Before the Clippers, there was the Braves’ old world
Got a second? That’s about all the time you’ll need for the Clippers to tell you everything they know about their franchise forebears, the Buffalo Braves.
“Well, they’re from Buffalo,” Grant Hill says after a long pause. “And I know that Buffalo’s really cold.”
Among the things the Clippers don’t know is that, for a three-season stretch in the mid-1970s, Buffalo was also really good, averaging 46 wins and reaching the NBA’s Eastern Conference semifinals three years running. Since leaving New York for Southern California 34 years ago, the franchise has made the conference semifinals just twice.
The Braves also finished with a winning record three times during their eight seasons in Buffalo. The Clippers needed 28 seasons to match that in L.A.
“It’s no secret,” Hill says “that the franchise has struggled.”
That’s has. As in past tense. Because now the Clippers are in the process of erasing that mediocrity and rewriting a record book composed largely by the Buffalo grandparents they never knew.
Last spring, when the Clippers finished 40-26 in a season shortened by a lockout, they bettered the 37-year-old franchise record for winning percentage in the regular season. On Friday, with a win over Sacramento, the Clippers won their 12th consecutive game, breaking Buffalo’s franchise record — then extended it to 13 with a victory Sunday in Phoenix.
And heading into Tuesday’s Christmas Day game with Denver, the Clippers are on pace to win 64 games this season, which would shatter the franchise record of 49 set by the Braves in 1974-75 — four years before anyone in the team’s current rotation had been born.
“We’re here to make history,” says forward Lamar Odom, who has started more games as a Clipper than any current player. “There’s a lot of things that have never been done here as far as winning is concerned. Being able to start a new tradition is important to us.”
As for the old tradition, well, the last time the franchise was this good it played with an undersized center who would win the league scoring title and a flashy, showboating second-year guard who had led the NBA in assists as a rookie.
“We had a very good offensive team,” remembers Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, who averaged 34.5 points in the 1974-75 season and won the only league most-valuable-player award in franchise history. “We were fast at every position. So it was a fun team.”
A cocky one too. After Buffalo won an early-season game in Toronto, a customs agent boarded the team bus at the border crossing and asked if anyone had anything to declare.
“Yeah,” backup Braves guard Bob Weiss answered. “We’re No. 1!”
For much of the season they were too. Besides McAdoo, the Braves had four other players — Randy Smith, Jim McMillian, Jack Marin and Garfield Heard — score in double figures. And with Smith — a three-sport All-American at Buffalo State and probably the fastest player in the league — leading a tireless fastbreak, Buffalo averaged 108 points a game in the 1974-75 season.
They might have been even better if point guard Ernie DiGregorio, the quarterback who made the break go, hadn’t missed much of the season with a knee injury.
“He was the best passer I’ve ever seen,” Weiss says. “I saw him throw a three-quarter-court, behind-the-back pass to a guy cutting toward the hoop. He would throw stuff I would not even dream of.”
Buffalo joined the NBA in 1970 in an expansion that also welcomed the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers to the league. But the welcome wasn’t exactly a warm one in Buffalo, where the team drew fewer than 5,000 fans a game in its inaugural season.
The home of the Braves was Memorial Auditorium, a drafty downtown barn of a building built before World War II where the team fought a losing battle with the NHL’s Sabres — as well as with college and high school basketball — for prime weekend dates.
By 1974-75, with the team winning, attendance had more than doubled. Yet the Braves still felt like unwanted guests in Buffalo so they played a half-dozen “home” games on the road in Toronto. Their owner, frozen-food magnate Paul Snyder, saw the team as a financial drain on his other businesses and in the summer of 1976 he sold half his stake in the franchise.
There was turmoil on the sidelines too, as ownership began dismantling the team, trading Marin, Heard, McAdoo and McMillian while waiving Weiss and Dale Schlueter over the next two seasons. Even Coach Jack Ramsay left, only to guide the Trail Blazers to an NBA title in his first season out of Buffalo.
Eventually a deal was brokered in which Boston Celtics owner Irv Levin swapped franchises with the Braves’ owner, John Y. Brown, allowing Levin to move the franchise as far away from Buffalo he could without leaving the continental U.S. By the time the team opened play in 1978 as the San Diego Clippers, Smith was the only holdover from the record-setting 1974-75 season still on the roster.
But while the franchise fell on hard times after leaving Buffalo, many of the players thrived. Marin got his law degree and serves as outside counsel to a group representing retired NBA players, and Smith, who set an NBA record as a Clipper by playing in 906 consecutive games, became a league executive. He died of a heart attack in 2009.
Weiss, who spent two seasons in Buffalo, made a brief and unhappy return to the franchise as the Clippers’ coach in the 1993-94 season, He is now an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks. And McAdoo, who went on to win two titles with the Lakers in the ’80s, is now an assistant coach with the champion Miami Heat.
Despite that, McAdoo says, he’s happy to see his old franchise doing well.
“It’s great. They’re the talk of the town now,” he says of the Clippers. “It’s their time.”
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