History. The Los Angeles Clippers do not have a lot of it, at least not in the positive sense that people would like to harken back to. A vast majority of the Clippers' history consists of bad trades, poor draft selections, and the multitude of losing seasons that have plagued the franchise ever since their arrival to the National Basketball Association.
Their arrival in the NBA, though, is one of the most forgotten-about stories. Everyone — nearly everyone — knows that the Clippers came into being by way of relocation from Buffalo. Back in 1978, the Buffalo Braves were moved 2500 miles away to San Diego. Eventually, the Clippers moved from San Diego to Los Angeles and that’s how we got where we are today.
But if you go back to the late 1970s, you’ll be interested to learn more about how everything went down. This is a story that somehow found a way to blend multiple NBA franchises together in a cauldron of relocation and trades. It’s the story of the Clippers.
In 1967, the San Diego Rockets were brought into the NBA as an expansion franchise when San Diego visionary Bob Breitbard purchased the team for $1.75 million. The team played in San Diego for four seasons, never finishing above .500, and the debt to arena bondholders started to take a toll on Breitbard. On top of that, a rather large increase in property taxes ultimately handcuffed him. When the San Diego Sports Arena was built in 1966, Breitbard had to pay $35,000 in annual property tax. By 1971, that number rose to $142,000.
Despite not wanting to sell the franchise, Bob Breitbard had no other choice and sold the team to a group of buyers from Houston in June 1971 for $5.6 million. The team was sold, even though they averaged an impressive 8,000 fans per game in their fourth and final season in San Diego — thanks in large part to the drawing power of players such as Elvin Hayes, Stu Lantz, Calvin Murphy, and recent number two overall pick Rudy Tomjanovich. The team was moved and became the Houston Rockets. The city of San Diego was left without a professional NBA franchise and had no hopes of getting one anytime soon. It took seven years for basketball to return.
With the emerging sports spectrum of the Northeast, the NBA put an expansion franchise in Buffalo in 1970. Also joining the Braves that year as expansion franchises were the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Braves played at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium for the entire duration of their existence, and enjoyed a relatively solid amount of success at times. Despite having the second-worst winning percentage from 1970 through 1978, the Braves made the playoffs three times. They never made it beyond the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but, from 1973 through 1976, the Braves were a quality team. During that three-season stretch, the Braves were fourth in the NBA in winning percentage and second in total points scored. They played an exciting brand of basketball and featured some incredible players.
In 1971, the Buffalo Braves picked New York native and Buffalo State College player, Randy Smith, in the seventh round. During his eight years in Buffalo, all Smith did was average 18.4 points, 5.1 assists, and 4.6 rebounds to go along with 2.1 steals and a 47.5 FG%. He was beloved in the area and by the fans who flocked to Buffalo Memorial Auditorium to watch the team play. In 1972, the team drafted future Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo second overall. In 1973, Buffalo drafted Ernie DiGregorio third overall and saw him win Rookie of the Year that season with averages of 15.2 points and 8.2 assists. DiGregorio also set the record for most assists in a single game by a rookie, with 25, but he now shares that record with Nate McMillan.
During the 1973-74 season, McAdoo averaged 30.6 points and 15.1 rebounds a game, which makes him the last player in NBA history to average 30 points and 15 rebounds for a full season. In the 1974 playoffs, McAdoo averaged 31.7 points per game, but ultimately saw his team lose in six heartbreaking games to the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics. Building upon his excellent campaign from the year prior, McAdoo won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award for the 1974-75 season with averages of 34.5 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 51.2 percent overall and 80.5 percent from the charity stripe. That season is remembered for two things, as far as the Buffalo Braves are concerned. First, Bob McAdoo scored 50 points against the Washington Bullets in Game 4 of the 1975 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Second, and probably more impactful, Ernie DiGregorio started dealing with knee problems that he wouldn’t quite ever be able to recover from.
Even with DiGregorio’s injury issues, the Braves made the playoffs in 1976 and bested the Philadelphia 76ers in three wonderful games, capped off by a 124-123 overtime victory for Buffalo. It was a wild affair that saw McAdoo tie the game from the free throw line with one second to go in regulation, despite a fan messing with the wire that held the basket up. McAdoo hit two more free throws late in overtime and the fan who was messing with the basket was kicked out of the arena. Ken Charles made two free throws with seven seconds left, and the Braves held on to beat the 76ers in one of the best games played in franchise history. The Braves would go on to yet again lose in six games to the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics. McAdoo and Randy Smith were sensational, averaging a combined 49.8 points, but it still wasn't enough. The Braves season was over and then, just like that, the run was over for the team.
Even though he had led Buffalo to three consecutive playoff appearances, head coach Jack Ramsay was "not fired, just not rehired," and the team went on to promote assistant coach Tates Locke to the head coach job. The team was not done making moves, though. On June 16, 1976, the Braves traded Ken Charles and Dick Gibbs, plus cash considerations, to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Tom Van Arsdale. A little over two months later, on August 25, the Braves traded Van Arsdale to the Phoenix Suns for a second-round pick. On October 18, the Braves traded their first-round pick in 1978 to the Trail Blazers for eventual Hall of Famer Moses Malone. However, Malone only played in two games for the Braves, accumulating a grand total of six minutes and one rebound before the team traded him to the Rockets for their first-round draft picks in the 1977 and 1978 drafts. It only got even more chaotic from there.
On December 9, 1976, the team traded icon Bob McAdoo and Tom McMillen to the New York Knicks for John Gianelli and cash. Six days later, they traded Jim Price to the Denver Nuggets. A month later, they traded one of the first-round picks they got in the Malone deal to the Golden State Warriors for George Johnson. Seven days after that, they fired Tates Locke as head coach and moved general manager Bob MacKinnon into the interim head coach role. On February 1, 1977, they sold Claude Terry to the Hawks. Fifteen days later, Joe Mullaney took over interim head coach duties from MacKinnon. The myriad of moves and uncertainty pushed the Braves into a 30-52 season and left them demoralized.
In truth, the team was selling off what it could because they were undergoing changes higher up in the organization. In the summer of 1976, Paul Snyder, the founding owner, was reportedly attempting to sell the team. A headline of "Braves Go to Florida, Leaving ‘Hockey Town’" supposedly ran in the June 15, 1976 issue of the Courier-Express in Buffalo. According to reports, Snyder had a deal to sell the team for $6.1 million to Irving Cowan, who would then move the Braves all the way to Miami, Florida. However, the city of Buffalo filed a $10 million damage suit in court and obtained an injunction to block the deal from happening. Due to the impasse, Snyder had to go looking for other suitors and eventually found one in the form of John Y. Brown, Jr., before the start of the season. Synder sold Brown a 50 percent stake of the franchise, and Brown soon had 100 percent ownership of the franchise later on in the 1976-77 season.
Now armed with full control of the team, Brown made move after move. On June 7, 1977, the Braves traded their first-round pick in 1977 to the Milwaukee Bucks for Swen Nater and a first-round pick. They then traded the first-round pick they got from Milwaukee in exchange for a second-round pick. On August 5, 1977, the team hired Cotton Fitzsimmons as their new head coach. Then, in the span of four hours on September 1, the Braves made two huge trades. First, they traded away future Hall of Famer and reigning Rookie of the Year Adrian Dantley — along with Mike Bantom, whom had just signed with the team as a veteran free agent — to the Indiana Pacers for Billy Knight, the league’s second leading scorer from the year before. A few hours later, they dealt George Johnson and two first-round picks to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for future Hall of Famer Tiny Archibald.
The next day, the team shipped out John Gianelli, acquired in the McAdoo trade, for a first-round pick. On September 7, 1977, Ernie DiGregorio was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers. In November of 1977, the team traded away Gus Gerard, John Shumate, and a first-round pick to the Detroit Pistons for Marvin Barnes, a second-round pick, and a fourth-round pick. By Christmas 1977, only one player remained on the roster who had been there for Buffalo’s last playoff appearance in 1976. It was none other than Randy Smith, the New York native who was still churning out great numbers.
The writing was on the wall and no one wanted to believe it, but the end was nigh for the Braves in Buffalo. It was all because of a film producer and businessman who resided in Southern California and hated the cold. Irv Levin was one of the owners of the Boston Celtics, along with Harold Lipton. The two had come to acquire the Celtics for $3.7 million in April 1972, but only owned 50 percent of the franchise. Legal issues followed between Levin, Lipton, and Robert Schmertz — the man who owned the other 50 percent of the Celtics. By January 1975, Levin and Lipton owned half of the Celtics outright, and controlled the entire franchise several months later.
Levin had always wanted to bring a team to Southern California, but (as we all know) moving the Celtics from Boston would have been an impossibility. So when he sniffed what was going on with the Buffalo Braves, Levin saw an opportunity to bring his dream to fruition. In late June 1978, the Celtics and Braves agreed to an ownership swap. A week later, the details that emerged made the story begin to take on even more of an unbelievable feel. The teams were discussing not just an ownership swap, but an actual trade of players, as well. A few days after that, it all became official, and Irv Levin now had himself a Southern California team after the Board of Governors approved the relocation of the Braves to San Diego.
The trade of players that went down during the ownership swap wasn’t exactly inconsequential. On August 4, 1978, Tiny Archibald, Marvin Barnes, Billy Knight, and two second-round draft picks — in the 1981 and 1983 drafts — went to the Celtics in exchange for Kevin Kunnert, Kermit Washington, Freeman Williams, and Sidney Wicks. Archibald, acquired by Buffalo just eleven months earlier, missed the entire 1977-78 season with the Braves due to injury. He would go on to average 12.5 points and 7.1 assists, and make three All-Star teams in five seasons with Boston, while also winning a championship in 1981. Who did the Celtics beat in 1981 for the title? The Houston Rockets, led by former Buffalo Brave Moses Malone.
Knight had averaged 22.9 points per game during his lone year in Buffalo, and was later traded to Indiana by the Celtics in 1979. Barnes eventually made his way to the Clippers after the Celtics waived him in February of 1979. The biggest piece, however, was one of the second-round draft picks. The 1981 second-round pick that was sent to Boston turned out to be Danny Ainge. He made one All-Star team and won two titles with the Celtics during the 80s. It wasn’t exactly rosy for the players the Clippers acquired, though.
Kermit Washington and Kevin Kunnert each lasted just one season with the San Diego Clippers before being traded away along with a first-round pick to the Trail Blazers, as compensation for the Clippers signing Bill Walton as a free agent. Freeman Williams lasted three and a half seasons with the team, averaging 16.4 points per game, before being traded to the Hawks in 1982 for Charlie Criss and Al Wood. Criss played half a season with the Clippers before leaving as a free agent. Wood was traded in August 1983, a year and a half after arriving. Sidney Wicks lasted three lackluster seasons in San Diego, and never got back to the level he was at prior to the trade. The Clippers waived him in 1981. Suffice it to say, that player swap with the Celtics did not work out for the team as much as they had hoped.
One of the interesting things about the Celtics-Braves franchise ownership swap and eventual player trade was that Irv Levin possibly had a chance at adding the Celtics' first-round pick in 1978 to the deal. The draft pick was used a few days prior to the deal going through, but Levin knew how much Red Auerbach fancied the player the team selected with the pick. He also knew that the player would probably try to put up a fight when San Diego made an attempt at signing him when his college career was done. Because of this, Levin ultimately decided not to make a run at the pick, and the player made his way to Boston. The player? Larry Bird.
Most probably assume that this is the end of the tale. All that happened was that the Buffalo Braves and Boston Celtics swapped owners and players, which allowed the Braves to relocate to San Diego and become the Clippers before Donald Sterling swooped in to purchase the team. Not so fast, my friends. In fact, before Sterling ever purchased the team from Irv Levin, the team was nearly sold to Nike co-founder Phil Knight in December 1980. However, Knight pulled out at the last minute, and the two parties went to court as Levin sued for breach of contract. The court ultimately sided with Knight, and the proposed sale was nullified. A year later in 1981, the team was sold to Donald Sterling.
Imagine a world where Phil Knight was the team’s owner, though. The man has splurged countless times on donations to the University of Oregon and other entities. The sheer monetary power of Knight would have been a huge boon to the team. There’s no telling if Knight would have ever moved the team to Los Angeles, as Sterling did, or if he would have moved them elsewhere, but the man would have cared for the team in a way the franchise would not know until Steve Ballmer arrived. It’s quite believable that Knight would not have settled for mediocrity or poor play. He would have demanded the best from his team on the court and settled for nothing less. Either way, Knight never happened. The move from Buffalo to San Diego did happen, though. But not without its own level of insanity.
It took seven years for the NBA to make their way back to San Diego, but before doing so it took an incredible number of circumstances to go the city’s way. Unfortunately for the city of Buffalo, it came at the cost of their beloved Braves — a franchise that had made the playoffs three out of the eight years they competed there, but had experienced great players come and go. If not for the ownership swap, perhaps the Braves would still be in Buffalo. Yet, that swap opened up the floodgates for one of basketball’s oddest marriages — one that had former deputy commissioner of the NBA, Russ Granik, insinuate that "the current Celtics team is a successor to the Buffalo Braves."
As Granik goes on to say, the current Clippers team is, "in a strictly legal sense", the successor to the Boston Celtics. If you go down that rabbit hole even further, that means the Clippers franchise owns thirteen championships (the number the team accumulated prior to the sale in 1978). Now, no one in their right mind would ever accept that as being the case, since the team names never changed except when the Braves moved to San Diego. The Celtics never moved from Boston and hence kept their history. But, in some way, it is interesting to look at. When checks were made out to Celtics head coach Tom Heinsohn, they came by way of the Clippers’ bank account.
The Celtics and the Clippers have a history that dates back long before the Doc Rivers trade, but it’s lost to the annals of time. While the Buffalo Braves eventually became the Los Angeles Clippers, the Boston Celtics reaped the rewards of a business deal that most simply do not to remember. If Phil Knight would have gone through with the purchase of the Clippers in 1980, would the team claim the Celtics' championships and/or have a more storied history? No one knows.
What we do know, though, is that nearly 40 years ago two northeast franchises swapped ownership and some players. One continued to thrive; the other is still finding its footing in the basketball world. The Buffalo Braves are not forgotten. They’re ingrained in the current Clippers' construct of superstars, dazzling play, and underdog spirit. The Braves are not gone. They just moved a little further west to a new world.