Rochester Democrat and Chronicle 2/3/71, Cavaliers Bobby Washington and Nate Bowman battle for loose ball, Photo by Brad Bliss
Rochester basketball fans have been treated to several NBA firsts over the decades: the first Black player, the first use of the shot clock and the first (and only) six overtime game.
On February 2nd, 1971, 1,373 Rochester fans — described by the Democrat and Chronicle‘s Craig Stolze as a “dinky crowd” — were treated to a last: the last time a regular season an NBA game was played in Rochester.
In 1970, the Buffalo Braves joined the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers as one of three NBA expansion franchises to begin play in the ’70-’71 season. In its inaugural year, Buffalo sought to expand its western New York base by scheduling regular season games at the Rochester War Memorial: January 14th against the expansion Trail Blazers and February 2nd against the expansion Cavaliers.
Unfortunately, the games met with tepid support, only attracting a combined 2,712 fans. After the second game, Braves’ coach Dolph Schayes said. “I doubt if we’ll play here again.”
Dolph was right. Rochester has been waiting 50 years for a regular season encore.
In 1975, the Braves beat the Washington Bullets in a preseason game at the War Memorial before 3,272. In 1979, the Boston Celtics beat the New York Knicks before 6,632 at the War Memorial as Rochestarians were treated to the play of rookie Larry Bird. In 1981, the Celtics played a charity preseason intrasquad game before 5,010 at the War Memorial. In 2006 the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors played a preseason game at the Blue Cross Arena before a near sellout of about 9,200 who were disappointed that Cleveland rested LeBron James.
February 2nd, 1971
By CRAIG STOLZE Cleveland’s Cavaliers tripped the Buffalo Braves, 101-91, before a sparse crowd last night at the War Memorial, continuing their recently-discovered mastery of Dolph Schayes’ squad. With guard Johnny Warren leading the way with 22 points and clever John Johnson following with 21, the Cavaliers posted their seventh win of the National Basketball Association season against Buffalo. The Braves, who have won three times against Bill Fitch’s Ohioans, dropped their sixth game in a row as a crowd announced as 1,373 looked on. The poor attendance could have ended NBA games here. Schayes said. “I doubt if we’ll play here again.” But Cleveland couldn’t have cared less about the dinky crowd. A win is a win and for expansion clubs they don’t come often enough. It was Cleveland all the way although southpaw shooting Don May pumped in 34 points to keep Buffalo relatively close.. But the Braves were ice-cold, hitting on only 39 per cent with the club’s top scorer, Bob Kauffman, having a particularly agonizing night with only five goals in 20 shots.
The game was ragged although Fitch explained part of this as being the result of the teams having played each other so much. “If Dolph ever got sick, I could handle his team,” said Fitch. “I know his kids that well.” The Cavaliers, now 11-48 on the season, led 29-21 at the end of the first quarter. and 57-42 at the half. The Braves got to within 10 twice in the final period at 79-69 and again at 97-87 but no closer. Schayes was at a loss to explain why his team can’t play better against the Cavs. “They just seem to be up against us and somebody always has a big night for them,” he said. “Then, too, it now seems to be a mental thing for us against Cleveland.”
Schayes juggled his lineup continually trying to find a combination which would click but had little luck. However, he used guard Mike Davis, a frequent tarrer, only three minutes in all.
January 14th, 1971
By BOB MATTHEWS The Buffalo Braves, nearly blown out of the game early by hot-shooting Portland, rallied behind a three-guard offense and a clutch basket in the closing minutes by Don May, to defeat the Trail Blazers, 119-113, last night at the Rochester War Memorial before 1.339 spectators, Trailing 29-13 with 4:33 to play in the first quarter, Buffalo coach Dolph Schayes pulled starter Don May, a forward, in favor of a third guard, Herm Gilliam. “We’re real deep at guard,” Schayes explained after the game, “and I seldom hesitate to play three little men at once. Portland was outrunning us early in the game and I felt we could offset their edge in speed with a third guard. Tonight it worked.” The Braves outscored Portland 18-2 in the remainder of the first quarter, knotting the score at 31-all on a jump shot by Em Bryant at the buzzer. Buffalo, with Bryant, Gilliam, Mike Davis and Dick Garrett shuttling in and out at the guard slots, built a 59-54 halftime lead and slowly padded the advantage in the second half. Bob Kauffman, a rejected forward at Philadelphia but an All-Star center at Buffalo, scored 15 of his game high 30 points in the third quarter. Portland, which had defeated the Braves in four of six previous meetings, trailed 106-96 with to play but battled back to a slim 108-106 deficit at the four-minute mark.
At this point May scored his crucial bucket, a desperation, over-the-head layup, and crushed the Blazer rally. “I thought I heard a whistle and suspected I was being called for traveling before the shot,” May explained after the game, “so I just flipped up the ball without looking and. somehow it went in. No one was more shocked than I was.” May, who scored 10 points in the last quarter, should not have excluded the Trail Blazers. Bryant, Davis and Garrett each scored 13 and Gilliam added 12 for the well-balanced Buffalo guard corps. Rookie John Hummer added 16. Portland was led by Geoff Petrie’s 23. Petrie, Hummer’s roommate at Princeton, for three years, is a top candidate for Rookie-of-the-Year in the NBA. Leroy Ellis and Rick Adelman scored 20.
After the two games, on February 7th, 1971 columnist Craig Stolze wrote a depressing article, “City Flunks Tests for NBA Action,” a post mortem on the woeful failure of the games. Stolze concludes, “Rochester just isn’t a good basketball town.”
The death knell has sounded for professional basketball in Rochester, the prospects buried by two home games which drew embarrassingly small crowds. The remains of what was once a proud part of pro basketball here may never be exhumed. Why the game failed woefully in two regular season tries in War Memorial Arena is partly a mystery. Many fans will tell you that there is no way they would pay to see expansion teams play. And the two games which the Buffalo Braves brought here, under Les Harrison’s aegis, were against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Portland Trail Blazers, both far from being boxoffice dynamite. This, of course, played a part in the decision of fans to stay away. Attendance at ‘ each of the games was slightly over 1,300 fans. I missed the Portland game, being away on another assignment, but I saw the Cleveland game and the crowd looked even smaller, than 3,373. A considerable part of that group was composed of students in on a special $1 ticket, a plan designed to help bring in a reasonable crowd. Even that didn’t work; there were not even many kids on hand. The saddest part of this “experiment” is that if the games had been well attended, Rochester might have gotten several . NBA regular season games next year against better opposition. But, shown that Rochester is lackadaisical about pro basketball, the Braves certainly will not return. “I don’t think we’ll be back unless it’s in an exhibition,” said Braves’ coach Dolph Schayes.
That thinking is understandable as Buffalo lost several thousand dollars in bringing the games here. “Besides that, we lose our home court advantage, added Schayes. “You could give that up for a big crowd but not for ones like this.” There is no practical way for Buffalo to bring in a top team such as the Milwaukee Bucks or New York Knicks. These teams would certainly draw more people in Rochester than did Cleveland or Portland but still would not attract the crowds they could draw in Buffalo. So, while the Amerks draw very well in minor league hockey and the Red Wings do the same thing in minor league baseball, the basketball pros have flopped in two regular season showings here. Other excuses offered are that the games were not well advertised or that fans still had varying resentments over the late Rochester Royals. Neither excuse seems adequate to us. And holding grudges over happenings of many years ago should not deter a good fan from seeing two NBA teams play. Expansion complaint? Well, Buffalo has I beaten some pretty good team the Knicks, Hawks, Lakers and Pistons, for example. So the team is not that bad. , Harrison was using the games as a sort of test of fan reaction. Almost any high school gym in any small town between Buffalo and here would have drawn more fans that the Braves got at War Memorial. Maybe, as some people point out (although it’s a nebulous term), Rochester just isn’t a good basketball town. And yet I recall a night early this season when the Harlem Globe Trotters packed the place. It’s tough to figure. Apparently the only way to draw here is with an Alcindor or a Maravich. Sorry, but you won’t get ’em here. You can see ’em in Buffalo.
After a few years, Rochestarians did catch Braves fever. At the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, colloquially known as The Aud, I attended my first and so far only NBA regular season game during the glorious 1975-76 season, along with my father and best friend Billy Swift.
That season Bob McAdoo won the MVP. Alas, the Braves fell in the playoffs to the Celtics in 6 games. I still remember driving back from Woodstock where my grandparents lived, listening on the radio when two Jo Jo White free throws sealed our fate. I’ve since forgiven Jo Jo after he moved to Pittsford in retirement.The previous summer, Billy and I invented a game using 1975 Topps NBA and ABA cards, an old Civil War musket ball and a tin measuring cup. In the game, you tried to lob the musket ball — using only your thumb and forefinger — into the tin cup. Each player’s card was graded based on an intricate calculus derived from his listed stats: G, FG, FT, REB, PTS, AVG. Like a basketball court, lines were drawn at various distances from the tin cup. You then lobbed the musket ball — using only your thumb and forefinger — from the line determined by each players grade.
Heated arguments ensued if one player tried to sneak his fingers across the predetermined line, hence gaining an unfair and unfounded advantage.