A shiny steel pedestal stands inside the front door of the Braves' lavishly appointed boardroom in Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. For the moment it is topped by a silver vase containing blue and white plastic snapdragons, but Paul Snyder—a cocky little man who looks and acts like pro football's Hank Stram—does not hide the fact that the stand was not installed just to hold some prissy, fake nosegay. "Ah, the flowers are movable," says the owner of the Braves, swiping a demeaning paw in the direction of the pedestal. "That's up there so we have someplace to put our first NBA championship trophy."
Snyder, whose substantial fortune is tied up in Nabisco as well as in the Braves, has not flipped his Fig Newton. The expansion team is only a season old—a dismal season, at that—but already it is helping to brighten the endless, cold gray of wintertime Buffalo. The second-year Braves are likely to be the first of the latest expansion group to make the playoffs and may be only a couple of years from becoming a championship contender playing in the style of Bill Russell's Boston Celtics.
The main reason for this abrupt turnabout is Elmore Smith, a mere pup of a player who nonetheless stands 7' tall and is certainly among the best paid, if perhaps not the best paid, team athlete in America. The Braves made Smith their first pick in last spring's draft, a fortuitous occurrence since two teams chose ahead of them. Cleveland and Portland both decided on bigger names of lesser height, and Buffalo drew Smith.
It was quite a break: although underpublicized while playing for tiny Kentucky State, Smith still was no secret to pro scouts, some of whom spent last winter lallygagging around Frankfort as Elmore led the Thorobreds to the NAIA championship. They were skeptical of his offense, but recognized his defense—a center's most important attribute—as pure Russell in the rough. Their analysis proved precise. Smith is the second coming of Wilt Chamberlain at the foul line and has shot only 41% from the floor, but his shot blocking has already begun to force teams lo move their top guns away from their usual fire bases.
"Russell was way ahead of Elmore at this same point in his career because he had had major college competition," says Brave Coach John McCarthy, who was both Russell's opponent and teammate in the NBA. "But I think Elmore has more equipment. He's bigger, more explosive and more fluid offensively."
The Braves did not have long to celebrate their good fortune over drafting Smith, especially when it came time to negotiate a contract. Smith's talents alone would have earned him a high salary on today's inflated basketball wage scale, but he found himself in an even better market when signing him became a point of pride with the NBA. The older league had already lost last year's other two prime center prospects to the ABA, Artis Gilmore to Kentucky and Jim McDaniels to Carolina. So Snyder signed Smith to a five-year contract at what he says—without leaning on a Bible—is about $450,000 a year, clearly a lot of Oreo Creme Sandwiches.
Whatever the exact figure, folks in the NBA do not throw around such big sums without reason; they believe a few high-priced rookies are of sufficient caliber to bring it all back at the gate. Kareem Jabbar and Pete Maravich fit that special category. Smith also appears worth it. Buffalo has enjoyed the largest attendance increase in the league so far this season (8,149 per game, up from 5,000 last year), and the team's potential for improved play is an omen of bigger advances to come. Despite a loss to Milwaukee last Saturday, the Braves have won three of their last four games and are battling New York for third place in the Atlantic Division. Buffalo could conceivably earn a playoff spot. While the Braves figure to improve as the season grows older, Philadelphia's age problem could become a burden to the 76ers by midseason, and the Knicks, even after trading last week for Earl Monroe, appear to be falling into disarray.
It was not so long ago that there was plenty of confusion in Buffalo. Last year the Braves began the season as the most promising of the expansion teams, but ended up with a sorry 22-60 record. Dolph Schayes, a generous sort who became an upstate New York hero as an All-Star with the old Syracuse Nats, coached the team during those dreary days, and despite player complaints about his leadership, he was retained when it was all over. But then Buffalo played poorly in its exhibition games this fall and lost its opener by 33 points to Seattle. In an abrupt—some Buffalo fans have called it ruthless—move, Snyder and General Manager Eddie Donovan, the man who put together New York's title-winning team of two seasons ago, fired Schayes and replaced him with McCarthy, then a scout.
As if that weren't upsetting enough, one Buffalo newspaper quoted Snyder as saying the players cheered when he announced the departure of the old coach. Snyder now denies it; he says that what he really told reporters was merely that the team applauded the selection of McCarthy. The players say all the yelling was simply to get themselves psyched up for working under a new coach. Either way, there were a few bleak days at Buffalo and now Schayes, technically still under contract, has been waiting for written persmission from the Braves so that he can negotiate for a new career elsewhere.
"I wasn't a little disappointed by last year, I was a lot disappointed," Snyder said last week. "I'm used to running a business and I felt it was the right decision to let Dolph go. So I did it. After the way we played in the first game I felt I would rather sell the franchise than watch another performance like that."
"The night he made the change he told us, 'I've never been a loser before and I don't intend to start with you.' I'll tell you that Snyder is one tough cookie," says Forward John Hummer about one of Nabisco's largest shareholders.
Snyder and Donovan admit they have been saved further embarrassment by the immediate success of McCarthy. The new coach is a soft-spoken Buffalo native who played at Canisius College and even likes the local climate. "The weather here is great," he says. "I like it because you have definite changes of season." (Exactly. The weather is so definite in Buffalo that Memorial Auditorium posts the winter temperatures—complete with a plus or minus sign—on the scoreboard.) Once last season, bouncing out on court to warm up for a game, Lenny Wilkens glanced over at the board. "Wow, it's 40 degrees in here," he said. "That's too cold to play; isn't there an NBA rule that you can't play in a 40-degree arena or something like that?" Wilkens was assured that it was 40 degrees outside (Buffalo was having a heat wave at the time) and considerably warmer inside. The game went on.
Meanwhile, McCarthy's Braves are not unlike Stengel's Yankees. Every Buffalo player has started at least one game, and only three of them, Walt Hazzard, Bob Kauffman and Smith, figure to be regulars every time. Hazzard, acquired in a trade with Atlanta, lends stability to the offense with his seven years of NBA experience. Kauffman, who led the team in scoring last year as the center, has successfully moved to forward to average 22.6 points a game.
A muscular player who dominates opponents under the offensive backboards, Kauffman is nicknamed Ajax. Not for an ancient hero, his teammates point out; there aren't that many mythologists in the NBA. This name applies to the cleanser that is stronger than dirt. Clean or not, Kauffman's only weakness is on defense—and there he is amply backed up by Smith. Elmore, no slender giant at 250 pounds, is very quick and leaps extraordinarily well, an ideal combination that allows him to wander from his man and bat away shots in the key and along the baseline. But his teammates seem as impressed by his maturity as by his many physical skills.
"The E is beautiful to watch. He's got such grace," says Hummer. "I think we're gonna have a world championship here someday. I have never seen a guy so mature at 22. He doesn't care about scoring, he doesn't fool around—he just wants to win. You should have seen him the first time against Wilt. First, Wilt grabs the ball, shoves E out of bounds and off the edge of the court and dunks it. The E calmly goes down to the other end, gets the ball, runs right at Wilt, slams it in and then quietly walks away without saying a thing." "Elmore is hungry," says Kauffman. "He's making a defensive genius out of me," adds Hazzard, who, like other Brave guards, is now free to risk stealing the ball because Smith stands behind him.
"It's very hard to psych me out," says Smith, his face as impassive off the court as on. "I'll accept it if you come out and do your thing against me, but I'm not gonna get emotional about it."
This is only Smith's fourth year as a regular player. He did not make his high school varsity until the middle of his senior year, and even then he played only about 18 minutes in six games. "I'm from a family of sprouters," he says. "I grew from 5'11" to 6'6" the summer after my junior year of high school and I was 6'10" by the time I graduated. That's hard to believe, but not when you think of my brothers. One of them is in the Army now, and he was considered by the Dallas Cowboys. He is 6'10" and weighs 295 pounds. I also have a little brother at home who was 6'3" last Easter and he is around 6'9" now."
When he first arrived at Kentucky State, Smith thought all blocked shots were goaltending. When he found that to be untrue, he went awry in the other direction: "In one game, I blocked 24 shots; 12 of them were legal and the other 12 were called goaltending."
Well, he understands the blocking rules so clearly now that the Portland Trail Blazers must have thought all the Smith boys were playing under the basket by the time Elmore finished with them one night last week. In the 109-100 win the Braves needed to move briefly into third place, Smith, who pulled down 17 rebounds, tipped and smashed 14 Portland shots. He stymied a Blazer rally with blocks on four successive plays and added six others in the fourth period as Buffalo pulled away. His presence allowed Guard Emmette Bryant to make two steals that sparked the Braves' winning spurt. Also in the final quarter, Smith halted three successive Portland opportunities to narrow a slim Buffalo lead. Twice he flicked away Center Bill Smith's hook, and then on one play he tipped Blazer Rick Adelman's shot, only to have it land in Portland's Stan McKenzie's hands on the other side of the basket. Smith coolly glided across and smashed the second shot as well—a play that indeed was no small cookies.