"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.