Buffalo, N.Y.--The Buffalo Braves are history, and professional basketball here has fled--but no one is sure whether, it has gone out to the West Coast or east to Beantown.
Call it the Massacre of '78 or the Great Grab Bag of the Century--by any name, the dissolution of the Buffalo Braves and the realignment of the Boston Celtics and the new San Diego franchise has to go on the record books as an incredible piece of wheeling and dealing.
In all good conscience, I can't extend lavish praise to the manipulators of the multimillion dollar charade--John Y. Brown and Irving Levin. Their actions have done little more than reinforce the feeling that pro basketball--like other professional sports--is soaking in its own big-business broth.
And in this case, everyone came out looking a bit soggy, except possibly for the dreams of Brown and Levin.
The reaction in Buffalo to the trade (if you can call it simply a trade) was somewhat of a cross between out rage and bitter relief.
On the outrage side, there were the "hard-core" sports fans who were again rocked by the departure from Buffalo of a major professional sports attraction. First it was "The Juice" leaving, and now it is an entire organization.
As for relief, though, there were many who were glad to see John Y. Brown departing from Buffalo. Since Brown assumed command of the franchise in 1977, taking over a sinking ship from Paul Snyder, the major topic of his discussions has been where to relocate his organization.
The feud between Brown, the fans and the local press has raged openly as the new owner attempted to prove to the NBA that maintaining a financially-solvent franchise in Buffalo was impossible. Brown labelled basketball a doomed "third sport" in the Queen City, and he watched his Erie-bound ship sink into monetary disaster.
The press and the fans have charged Brown with falsifying figures and presenting a more gloomy picture of things than was realistic. Since late 1976, when then-owner Snyder began the give-away spree of talent, the public has grown discontented with the team.
Who can blame them? A possible contender shipped off Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillian, Moses Malone and Tom McMillen. Now, the entire organization is gone; and to some, that disappearance is welcome.
Yet the move from Buffalo, because of the deal involved, has some very disturbing overtones. What has happened is that two millionaire-businessmen have toyed with the NBA, making pawns out of basketball franchises in two major cities.
Inherent in the moves that culminated on the afternoon of July 7 are the, desires of two corporate tycoons. Now there's nothing wrong with big business dealing--but the issue here is how much of it belongs in the sports world.
For Irv Levin, Boston meant a long an tedious future. The town is proud of its teams and demands a winner. Levin had a losing ballclub on his hands, and the team was going steadily downhill.
Boston's failure to make the 1977 playoffs was expensive for Levin, despite the continually good attendence during the regular season. But a new franchise in San Diego gets Levin off the Boston hook and moves him out near his home and close to his West Coast business interests.
For Brown, the Celtics franchise means big time. He inherits a winning history, a vocal crowd and a potentially stronger team. He appears willing to invest the rebuilding dollars that Levin was reluctant to shell out.
OK--so these two tycoons get together and plan an intricate deal to make each other happy. That's legitimate in the business world; but then the NBA, supposedly the organization with its sights set towards sports first, steps in and approves this self-centered swindle by a 21-1 margin.
So the NBA board of governors just reminds the public that it is an organization of wealthy businessmen who care about money; financial security and personal happiness before they give regard to the sporting world.
Look at the trade they approved. Never mind that San Diego is a city that has failed to support two past basketball franchises; personnel-wise, the trade is a big joke. Brown walked off with all the goods for his Celtics and left Irv Levin with nothing but nice coast weather.
The Celts get money players Nate Archibald, Marvin Barnes and Billy Knight--albeit, with a lot of question marks--while San Diego gets a good deal in terms of quantity, but little in the way of first-rate quality.
Bowie Kuhn would probably have had a seizure if someone presented that trade to him and labelled it "in the best interests" of the sport.
So the NBA board of governors sits back like a bunch of foolish yes-men and watches two tycoons manipulate their organiztion. Well, that's their problem because it undermines their credibility as a spearhead for a professional sports association.
But this trade does not only cast a bad light on the board of governors; it dramatized the real problems behind the billion-dollar expansion of professional sports.
For all the animosity and public scorn John Y. Brown generated during his short tenure as the Buffalo owner, he did make one statement that points to the heart of the business dilemma in sports.
In an "open letter to Buffalo" that Brown released to the Buffalo Courier-Express July 8, Brown hit the woeful facet of this whole trade. In his letter, he wrote:
"Unless you're the only pro game in town or unless your city is populated in the multi-millions, the average ticket price is $7 and season ticket cost of $350 has priced it self out of reach of a large segment of fans. This is not necessarily the fault of the owners, players, cities, but rather it's all part of the American system of free enterprise.
"The loser in all this is the fan. He's the ultimate one to either lose his team or have to pay the expense of the sport."
That's it, Mr. Brown. Big-business sports is leaving disaster for the fans. Multibillion dollar television contracts, and million-dollar players are driving sports into skyrocketing financial straits.
Now for New York, or Boston or Los Angeles, that's fine. Those cities are big enough to encompass a wealthy population of prospective fans. But John Y. Brown had to abandon Lousiville, the city he said he really wanted to move to, because the wealthy market to support the team just wasn't there.
It's the small city and the middle-class fan that get trampled in this financial whirlwind.
Maybe John Y. Brown and the Celtics won't make off with such a great deal. Red Auerbach just may leave the organization for New York. Maybe Dave Cowens will follow Red out the front door, as is suspected currently. Maybe Dave Cowens and/or JoJo White will follow Red out the front door, as is also suspected, currently. Maybe then, the Boston fans will scorn the new ownership and Brown's dreams will go up in smoke. Maybe San Diego will again fail to support the new team and this whole affair will be one large, sad joke.
But whether all of that or none of it transpires, the wound has already been salted. Once more, owners have reminded the public--the fans--that professional sports are increasingly growing subservient to big bucks. That is both a sad and disillusioning state of affairs.