional Saturday basketball home dates. Over time, these were Snyder's two main complaints about the Braves' situation. He always took a glass-half-empty outlook. Team management did not take full advantage of the dates that were available. Canisius' priority left Saturdays available in October, November, March and April. The Sabres seemed happy and thriving on a Thursday-Sunday home pattern.
“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 in 2016. “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?”
It wasn't until the final season, under Brown's management, that the Braves took advantage of Sunday afternoon games and the advantages it offered for family-oriented crowds.
Between Snyder and Brown, they had decimated a talented Buffalo roster by the 78-79 season with bad trades or by selling off players for cash.
The roster was stripped bare, and Brown had traded away the team's first-round draft pick. Buffalo would have had the third pick after Portland and New Jersey in the 1978 draft. That meant they could have selected Bird, who although a junior at Indiana State was eligible for the draft and taken with the sixth pick by the shrewd Red Auerbach of the Celtics. It was perhaps the best move of Auerbach's career, right along with obtaining the rights to select Bill Russell in 1956.
Here is the team San Diego put on the floor in 1978-79: Lloyd Free, Randy Smith, Nick Weatherspoon, Kermit Washington, Swen Nater, Freeman Williams, Sidney Wicks and Kevin Kunnert.
Williams had been drafted by Boston then shipped to the Braves. Buffalo had made its draft choices before the franchise shift in 1978. Center Jerome Whitehead from Marquette was the team's first draft pick that year, but it didn't come until the second round, the 41st pick overall. Whitehead, who had helped coach Al McGuire's Marquette team to the 1977 NCAA championship, never was a star but played 11 seasons in the NBA.
Randy Smith and Nater were the only players from the 1977-78 Braves who played for the team the next season.
Boston, meanwhile, had built another powerhouse around Bird. Adding Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Tiny Archibald, M.L. Carr to Cedrick "Cornbread" Maxwell, who was a rookie in 1977-78.
Besides Julius Erving, Bobby Jones and Doug Collins, Philadelphia had added Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and eventually Moses Malone, whom Buffalo had traded away at week into the 1976-77 NBA season.
The four games each season against the Celtics, Sixers and the Knicks, were almost guaranteed big pay days at the gate for Buffalo. Same with the Lakers, but not being able to complete with the Nuggets, Spurs, SuperSonics, Rockets and Hawks would mean smaller crowds for those dates.
Another problem was that Buffalo had no friends in the NBA leadership. Buffalo did not figure in any vision future commissioner David Stern had for the league. Better off in the Sun Belt or West Coast was the NBA thinking.
By the time the NBA's Golden Era was under way, the taste for pro basketball had been so poisoned by Snyder and Brown, the public had to be won over and no longer blackmailed into supporting the team. And the handicap of competing for the sports dollar against the Bills and Sabres in a declining local economy was too much to overcome.
As the NBA's popularity grew, the average Buffalo fan would soon be priced out, it seemed.
Many Braves fans still remember the bargain deals for tickets with local supermarkets and others. NBA ticket prices were reasonable overall for a while. The 1982-83 NBA Guide lists the ticket prices of the teams. Even at Madison Square Garden the prices were only $14, $11.50, $10 and $6. The price of souvenir ticket stubs offered on eBay are worth more now.
In 1990, images online of tickets for Knicks games at MSG showed prices that had increased to $45. It was the same in Boston.
Unless a true local "angel" came along and somebody such as a Larry Bird came to the team in a draft, NBA basketball in Buffalo would have been doomed if the team had stayed past 1978.