Okay Buffalo, it’s time we had that famous chat. You know the one: The talk about the Hawks and the Hornets. I know many of you follow the NBA, and an uncharacteristically good piece by Bucky Gleason in The Buffalo News recently might be causing new feelings to well up in a few of those who don’t. You’re going to begin noticing new teams, and it’s important that if you start to follow basketball, the team or teams you choose to support are the right ones, not simply the most convenient ones. And sadly, Buffalo, I see a lot of you shacking up with the convenient team – the Celtics. Sure, they look good and have a come-hither history and appeal. But you already KNOW they’re not the right team. I know they’re sexy: The spectacular fundamentals of Larry Bird; Bill Russell leading his team to 11 titles, including eight straight; 17 titles; the arguable greatest basketball coach ever, Red Auerbach. We need to get one thing straight, though: They’re from Boston, and you’re Buffalo. You’re the one city on Earth that, instead of trying to attract new residents by trying to convince them you’re as good as New York City, tries to attract new residents by presenting yourself as the polar opposite of New York City. And yet, you don’t have enough sports pride to stay away from those sports whores in Boston? The home of the team that you hate more than any other, the New England Patriots? And the Boston Bruins, who you also hate? And the Boston Red Sox, hated by Buffalonians with Yankees allegiances, which is probably around 65 percent of you?
Buffalo, you have a deeper and more complex history with hoops than most people realize. Two different NBA teams – the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers – kicked off their lives right in your backyard. And when you pick teams, your go-to-the-best approach makes every victory hollow and meaningless. You need to pick a team that exemplifies your ethos, or that you have a real connection to. I cheer for a grab bag of different teams, all for different reasons: The Philadelphia 76ers drafted a player, Damone Brown, who went to my high school; I lived in Chicago and have a remaining loyalty to the Chicago Bulls; New York Knicks games were an escape for me when I moved back to Buffalo, so I’m connected to them too; I admire the ethos and adaptability the San Antonio Spurs have constantly shown in becoming maybe the best team in the NBA; I started watching the Golden State Warriors after their upset of the Dallas Mavericks in 2007; and I just have a soft spot for the Portland Trail Blazers. None of those teams are the Boston Celtics, and do you know why? It’s because I have a respectful loyalty to my sports heritage. So without further ado, here are some alternative teams that people from Buffalo should consider adopting:
Let’s be honest: The Nets were a much more appealing choice back in 2012, in the buildup hype to the grand switch the New Jersey Nets made to the Brooklyn Nets. The Brooklyn name was seen as trade leverage and a strong free agent lure, the Nets had just made big trades for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, and Carmelo Anthony was firing up the rumor mill. That doesn’t change a few things, though: One is that my Damone Brown ended up playing for the Nets at one point, so there’s a connection with a Buffalo native. More importantly, though, is the fact that the Nets can easily be imagined playing and representing anywhere in New York. Their look and style could play as well in Rochester or Binghamton as it does in Brooklyn, and their arena has that same kind of look: You could see it slapped in the middle of downtown Buffalo if the Sabres didn’t exist for them to share an arena with. As Buffalo tries to make itself stand out from the shadow of New York City, so do the Nets still fight with chips on their shoulders for attention from the older, more established, and more regal New York Knickerbockers. Buffalo, you ARE the Brooklyn Nets.
Okay, maybe the idea of adopting a team from New York City is a little off-putting. I don’t blame you. So if it’s a Buffalo-like place you’re looking for, I don’t think any two cities in this country hold a closer resemblance to each other than Buffalo and Cleveland. Hell, the two of you share a lot of the same vein of sports pain. Plus Cleveland is just a three-hour drive down the road, so who not do the sensible thing and call the Cavaliers your team? They have LeBron James, who is currently the best player in the NBA, so there’s that. After years of hard luck, they also appeared in the Finals twice in the last ten years, both times losing series which were effectively unwinnable. And their hard luck is another part of who they are – since bad luck affects Buffalo’s sports teams to the extent that Buffalo and Cleveland compete with each other over which one has worse sports luck, you can’t sit in Buffalo and pretend you’re going to just adopt a team because it’s the best if the teams you have skip town. No, if the Bills pick up and go, I know a great many of you will find solace in the Cleveland Browns, just because to god there is no zero. Also, the Cavaliers were created in 1970, the same year as both the Sabres and the old Braves.
Portland Trail Blazers
Not looking for a place with such strong Rust Belt connections? Well, the NBA has another good team for you! The Portland Trail Blazers entered the NBA in 1970, the same year as the Cavaliers and Braves – and, as mentioned, the same year the Sabres came into the NHL. If you want underdogs, the Blazers are a great team to support, with Portland sitting in the shadows of Seattle and Vancouver and people frequently forgetting the Trail Blazers exist. However, that doesn’t stop the locals from vociferously supporting the team and following the NBA in the hope of a second title. Okay, there are better sales pitches, but if a Buffalo connection would be one of them, there’s always Dr. Jack. Jack Ramsay coached the Braves through their best years before taking the reins of the Blazers and leading them to their first – and to date, still their only – title, a massive upset over the Philadelphia 76ers in 1977.
In relative terms, the last three teams are a little on the young side, and maybe you’re interested in a team with a bit more of a pedigree. Pedigrees don’t come much stronger than with the Sixers. This is the team that invented modern basketball by thinking up the shot clock. It’s the team of Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson. Aside from being the team that drafted Brown, the Sixers have another serious upstate New York connection: When they entered the world, they did so as the Syracuse Nationals, and were moved to Philadelphia after it became clear that Syracuse wouldn’t be able to sustain a professional major league franchise.
Here’s your Buffalo connection: Bob Lanier. He’s a local legend with Bennett High School. Afterward, he became a legend at St. Bonaventure, where he led the Bonnies to the Final Four. While the Pistons have had an up-and-down life in the NBA, their up years tend to resemble the best years of the Bills – people stand up, look, and listen to the noise because they’re crazy good. When they’re not winning, they only get backhanded mentions on ESPN, are lucky to be featured in a national broadcast every three years, and are generally only spotted after a galactic screwup. If there’s another Bills allusion you want, the Pistons wear the same colors as the Bills – red and blue. But perhaps their biggest selling point is that they represent another downtrodden Rust Belt city; Detroit holds many of the same values as Buffalo and has the same sense of civic pride, both in what it once was and what it’s rebuilding itself to be again. The Pistons also have a history – they began in Fort Wayne, Indiana as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and predate the NBA. Their first two titles were won in 1944 and 1945 in the NBL, before the creation of the NBA; or the creation of the BAA, the league the NBL eventually merged with to create the NBA. There are also three NBA titles, all won with the same ethos of good fundamentals, smothering defense, and placing the good of the team ahead of the individual. On the downside, you may have reservations about cheering for the team of the infamous Bad Boys…
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are the odd man out on this list; hell, I spent years hating (but admiring) them before being forced into an about-face during their duels against the Wade/James/Bosh Miami Heat. Their appeal to Buffalo is that they have long exemplified the teamwork ethos of the Pistons to much greater effect (they beat the Pistons for the 2005 NBA Championship) and, since Buffalo is not a place where people enjoy showboating braggadicio, their quiet, respectful, and professional manner is something to be emulated. Think of them as the Bad Boy Pistons with more stars and less bullying. When was the last time you saw a Spurs player make the news for blowing his top or committing a crime? That’s right. So good, and still low-key enough to be one of the most likable teams in the NBA. Even their fans don’t run around flinging shit. The downside is that that’s a pretty weak connection. The Spurs have no Buffalo connections. None. San Antonio is nothing close to Buffalo, and it shares its state with Dallas. Furthermore, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s equivalent to Bill Belichick – he’s a tactical mad genius who adjusts, adapts, and uncovers strengths and weaknesses with almost supernatural savvy. (Albeit, he’s Bill Belichick without the arrogance, or the drive against the league which frequently causes him to run up scores, or the cheating, or the lack of sportsmanship, but still.) The have one of the greatest players as their lynchpin with Tim Duncan. They routinely destroy every other team in the NBA, and are forever the league’s preeminent threat because all the guys who are supposed to get old just won’t fucking get old! Could they be… The New England Patriots? (A much nicer version of them, at any rate?)
Golden State Warriors
Cliff Robinson, who played in the NBA for 18 years, played for the Golden State Warriors from 2003 to 2005. He was born and raised in Buffalo and played his high school hoops at Riverside. Also, just before Steve Kerr started coaching the team, the Warriors were known as a lightning-fast, run-and-gun offensive team, much like the old Braves. It’s a pretty common thing nowadays to see sportswriters who saw both to compare the two of them. If you want a shout-out to a hockey team, the Warriors wear blue and gold as their colors and are the only team in the NBA to wear their jerseys like hockey jerseys, with the team logo prominently featured on the front.
New York Knickerbockers
Proximity is the name of the game here. Media proximity, at the very least; the Pistons, Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, and maybe the Sixers are all closer by distance than the Knicks. But it’s the Knicks that get their games aired on MSG, the same network that shows Sabres games, and that makes them the easiest team to follow in Buffalo. In fairness, YES broadcasts Nets games, but that’s primarily a Yankees network, so you can figure out which team is getting the emphasis should there be a scheduling conflict. And MSG wants watchers to be familiar with the history of the Knicks – they always show old tapes of the classic dynasty of the 70’s (you DO old, Buffalo, your commitment to old keeps setting you back 20 years) as well as the best highlights of the Ewing era. And the way the team is being run these days will remind you of the way the Bills were run in the Tom Donahoe years and their aftermath.
Los Angeles Lakers
Are all those titles really THAT important to you? Fine. Here’s the Los fucking Angeles goddamned Lakers. Now go take a front-run on the Skyway.