Has Paul Pierce Been “Buffaloed” by the Clipper Curse?

Guest Post by Abacus Reveals

To Paul Pierce, it must have seemed like the perfect exit strategy – return home and play for his favorite coach while providing the missing weapon to a genuine contender’s arsenal, his dagger.

This was a team that had been not just a game, but a mere quarter away from reaching the loftiest heights of its 45-year existence. The Truth was being brought aboard to provide the will and skill, the guts and the game to put them over the top.

The plan was flowing smoothly for a couple of months. Even a hamstring tweak suffered by the squad’s explosive stud on Christmas Day could be viewed as inconsequential – not so much a setback as an opportunity to work in the new man.

But our old pal Paul had overlooked one thing in his calculated reasoning. He ignored the hovering black cloud of disaster that might just as well be the logo for the franchise that began as the Buffalo Braves back in 1970.

The early years of the Braves’ franchise mirrored those of Walter Brown’s Boston Celtics. Braves’ owner Paul Snyder was (and has remained) a successful local businessman who’d stepped up heroically when the original investors were discovered to have embezzled a good bit of their start-up money. Like Mr. Brown, he faced the challenge of promoting basketball in a traditionally hockey town.

Paul Snyder
The NBA awarded its third round of expansion franchises in four seasons in early February of 1970; the Braves were playing a pre-season game a mere seven months later. By contrast, the NHL’s Sabres, who began play in the ’70-‘71 season as well, had twice as much start-up time – during which they’d negotiated a very team-friendly lease for the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. As was still the case with the Celtics at that time, the Braves would receive neither priority nor ancillary revenue (concessions, parking, etc.) from their use of the building.

Red Auerbach and Mr. Brown once very famously chose NOT to draft a local hot-shot who was sure to be a gate attraction. (Auerbach even called Bob Cousy a “local yokel.) When Buffalo’s turn came at No. 15 in an absolutely stacked 1970 NBA draft, there were still two Hall of Famers-to-be on the board, one who’d been wowing fans right up the road … tough little dude (just ask Sidney Wicks) from Niagara University. Alas, Calvin Murphy’s Springfield paraphernalia reads “Rockets.”

Again following the Boston blueprint, the team floundered for a couple of seasons until the right coach arrived on the scene to get the ball rolling in the right direction. After stumbling to but 65 victories in three seasons, Buffalo notched 137 over the next three – a total exceeded only by only three other NBA teams (the Celtics, Warriors and Bullets). The feisty Braves even won nine of 22 playoff tilts and an opening round series over Philadelphia in ’76. (The franchise wouldn’t know that felling again for 30 years.)

But Paul Snyder was no Walter Brown, who deferred to his coach on all matters basketball. He was hands-on and rather impulsive. On Opening Night of Season Two, he fired his coach on the spot. In the middle of a 49-win Season Five, he ran off the GM who’d built his contending squad. (Ironically, future Celtic assistant coach Bob MacKinnon was the replacement both times.)

The next season, his stud asked out of an early season game with a sore back. When the player balked at getting a second opinion, Snyder suspended him for a game.  (By the way, this was the No. 2 overall selection in the ’71 draft for whose services Snyder had paid a reported $200,000 to the ABA’s Virginia Squires in the midst of the war between the leagues.)

After a moderate start (6,000 or so through three years), the Braves drew in excess of 10,000 fans per game in each of their next three seasons, including a 19,000+ gate for a January, 1976 Celtic showdown that has stood for decades as the largest crowd for an indoor event in the city’s history.

As the NBA’s third decade was ending and the ABA dissolving, the Braves were hardly the only franchise facing financial struggles and the tough personnel decisions that accompany them. Auerbach’s championship unit was gutted by the losses of Don Chaney and Paul Silas to better offers than he could make. (Either ironically or quite fittingly – I can’t seem to decide – both those guys went on to coach the Clippers.)

Snyder and the Braves were more pro-active in the financing of personnel. For instance, when the $200,000 man balked at a contract extension, he was summarily shipped off to the Knicks for a journeyman and a boatload of dough. And the transactions were just starting – on several fronts.

Of course, Snyder’s side of the story is that he was doing all he could to keep the team in town. Most “Townies” saw a savvy businessman liquidating his assets as they were peaking.

Personally, in Paul Snyder I see as much a tragic figure as a villain. A person of good character with enough stature to be influential, who makes well-intentioned choices that blow up in his face. Not just a victim of circumstance, though, there’s a direct link between the tragic hero’s decisions and his downfall.

Snyder’s deadly choice was to fire his “Auerbach” on May 3. 1976 – though that die may have been cast a year sooner when owner and coach could agree to just a one-year deal.

Paul Snyder's 'Red Auerbach'

Coach, whose discontent was no secret, was out of work for (literally) about ten seconds. Oh, and his new team won the NBA championship the very next year.

Doc Rivers is the 25th coach in the history of this star-crossed franchise, one of six whose resume includes an NBA championship. Six others – including this guy – played for a title-winner. Rivers is the ninth with some sort of connection to the Boston organization.

But if you really want to capture the essence of the continuing tragic saga that is this ‘flicted franchise, consider this. The first coach to oversee a 50-win season was Vinny Del Negro.

Del Negro, Rivers and Larry Brown are the only three coaches with winning records in the history of the Brave/Clipper franchise. Even Paul Snyder’s “Red Auerbach”ended up 11 games under .500.

The story is told in Buffalo that Mr. Snyder ultimately decided to buy the team after attending a pre-season game in Niagara Falls, an exciting overtime affair against soon-to-be-dreadful Philly.

The Braves had played their first pre-season game on Sept. 19, 1970, in a place called Wooster, Ohio.  (Apparently, Midwesterners don’t know how to spell Worcester.) After claiming a 97-95 victory at the expense of future-coach Bill Fitch’s similarly expansion Cavaliers, the team’s bus ran out of gas on the highway.

There seem to be a couple of Pauls who didn’t get the hint.