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Monthly Archives: March 2015

Buffaball: The Unknown History of Basketball in Buffalo

Buffaball: The Unknown History of Basketball in Buffalo

March Madness is set to begin this week, and Buffalo’s usual college basketball rooting interest – Syracuse – is out on a self-imposed ban. To make up for the loss, though, the UB Bulls picked up the slack. Accumulating a sparkling 23-9 record, the Bulls won their conference, picked up their first-ever NCAA tournament bid, and are now 12-seeded in the Midwest bracket with most onlookers pegging them a potential Cinderella team. People are starting to awaken to and embrace UB Athletics, and having gone to that school myself, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope the March Madness brackets fall into chaos and fire!

Buffalo, however, doesn’t embrace basketball the way it does football, hockey, or even baseball. The sport has a flashy image here, perhaps because so many of the sport’s face teams – both college and professional – like to depend on players who are runners and gunners. Flash doesn’t reek of brutal, unrelenting physicality, and since Buffalo is a very ruffian city, flash and dash mojo isn’t something we’re able to relate to. But for those willing to look beyond the sport’s advertised razzle dazzle, there is a rough and tumble sport in which all the sports positives we want to pass on to the younger generation remain true: Defense wins championships. A great player can be overcome by good, old-fashioned teamwork. Work hard, practice, cooperate with others, and never give up or let up, and you can succeed. Basketball is also a sport anyone can play – the only real necessity is the ball. Really, it’s surprising more people in Buffalo don’t take to the hoops, and that’s just a shame because Buffalo has contributed so much to the sport. Here is the hidden history of basketball in Buffalo and how it made some powerful contributions to the sport we’ve come to know and love.

Yes, yes, the Braves. It wasn’t an especially long time ago that Buffalo was home to the Buffalo Braves, a fast break team similar to the Golden State Warriors teams of the last few years. The Braves are still around these days, plying their trade as the Los Angeles Clippers, and with the Clippers having been the poster children of terrible basketball until a few years ago, the Braves shadow still hangs over them; until Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, the Braves years were the only consistently good years in the team’s history, and even they weren’t out of control, video game records. Focusing only on the fact that the Braves are now the Clippers, though, ignores a bunch of more individual contributions from the team that are written on the NBA’s hardwood.

There’s no conversation about the Braves that can be a proper conversation without Bob McAdoo. The second overall pick of the 1972 NBA Draft, McAdoo is still the name most people who are knowledgeable on all things NBA associate with the Buffalo Braves. For the first five years of his career, McAdoo was a Brave and a possible all-time great. In the 1974 season, McAdoo became the most recent NBA player to average 30 points and 15 rebounds per game, and led the league in field goal shooting percentage. The following season, he was given the league MVP Award. Now, I don’t know if the people reading this are NBA fans, but if not, here’s something you have to know about the NBA’s MVP Award: They don’t give it to schlubs. The NBA gives us arguably the greatest displays of athleticism on the planet, and its MVP Award means more than it does in any other league. Consider that in baseball, the MVP is most often a guy who hits a ball three times out of ten, is on and off the field the other seven times, and therefore isn’t getting a ton of time on the field, and that’s not even covering the fact that there’s a controversy about how often pitchers are given the award. In football, there are no two-way players – you’re either on offense or on defense, and there seems to be a serious bias against defensive players in the MVP voting there as well. Hockey players frequently do play two ways, but 20 minutes a game is a lot. NBA stars are expected to play around 35 minutes of a 48-minute game in both directions. In any case, McAdoo was also a three-time scoring champion, five-time All-Star, and Rookie of the Year. While his NBA career ran for another ten years after the Braves cut him loose – and he reeled in a pair of rings on the bench for the Showtime Lakers – all of his great individual achievements happened during his first five years in Buffalo.

The Braves also helped usher in the era of coaching legend Jack Ramsay. Ramsay was by far the best best the Braves had in their eight-year existence. After leaving the Braves, Ramsay established his reputation as a coaching genius in 1977, his first year as the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, by leading them to their first – and so far, only – NBA Championship. Ramsay coached the Trail Blazers until 1986, then took over head coaching duties for the Indiana Pacers until 1988, when he retired for good. Although no one would throw Ramsay’s coach cred against Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Gregg Popovich, or Pat Riley, he is still mentioned alongside others like Chuck Daly, Red Holzman, and Lenny Wilkens as one of the all-time great NBA coaches.

The accolades don’t stop there. The Braves actually produced a small handful of people in the Basketball Hall of Fame: Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Adrian Dantley, Dolph Schayes, and for all of two games, Moses Malone. McAdoo, Dantley, and Ernie DiGregorio were all Rookies of the Year with the Braves, and perpetual fan favorite Randy Smith was once the MVP of the All-Star Game.

Did you know, though, that the Braves were only the second professional basketball team in the city’s history? In 1946, the NBL created a team called the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons, however, were apparently not sustainable, and the team got up and walked out after the first 13 games of its existence. Although they left Buffalo, that doesn’t mean they were dissolved, even though it was professional basketball’s wild, anything-goes era. The Bisons merely hightailed it to Moline, Illinois, a city in what was called the Tri-Cities area (it’s now called the Quad Cities area), and became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. That lasted longer, until 1951, when the Blackhawks decided they needed to move to a bigger city and change their name a little, becoming the Milwaukee Hawks. In 1955, the team moved to St. Louis, and for the next 13 years, the St. Louis Hawks matured, came of age, won their only Championship, and were one of the marquee teams in the NBA. The good times didn’t last, though, but the Buffalo Bisons are still around, and in fact, they’re the best team in the Eastern Conference as I write this. You know them as today’s Atlanta Hawks.

Those teams don’t cover all the players who were born in Buffalo. The most notable Buffalo natives in the NBA are probably Bob Lanier, the Detroit Pistons great who owned a 20.87 PPG career average, and Cliff Robinson. Buffalo native Greg Oden was a first overall draft pick in 2007 who didn’t pan out. Christian Laettner, arguably the greatest college basketball player of all time, also came from the area, which is actually a little bit regretful because it makes it more difficult to properly hate Duke. I guess when that’s considered, it’s only appropriate that one of Laettner’s teammates, Bobby Hurley, is the current coach of the Bulls.

If you want to bring the whole of upstate New York into it, then get this: Today’s Sacramento Kings are the oldest team in the NBA, having started out as a factory team in the 1920’s called the Rochester Seagrams in Rochester, while the Philadelphia 76ers began as the Syracuse Nationals. There’s also the little matter of that basketball-oriented university team in ‘Cuse that produced Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Derrick Coleman, and several others who averaged double-digit PPG.

Could you imagine the Buffalo All-Star team? Jack Ramsay as coach, and featuring Lanier, McAdoo, Robinson, and all the others. I can surmise that if we were to put the Buffalo All-Stars against the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, 1986 Boston Celtics, 1996 Chicago Bulls, or any of those other all-time great squads, we would see… Well, uh, we’d see the Buffalo team get kicked to the curb in an epically one-sided stomping. (If we want to bring the rest of upstate New York into it, though, including players for the relocated teams, it would be a whole other story; any legend team brought to the hardwoord would find itself also dealing with Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Webber, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, and Allen Iverson as well.) In any case, though, anyone with respect for the sports history in Buffalo would do well to give basketball a chance.

If I were Infallible Dictator… I Mean, uh, Mayor

If I were Infallible Dictator… I Mean, uh, Mayor

What say, for a minute, that Buffalo’s Mayor was suddenly and tragically killed in a snow, football, and chicken wing-related incident and, through a series of wacky mishaps, I fell into position as Mayor of Buffalo. I can tell you now the first thing I would do: Assuming that everyone on the City Council died “mysterious” deaths, I would use the ensuing power void to tighten my grip and expand my authority, thus making myself from the mere Mayor into the Infallible Dictator of Buffalo. Maybe that comes off as a little harsh, but considering what I have in store for the city, I can’t take the chance of anyone there standing in the way of my grand plans. Yes, a giant laser would be involved. Actually, now that I think of it, two of them would be involved: One pointed at Albany and the other aimed straight at New York City. Before I started going all Bond villain on the state’s ass, though, I would first try to spruce up the quality of life in Buffalo in the following ways:

NFTA
It’s not a public secret that Buffalo’s public transit system is neither. What I would want to do is introduce the NFTA to the free market, so that when it died its inevitable death, it would go out knowing exactly how much it sucks. Buffalo’s public transit issues would ideally be solved when I brought a few enterprising transportation visionaries to Buffalo and gave them a few incentives to set up shop as the local people movers. Hopefully, the competition would drive the NFTA to get its act together, quit dropping routes to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, start providing something that resembles weekend and holiday services, and send its buses around on inner ‘burb routes more than once every two hours. If it acted the way it acts now in the face of real competition, I would watch and laugh as it died its slow death and their leaders kept begging for more funding. It had its chance. It blew it. And as a bonus, the city could finally liberate that undeveloped waterfront property the NFTA owns and refuses to do anything with.

Main Place Mall and Tower
A free market solution won’t do much more to the building that got me into The Buffalo News – the free market already killed this place, but its owners are too dumb to know it. One could liken Main Place Mall to a movie villain that just doesn’t go down, no matter how much the good guy keeps shooting at it. At any rate, the place gets demolished, and we get replica replacements of the Erie County Savings Bank and every other building that was wiped out to make room for Buffalo Place, except with updated, modern amenities. (Actually, I would hope the architect for this project would try to reproduce the interior of Main Place Tower’s lobby; to the little credit that can be given to it, the lobby is gorgeous.) Maybe we could also convince the Liberty Building owners to demolish that enormous nook on the mall side that ruins its symmetry in order to connect the two. For now, though, well, you do realize Seneca Mall was razed when people stopped going and businesses weren’t renting space there anymore, right?

Skyway
This is my infrastructure archenemy. While I’ve seen numerous proposals to turn it into a long, floating park, all those proposals have the same problem: They’re impractical. Don’t get me wrong; I love the idea, but there’s no way it’s getting done. Think about it; we’re barely able to maintain the skyway the way it is now, and one of the popular ideas involves year-round maintenance of lawn, glass-enclosed walkways, safety devices, asphalt pathways, and god only knows what else on top of the current structure. Meanwhile, tearing the whole thing down would be $10 million. The city spent more than that on Pilot Field! Therefore, I’m doing the easy thing here and ripping down the skyway. It would remove an eyesore, open up the waterfront to the Old First Ward, and make Tifft Street and Fuhrmann Boulevard more accessible. We could also get more green space in the city without it sitting there by giving the ruins a light landscaping makeover.

The Whole Stadium Issue
When Ralph Wilson died last year, I was impressed as I watched The Buffalo News raise the question of whether or not it would be right for Buffalo to keep the Bills. Then Terry Pegula bought the team, and The News dropped all pretense of economic and logistic issues and started debating about where to put the new stadium. It’s offensive that the idea of placing a stadium anywhere downtown is even being considered – a new downtown stadium would mean devastating property blows to Larkin, or the Cobblestone District, or both. The Larkin and Cobblestone Districts are both being held up as shining examples of the New Buffalo. Both are new neighborhoods which were built up around stagnant, abandoned property thought to offer nothing but potential parking lots. A downtown stadium would be a classic example of Buffalo shooting itself in the foot, 60’s urban renewal style. A good alternate site would be the old Central Terminal – we could give the classic piece a shining and buffing, and build the stadium right around it, perhaps turning the train platforms themselves into the entryway and the building into a fan zone and souvenir shop. Oh, and one more thing: I won’t be taking any shit from the NFL. It makes $9 billion a year. It’s footing the bill for this thing. Otherwise, the Bills are playing at Southside Elementary until I’m formally able to throw them out of the area.

One HSBC Tower
No, I don’t care what name they’re slopping all over it at the moment. Hell, the only reason I’m calling it One HSBC Tower is so it has a proper reference that everyone knows. To me, it will always be the oversized refrigerator box ruining the skyline that even cockroaches think is below their standards. The place is almost completely vacant, and knocking down the tower would immediately improve the skyline. We can hang on to the base, though – it would make a fine new convention center. Not because it’s any prettier than the tower (or the current Convention Center, in fact), but because it wouldn’t destroy the skyline, and it doesn’t choke off any streets.

Buffalo Convention Center
Speak of the devil. This is an ugly disparagement to the city’s radial pattern which also chokes off traffic. It just gets destroyed.

Delaware Park
I don’t think Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Delaware Park, would have approved of the huge landscaping blunder which guts it: The Scajaquada Expressway, which some idiot city planner thought would be a good idea to place in the middle of the park, bisecting it. Let’s face it; placing a high-speed road in the middle of a park doesn’t exactly scream “Welcome to our fun, friendly place of relaxation, meditation, and escape;” instead, it says “Nobody in this city gives a shit about physical exercise and fresh air, parks are just another span to drive across when you’re late for a football game.” This just isn’t going to do. Therefore, I’m going to make it into a large bicycle and walking trail, planting a few trees along the sides and through the middle, basically turning this chunk of the Scajaquada into a nice, tree-lined boulevard without the cars.

I guess I can amend this to say that all brutalist and modernist architecture built during the revitalization era from the ’60’s to the ’90’s should be removed and replaced with more of the Victorian and Gothic buildings that stood the test of time. We’re not trying to win any height contests here; we’re trying to bring some beauty to the area and get rid of the empty monuments that remain of the people who jumped ship. I can almost certainly think of more things to do than this – off the top of me head, the Buffalo Museum of Science could use an expansion, and why the hell does the city have so many parking lots? – but this should be enough to get the community’s creative juices pumping again. Maybe some of you think these ideas are a little farfetched, but if so, just remember two things: First, our (ongoing?) fiasco with the Peace Bridge involved a suspension bridge twin span which looked nothing like the current bridge; second, the city was once dangerously close to hinging its entire economic development plan on a fishing store.

As Seen in the Buffalo News

As Seen in the Buffalo News

I’m guessing a few of you who are stopping by over the next week are new here and dropped in because my name turned up in The Buffalo News, so first of all, here’s a quick explanation: I became a victim of the economy a few years ago, which forced me to move from my adopted hometown of Chicago back to my native Buffalo. I started this blog as a personal journal for my friends back in Chicago. I still write posts like that sometimes, but this blog slowly turned from that into a running cultural commentary, so I went with the gradual transformation. (My life, by the way, is almost back on track – I just have a couple more humps I’m trying to get over. They’re big ones, but not insurmountable.)

Second, I’d like to thank The Buffalo News for the mention, and Stephen T. Watson in particular. The few things I’ve said about The Buffalo News here haven’t been especially nice, but for this, I can give them high marks for real professionalism.

Third, between schoolwork and my ideas running a little dry at the moment, this inspired my next post – it will be an explanation of what I would knock down and replace if I was the Mayor of Buffalo. So check back for that in the next few days.

Fourth, here’s the article Watson mentioned:
https://windynickel.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/buildings-in-buffalo-that-look-like-they-could-be-found-in-star-wars/

And here’s a more in-depth attack on Main Place Mall:
https://windynickel.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/the-commercial-death-star-the-worlds-most-useless-shopping-mall/