Why a Buffalo teacher won't let go of long-departed Braves

With the Rams rebooting in Los Angeles, ESPN.com presents a series exploring the remnants departed teams have left behind in the cities they abandoned.

The Buffalo Braves featured some boldface names during their eight-year stay in upstate New York. But in the void left since the city's oft-forgotten NBA franchise moved to San Diego in 1978 and was re-named the Clippers, Braves fan John Boutet has been determined not to let the memories of his boyhood club vanish into the fog of history.

Boutet is 52 now. The Braves have been gone from town nearly 40 years and moved yet again, to Los Angeles. But in his mind's eye, Boutet can still see himself and his dad climbing the steps in old Memorial Auditorium and settling into the blue or orange nosebleed seats to watch Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, like McAdoo a future Hall of Famer, coached the Braves for four seasons before moving on to Portland in 1976-77 and winning a title in his first season there.

"When you think about what could have been here with the Braves, it's really something," said Boutet, an elementary school teacher and avid Braves memorabilia collector who sits on the board of directors of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. For the last few years, Boutet has been part of an effort to establish a brick-and-mortar sports museum to preserve the city's sports history.

"We had Moses Malone, but he was here only two games," he recalled. "He played a total of only six minutes for us and I think he had one rebound. Then he was traded off. We had Tiny Archibald too, in 1977, but he blew out his [Achilles tendon] in training camp and never played a regular-season game here. Adrian Dantley [was traded after his rookie of the year season]. ... By then, Paul Snyder, the Braves' owner, lost interest and he was just selling off assets."

The Braves' tradition of "what if" started when they used their first draft pick in their expansion year, 1970, on Princeton big man John Hummer.

"But the Braves made the colossal blunder that year of passing over Calvin Murphy, who played and starred right here at Niagara College," Boutet said. "He ended up in the [Basketball] Hall of Fame, too."

Poor Hummer didn't. He was forever saddled with the local nickname "Hummer the Bummer."

Boutet, laughing a little wistfully now, says there's a pattern to being a Buffalo sports fan. And it extends beyond the Bills' infamous 0-4 record in the Super Bowl.

"No major sports titles," Boutet said of a city that hasn't celebrated a championship since the Bills' back-to-back AFL crowns in 1964 and '65. That was even though the '70s Buffalo teams each had one of its league's best players: McAdoo, O.J. Simpson with the Bills and Gilbert Perreault with the Sabres. The Braves made three playoff trips in their eight seasons but never advanced beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals.

McAdoo, the 1974-75 NBA MVP and a three-time scoring champion with the Braves, went on to win two championships with the more glamorous Los Angeles Lakers. Nonetheless, he wore a Buffalo cap at a 2000 Hall of Fame party the weekend he was enshrined.

DiGregorio, a college sensation at Providence, currently works as director of operations for the Buffalo 716ers of the Premier Basketball League. Smith is fondly remembered for staying home to play at Buffalo State before becoming a do-it-all guard for the Braves and winning the MVP award at the 1978 NBA All-Star Game.

To this day, Boutet's email handle -- buffalobraves9 -- is an homage to Smith's jersey number.

The Braves packed a lot of notable names into a short span. But Boutet's enthusiasm for memorializing the team's time in the city hasn't always been reciprocated. "It seems everyone with the power to make a hall of fame happen thinks it's a wonderful idea," he once said, "but no one has stepped forward in helping me do that."

Sports fandom can be funny that way -- it's both a communal thing that can forge a deep sense of identity and an individualistic undertaking that evokes highly personal feelings and memories.

In Boutet's case, he remembers how Buffalo instantly felt like a truly big-time sports city when the Braves and Sabres arrived together in 1970 as expansion teams, joining the Bills. He says he still runs into other Braves fans at memorabilia shows and online. He still talks to folks around town who were associated with the team, including the Sorrentino boys, whose parents made the club's uniforms.

"They remember their mother staying up till 2 or 3 in morning stitching names on the back of the jerseys," Boutet said. "We laugh and say, 'Can you imagine what a game-worn jersey would be worth now?' "

The Clippers -- the current incarnation of the Braves -- are still chasing the franchise's first NBA title. Boutet admits he does check in on them now and then, but it's just not the same.

"They're not really my team, you know?" Boutet said. "I was just a kid. But I remember it was a sad day around here when the Braves left."
Copyright © 2022 ESPN Internet Ventures. All rights reserved.