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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.

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Letting Go of the Buffalo Bills

100 years ago, the city of Buffalo, New York was a shining beacon to the entire world. It hosted an enormous festival showcasing its position as a leader in trade, manufacturing, and economics. Buffalo was set to become the New World’s response to none other than Paris, the capitol of France and legendary City of Light. By virtue of the fact that it was the first city in the world to ever be lit up by electrical power, Buffalo was also nicknamed the City of Light. A heavy industrial base and traders moving in and out of the Erie Canal had placed a steady stream of currency through the city, making it one of the richest cities in the world, and as a result Buffalo was home to more millionaires than any other city in the United States. Much of the old architecture still stands, and walking among the beautiful homes dominating areas in the city can really give one a sense of how important Buffalo used to be. Millionaire’s Row on Delaware Avenue still has the giant mansions, though most of them have been turned into offices.

50 years ago, Buffalo reached its peak as an industrial giant. It also reached its peak population of about 580,000 souls. The steel industry was still going strong, and the postwar generation was still creating plenty of wealth and plenty of able bodies were able to come to the city to earn a comfortable living.

20 years ago, Buffalo’s decline had become evident. The largest steel plant in the world, Bethlehem Steel, closed down and the city still hasn’t quite recovered. The population trickle which began upon the end of the local steel industry had turned into a steady stream, the local government was in an eternal stalemate about every possible issue including what they should have for lunch, and city service cutbacks got severe. Yet, Buffalo retained enough people at the time to still be larger than Las Vegas.

Professional football in Buffalo made sense in either of the first two eras. By the third, the Bills were firmly entrenched as a known Buffalo institution and at their apex as a team, in the middle of a record-setting series of Super Bowl runs. Right now, Buffalo, in decline for a half-century, is in a metamorphosis phase: Realizing the death of its usefulness as a world-class city or an industrial giant, the city appears to be trying remake itself once again. The newest phase is an unexpected one considering the rampant poverty and a high school graduation rate of a pathetic 47 percent, but here it is: Between the Nickel City’s unexpected status as an atheist hotbed – the Center For Inquiry, a highly-regarded think tank of atheism known and pushed by some of the most prominent atheists in the world – the sudden emergence of the University of Buffalo Bulls as a power in college basketball, and the growing number of cyclists, bicycle trails, and public bicycle racks, Buffalo apparently has its heart set on becoming a young hip intellectual hub like Austin, Madison, or Louisville. But to help complete this transformation, the city has to come to terms with an idea the staunch old guard finds as unthinkable: The expulsion of the city’s beloved NFL team, the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills, an original AFL team and winner of two titles during the pre-Super Bowl era, are close to the city’s soul. It’s easy to understand why, too: The NFL is the biggest league in the country’s most popular sport, and having an NFL team is a shout-out to the world that your home is a big-time, major metropolis on the national scene. While Buffalo isn’t making it as that anymore, you don’t have to look very far to see how important Buffalo used to be. And this is where the Bills come in; they’re the final, loosely hanging strand connecting the city to its glorious past. Letting them go is understandably upsetting to the old guard, because the walkout of the Bills means the prideful city’s official death as a meaningful place with a known national name.

There’s no more avoiding it. The Buffalo Bills are ready for their stage right exit and everybody knows it, even if they don’t care to acknowledge it. The majority of football fans in the Buffalo area are trying to reassure themselves using a series of poorly constructed – and just as easily destructed – arguments about other small metro areas with football teams. They like to use the examples of Green Bay, Jacksonville, and New Orleans the most, which I don’t get. It’s mostly reassurance, as the arguments revolving around those three cities show a convenient ignorance of football economics. First of all, Jacksonville is in no way a small market. It is a city in which the county government has consolidated into the city government, and so what the so-called experts refer to as a small market is one of the largest cities in the country by population – Jacksonville’s population of over 800,000 is larger than that of popular culture centers like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle by a considerable margin – and its area makes it the largest city in the country by size; Jacksonville is even larger than Los Angeles. A city like that can’t even approach small.

New Orleans gets mentioned a lot too, but no one ever mentions the fact that the Crescent City still had about twice as many people as Buffalo before Hurricane Katrina blew it away. It’s true that a very large chunk of the population, upon the destruction of their homes, found jobs and places to live during their impromptu moves and stayed in those places. But New Orleans has around 343,000 people right now, which is over 100,000 less than what it was before. But more to the point, New Orleans is a center of unique culture with a strong base in tourism and it’s also home to one of the largest and busiest seaports in the world. A lot of people move through the city and put money into the local economy.

Green Bay is legitimately small. It’s is the smallest market in the NFL and the smallest market on the entire continent with a professional sports team. When the Packers were formed in 1919, Green Bay’s population was around 30,000, and the team has stayed with the very small growth of the little burg in northern Wisconsin. Green Bay’s population didn’t hit six digits until the 2000 census. People make the Green Bay argument by pointing out the team’s ownership by collective, but there are between-the-lines details which need to be chewed on: First of all, the NFL reserves the right strictly for Green Bay and is famously unbending for its rules. Buffalo probably won’t receive collective ownership rights; while the NFL did bend enough to give the Super Bowl to New York City, it also runs its main base in New York City, and New York City has the money. The Packers are supported by fans who buy stock in the team when the team holds stock sales. What no one mentions is that shares of stock are offered for $250 apiece; there are currently 112,015 people – more than the population of Green Bay – who hold close to 1.5 million ownership shares with the Packers. No fan is allowed to hold over 200 shares, and while the shares guarantee voting rights, the redemption price is minimal, no dividends are ever paid, the stock can’t appreciate in value even though private sales frequently exceed the stock’s face value, and stock owners don’t get special ticket benefits. They have to wait in line like everyone else.

Furthermore, the Packers are one of the oldest and most storied and successful teams in the NFL. They are also one of the most popular. Their history includes 13 titles, more than any other team in the league and a solid four more than their closest runner-ups, the Chicago Bears. The Super Bowl trophy was named after one of their coaches, for god’s sake! Over 20 Hall of Famers have been Packers. They have a waiting list of 86,000 names waiting for a chance to go to Lambeau Field to see their idols play in person. The waiting list is said to be over 30 years long, but the team estimates that only 90 tickets a year are turned over and so the actual wait is estimated to exceed a whopping 955 years, so Packers tickets become heirlooms. Every Packers game has been sold out since 1960, an important fact because the Packers endured a long period of sustained horridness on the gridiron between Vince Lombardi’s death and Brett Favre’s years. The Bills just crossed their half-century mark in their existence. To show for it, they have two pre-Super Bowl era titles (1964 and 1965), four straight AFC Titles from the early 90’s, and extended periods as doormats complimented by occasional playoff years and a single period of sustained gridiron excellence from about 1988 to 2000. They sell out a lot, but owner Ralph Wilson has frequently found himself buying out the unsold tickets in order to get the games on local TV stations. Their first real superstar is now publicly seen as a murderer whose lawyer got him off by playing the race card. There’s no way the Bills would ever sell enough stock for a fan ownership collective to work. The mass appeal just isn’t there, and Buffalo natives couldn’t afford it, which kills both the firsthand and secondhand fans of the team as Bills stockholders.

The Bills are killing Buffalo’s future because of the way they dominate the old guard’s mindset. One thing about sports teams is that they tend to cost a lot of money, which is on the backs of taxpayers even though the teams themselves are private organizations. Teams don’t build stadiums themselves anymore, and the home of the Bills, Ralph Wilson Stadium, will cost $100 million in renovations. To even get a team in the NFL, a franchise fee has to be paid, which these days numbers in hundreds of millions of dollars. The newest team in the NFL, the Houston Texans, came with a franchise fee of $700 million. Numbers like that aren’t small, and they’re not prices Buffalo can pay. Yet, the old guard is still lining up to suck off the NFL’s proverbial pecker, ready to do anything it can to keep the Bills playing in Buffalo. That means they’ll try to excuse any method of payment possible to try to keep a team in a location the league doesn’t want it in. They’ll argue economics and job creation, music to the ears of Buffalo but ignoring the fact that the city’s entire decline has happened since the Bills appeared. There’s probably not a connection between the two, but it doesn’t bode well for a group trying to argue that Buffalo should hand over more money it doesn’t have. The existence of the Bills hasn’t created jobs or pumped money into the economy.

Even if the argument by economics did work, it would do little to alleviate the fact that the Bills are the NFL’s current dead team walking. Although the city is trying to emerge from its death pattern, it still has a nasty reputation to deal with. Buffalo is known for three things nationally: Snow, chicken wings, and bad football. Willis McGahee and Terrell Owens, who have both played stints with the Bills, weren’t impressed. Rob Johnson exploded in an interview. Free agency has wreaked havoc on the Bills because of the city’s image, and about the only real draw for a player coming in is the team’s potential to be a winner. Without that, Buffalo is a forlorn football outpost because the team isn’t known for taking chances on bad-boy players. Terrell Owens was an aberration, but then again, Terrell Owens isn’t exactly a bad boy, either. He’s excitable and has frequently been seen as a detriment to locker room chemistry, but as a human being, he’s clean.

The Bills aren’t even the number one team on Buffalo’s sports radar anymore. Buffalo is great in its football devotion, but even better in its devotion to niche sports. Hockey, and the Buffalo Sabres, have supplanted the Bills as the most popular team and sport. This makes sense because the Bills have been a terrible team for the vast majority of their existence. The Sabres haven’t been real contenders all that often, but they’ve been a very good team for the most part, and they’ve made the playoffs in 29 of their 42 years, winning their conference three times and the regular season championship once. The city is also immensely devoted to its Triple-A baseball team, the Bisons, ten-time winners of their league, and in 1992 Buffalo was introduced to the awesome sport of lacrosse and the National Lacrosse League in the form of the Buffalo Bandits. The Bandits have since won four titles and thousands of devout fans who scream their lungs out at games. They share their home, First Niagara Center, with the Sabres and sell out consistently. Opposing lacrosse players have frequently talked about how impressed they are with Buffalo’s fanbase; in a league where a team considers a large crowd a sparse 5000, the Bandits fill their building with 18,000 screaming psychos every game. One of the team’s newer players told The Buffalo News that it’s the kind of atmosphere professional lacrosse players dream of. Buffalo is known in the NHL as the top hockey-watching region in the United States. The city has embraced quirky niche sports ignored by large swaths of the country. (Yes, hockey counts. It’s too unpopular south of the dixie line.)

Buffalo as an NFL market makes the least amount of sense possible, and the league knows it. The city’s fallen socioeconomic status has destroyed the team’s future. The city itself can turn into an important place again, but it will do so without the help of the Bills. Looking to the future can often mean cutting off a link to the past because without that link, there’s nothing holding one back. The Bills are our link to the past, and they’re holding Buffalo back. It’s wise to begin detachment now so it doesn’t seem impossible later, and those who will miss the Bills most can take satisfaction in the fact that they’ll definitely fail in Toronto and will most likely fail in Los Angeles before they find a home that loves them in San Antonio. In the meantime, we can all decide which directions our loyalties will shift in. I personally have the New York Giants ready and waiting for the call-up to fill the Bills’ void. Although next season, I am hoping the Bills manage to pull themselves together and make an improbable run to the Super Bowl, because it would be a hell of a way for my fandom to end.

Opening Day in the Nickel City

Buffalo’s status as a sporting laughingstock is pretty well established. Our two most prominent teams are known for their follies and incompetence of unspeakable magnitude. The Bills I’ve already covered, and at this point it would not surprise me that other Buffalo people are just waiting for the team to leave they we can renounce them for good and quit paying for their stadium, a behemoth shell which, despite being able to hold an awesome tailgate party, costs millions in taxpayer revenue while being used on all of eight days every year. The Sabres are the city’s team now. They may not have won the Stanley Cup, but they’ve established themselves as a team that can beat you down in any given game.

Today, however, hope springs eternal, for it is Opening Day in Major League baseball. For Buffalo, that means we will soon be celebrating a full-time Buffalo team which was established long before the Bills and Sabres were even dreams on their owners’ minds. A very successful team that has won its league ten times dating all the way back to the 30’s. (1933, 1936, 1938, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1961, 1997, 1998, 2004.)

The Buffalo Bisons may be a mere Triple A team, but they provide one of the great bargains in all of professional sports. Their current stadium, Pilot Field (and no, in Buffalo we don’t give a shit what the sign says), was the very first of today’s retro ballpark craze in the majors; Camden Yards, the first of the retro major league fields, was based on Pilot Field’s design. Pilot Field was built back in 1987, when Buffalo was being seen as a serious candidate for a major league expansion franchise which eventually turned into the Florida Marlins. There are less than 20,000 seats in Pilot Field, but the field was built so an extra deck or two could be built in a real hurry if we won that major league team. But we didn’t, so our minor league affiliate to the New York Mets moved in, and their inhospitable old stadium, War Memorial Stadium, was torn down.

Pilot Field is known for its major league amenities, so this means that in Buffalo, you can afford major league quality baseball in the front row without taking out a second mortgage. The best seats in the place cost less than $15.

The Bisons’ current affiliation with the Mets is ironic since so many of the baseball fans in Buffalo are loyal to the Yankees. But during the 90’s, it was the Bisons’ association with the Cleveland Indians that was able to feed so many quality players to the team that won two American League Pennants. The two teams complimented each other perfectly, and Buffalo won three titles during their tenure with the Tribe. We may not have a major league team here, but that doesn’t mean Buffalo isn’t a damn fine baseball city. The Bisons frequently draw over 1,000,000 fans per year, which is phenomenal considering the minor leaguers play fewer games in a stadium with far fewer seats.

I’ve mentioned before that I have an incredible loyalty to the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox. But when I look at the prices I would have to pay to attend a game at Yankee Stadium or Comiskey Park (Chicago doesn’t care what its signs say either), I can’t help but think I’ve got the best game in town, right here in little Buffalo.

On another end of the spectrum, Buffalo also has a National Lacrosse League team called the Bandits. They began play in 1992 and have won four titles, along the way picking up an immense share of popularity among those who enjoy alternate sports. Lacrosse has a considerable following in the northeast and in Canada, so Buffalo people feel no shame in playing up the successes of the Bandits.