Paul Snyder, owner of the NBA Buffalo Braves and majority stockholder in Nabisco, stuck his hand into his cookie jar a couple of years ago and for better than $2 million got Elmore Smith, the seven-footer from Kentucky State. The investment paid off that season with the ungrand total of 22 wins. His next effort to catch a star involved North Carolina's Bob McAdoo. For $1 million he got McAdoo—and a 21-win season. Now Snyder has tried again. This year's prize is Ernie DiGrcgorio of Providence, who recently accepted $1.5 million to sign with the Braves. Even for a cookie king, that is a lot of Oreos but—to judge by the enthusiasm shown around Buffalo last week—this was no crumby deal.
Showing off what they both regard as rare rockie crops, the Braves and the Philadelphia 76ers staged home and home games for their new players. At Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium 10,280 clamoring townsmen, all seemingly in midseason voice, were not disappointed. The Braves' rookies surprised a far taller 76er team, led by No. 1 draft picks Doug Collins of Illinois State and Raymond Lewis of Los Angeles State, and won 115-96. In the well-publicized first meeting between DiGregorio and Collins, Ernie D easily took round one. He scored 27 points on 12 of 18 shots, had eight assists and, more important to a struggling franchise, threw plenty of his dazzling, crowd-pleasing passes.
DiGregorio was calm and confident, the little kid from down the block coming out to shoot in the school yard. Collins seemed tight. Picked first by a team that had reaped a handful of records for losing, he was carrying a heavy burden on his thin shoulders. The two met head on with just a minute gone in the first quarter, Collins pressing DiGregorio as he brought the ball downcourt. A back-court foul was called on Collins, and Ernie sank two free throws for his first points as a pro. Both sat out the second period, but in the third they knocked heads again. Collins intercepted one of Ernie's behind-the-back whizzers and, breaking into a grin, loped downcourt for a solo layup—which he missed.
There were a few more hot-dog passes wide of their mark, one a full-courter toward Buffalo's second pick, Ken Charles of Fordham, that may have broken the behind-the-back distance record, but Ernie had won the hearts of his fans. He also won the praise of a more critical audience, the Braves' veterans. Elmore Smith, sitting in the stands with Snyder and Ernie's father, smiled his approval. Forward John Hummer passed up playing softball to see the game. Beforehand he had expressed doubt that DiGregorio could turn the team around. Afterward he marveled, "The kid's terrific. He knows what the game is about."
The next night at Cherry Hill, N.J., Collins evened the score—almost. The 76ers took the game 128-119, Collins leading with 33 points and nine assists to Ernie's 22 and eight. He went at DiGregorio early, twice drawing fouls from him in the first five minutes. By the half, Ernie had four personals, yet he managed 10 points in the third quarter. More than half of Collins' baskets came on left-handed bank shots, left-side layups off feeds or driving layups down the left as the 76er rookies opened up that side of the court for him. Collins heavily favors the left, an overemphasis that probably will cause him some early grief before he learns to adjust to the seasoned pros, who certainly will adjust to him.
As for DiGregorio, scouts are virtually unanimous that Buffalo made one of the few perfect draft picks in years, securing a floor general to lead their tall shooters up front. They compare him to Bob Cousy, call him the smartest college player they have ever seen, talk of his passing, dribbling, basketball sense, poise and competitiveness.
All Ernie DiGregorio professes to know at the moment is that he is enthusiastic. "I've always dreamed of being an NBA player," Ernie says. "Everything I've wanted has happened. I've been playing for fun all my life and now I'm making a lot—a lot—of money. So much money, it's ridiculous. Nobody is worth that much. When I was young, Jimmy Walker was the greatest thing in Providence. He signed a pro contract for $350,000 and I thought he was the luckiest guy in the world. Now I get to play pro ball and make not just a good living but a great living!"
Snyder thinks DiGregorio is worth what he will make, if only from a marketing standpoint. "We're satisfied Ernie's going to give us a product to sell, a legitimate contender," the owner says. "Already he's had a terrific impact. We sold more season tickets in the week he signed than we did all last year."
Snyder refuses to release the actual figures and face comparison with the National Hockey League Sabres, who are outfitting Memorial Auditorium with additional seats to accommodate their overflow crowds. But the Braves are making the most of DiGregorio—and his origins. There are 150,000 Italian-Americans in Erie County and some 350,000 in Toronto, where the team will play 10 games this season. At the signing ceremony Snyder played to the ethnic audience by presenting Ernie with a framed American dollar and a framed Italian lira.
General Manager Eddie Donovan assesses his new man on the court rather than at the cash register. "Guard is where we need help most and of the top players available he was the only pure guard. None of the others run the ball as much. He's got a good feeling for the overall concept of the game. He gets the ball to the right person at the right time. He passes it and gets out of the way."
Braves Coach Jack Ramsay has been this route before with touted rookies. More cautiously, he says, "He'll help us, and obviously we're a better team with him. Just how much better depends on how well he adjusts and how the guys adjust to him. He should enable the other players to fulfill their potential. But no guard has come into the league and burned it up his first year in a long time."
"I don't expect to be Superman right away," says the 6' DiGregorio. "They'll try to bang me on picks and get me under the basket on mismatches. I'm not the guy to turn the whole thing around. But the game is all upstairs." He points to his head. "And I'm confident. They drafted me to pass the ball and run the break. If I have a shot, it will go up. And I know I can excite people. I can put people in the gym."
That is what the Braves were fighting for through a complicated and near-disastrous week in May while they dickered for DiGregorio. "Ernie's people wouldn't begin negotiations until that series of games with the Russian team was over," Snyder says. "Ernie looked better and better and his value kept going up." It went to $2.5 million, which is what the ABA Kentucky Colonels are reported to have offered DiGregorio before the signing with Buffalo was announced.
"Put it this way," Ernie says, relieved that the bargaining is over. "Would I rather play in places like San Antonio or in Madison Square Garden?" He was going to be rich either way. "Now Ernie D has a lot of decisions to make," he says of himself, "and he's just a 22-year-old who wants to be a regular guy."
With an open, almost pudgy face, an accent with the flat "a" of New England and a propensity for phrases like "Gee whiz" and "Wow," he is surprisingly ordinary, especially for a man who is looking at $140,000 houses for himself and his bride, Susan, and who bought a Lincoln Continental Mark IV with a sun roof. He gave his Thunderbird to his parents and sent his father, a floor scraper in Providence, a plane ticket to come to the rookie games. He talks now of buying his dad a restaurant someday.
"When I was a kid," Ernie says, "my mother told me to stop playing ball and go to work with my father. I promised her I'd make a lot of money someday. Now the challenge starts again. I can't live on the contract. I have to prove I can play."
Collins, too, has to prove he is worth about 6,700 times his weight (180 pounds) in silver dollars, and his problem is perhaps a tougher one. Certainly he will see lots of playing time. As Coach Gene Shue admits, "The rookies will have to form the nucleus of the new 76ers. It's like hanging up a For Sale sign." Shue believes the club drafted wisely: "We have not filled our two biggest needs, a center and a big forward, but there was no real center available."
Ramsay agrees. "It's better to pick a good player like Collins," he says, "than a mediocre one at the position you need. Jim Brewer was the only center type available. Cleveland plans to use him there, but I don't think he can make it." Even Philadelphia's chief scout, Jack McMahon, who was Collins' strongest supporter at draft time, concedes, "We've still got nobody in the middle."
Before the draft and Coach Kevin Loughery's resignation, Philadelphia's plan was to draft Collins and trade him to Chicago for Center Clifford Ray and Guard Bob Weiss. Chicago GM Pat Williams wanted him badly—"He's another Jerry West," Williams says. Collins' Chicago-based agent, Herb Rudoy, wanted him there, too. "He's an Illinois boy. He would have loved to play in Chicago," Rudoy says. But on the morning of the draft the 76ers' doctors nixed the deal; they wanted no part of Ray's injured knee.
So Collins stayed a 76er. There is no doubt about his ability. Eventually, with his size and maneuverability, he may become a better player than DiGregorio. As he showed in the second game last week, he has the skills, and if money is an incentive he now has that, too. He even got the first endorsement contract of the rookies, with Wilson Sporting Goods. But with Philadelphia's problems at center, who is he going to get the ball from? Not, for one, from that smart cookie, Ernie D.