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."