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Pollock: Bill Walton was must-see basketball when he played against the Buffalo Braves

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A column by CHUCK POLLOCK, Sun Senior Sports Columnist

Last week’s passing of Bill Walton got me thinking about my 5½ year stint covering the Buffalo Braves for the Olean Times Herald.

The Braves were welcomed into the NBA for the 1970-71 season — along with the Trailblazers and Cavaliers — and the TH covered every home game throughout their eight-year run. There was a good reason, of course, Buffalo’s vice president, general manager was one Eddie Donovan. He was a St. Bonaventure alum who, after playing for the Bonnies, served four years coaching Olean High, then the Bonnies for eight years with four NIT and one NCAA bid.

A New Jersey guy, he was hired as the Knicks GM after leaving Bona and proceeded to draft Bill Bradley, Cazzie Russell, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed and trade for Dave DeBusschere and Dick Barnett, a crew key to that NBA title in 1970.

That championship begat Donovan’s hiring by the expansion Braves.

For the TH it was a gift, his being so well-known in Olean and the Southern Tier and with Buffalo being a 75-minute drive away, covering the team was a no-brainer.

CHUCK WARD had that responsibility for 2½ years before leaving the sports department to take over as the TH’s managing editor. The Braves’ beat fell to the new hire, yours truly, for the second half of the 72-73 season through the franchise’s demise in 1977-78.

I learned so much from Donovan about how the NBA worked and he introduced me to so many high-profile people. And when he had something sensitive to tell me, he would stage-whisper it to me out of the side of his mouth. He was extraordinarily loyal to a guy from his adopted hometown. Sadly my relationship with him ended prematurely after the 1974-75 season, the Braves second straight playoff campaign.

Donovan was at odds with owner Paul Snyder who was having his own issues procuring dates at the Aud as the Sabres and Canisius college weren’t exactly being cooperative.

Donovan bailed to return to the Knicks in a personnel role and Snyder sold the team to John Y. Brown former owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Married to CBS sports hostess Phyllis George he would eventually go on to be governor of Kentucky. His lone previous, admittedly dubious, sports entrepreneurship was owning the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels. He became a pariah in his home state as he dumped popular high-salary players. He showed the same lack of empathy in Buffalo dismantling a playoff roster and filling it with wannabees and neverwases.

After the ‘77-78 season, Brown “traded” the Braves for the Boston Celtics whose owner, Irv Levin, wanted to own a team in his home state, California. Knowing he would never be granted an expansion franchise, he moved the Braves to San Diego and they became the Clippers. Today you know them as the L.A. Clippers.

STILL, I feel privileged to have covered the Braves for 5½ seasons, three of which ended in playoff berths and I covered all 22 of their post-season games in person.

When they were at their best (1973-76), the Aud was the place to be … huge crowds with the building rocking.

And that got me thinking about Walton, one of three must-see players during the time I covered the team. The others were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Milwaukee and L.A. Lakers) and Pete Maravich (Atlanta and New Orleans.

Oddly, as great a player as Jabbar was, he didn’t draw fans the way the other two did. Many saw him as a one-trick pony: big-time scorer inside with his “sky hook” and dominant rebounder. Walton and Maravich were viewed as players with multi-faceted games.

Maravich never played in the Aud with Atlanta when I covered the team but was there four times with New Orleans.

Walton was 2-for-8 appearing at games in Buffalo during my tenure. Keep in mind he played only 468 games of a potential 1,148 (41%) due to injury and missed three full seasons due to foot/leg woes.

And the biggest outcry from Braves fans was over the six games he missed in Buffalo.

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

Read more from Chuck:

Memories of the Indy 500 and a look at racing NASCAR on the same day

• Looking ahead at another rebuild for Coach Schmidt and St. Bonaventure basketball

• A look at the early and late schedule issues for the Buffalo Bills

• John Murphy left a legacy in broadcasting for the Buffalo Bills

• Beane assesses the Bills’ draft picks

• A look at the first three picks by the Bills

• Will the Bills regret trading out of the first round?

• A look at the Buffalo Bills going into the NFL draft

• Pollock on the Bonnies and the need for a defensive lineman in the NFL draft for the Bills

• O.J. Simpson left a mixed legacy … in the wrong order

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