By Budd Bailey
The death of former Buffalo Braves’ owner John Y. Brown on Tuesday went more or less unnoticed in the Western New York media. There was nothing in Wednesday’s newspaper about it, and the television sportscasts that I saw didn’t have a story on it either.
I have the feeling Brown might not have liked that. This was a man who always liked attention, someone who never saw a camera or microphone that he didn’t like. Then again, he probably might not have appreciated some of the memories that people in the Buffalo area still carry with them.
Let’s face it – for a while, Brown was close to Public Enemy No. 1 when it came to the Buffalo sports scene. You have to be a certain age (translation: old) to remember those days. But consider that simply owning a professional sports team carries a reasonable amount of good will in a community. Ralph Wilson and the Knox Brothers were stable owners of the Bills and Sabres for decades. They were respected and appreciated for that, even if all of their actions did not receive universal approval. In contrast, Brown was around for a couple of years, but used all of that good will up in spectacular fashion.
At his core, Brown was a salesman, and he was really good at it most of the time. In high school, Brown spent one of his summers selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door – and earning about $1,000 a month – good money back in the 1950s. While he was in college at the University of Kentucky, he sold encyclopedias to earn more than the usual amount of spending money. After attending law school, Brown worked out a deal to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken from Harlan Sanders (you know him as the Colonel) for $2 million in six years. Brown then expanded the operation in a massive way, and sold the business in 1971 for $284 million. That was a lot of money back then.
Brown soon went into the basketball business when he bought a share of the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. Brown was used to running a business “his way,” even if he wasn’t exactly in the sports business. That drove most of the front office away. Still, the Colonels did win an ABA title during Brown’s tenure. But the league merged with the NBA in 1976, and Brown took a $3 million payment to go away instead of paying $3 million to enter the league.
That turned out to be pretty shrewd. Brown took that pile of money and bought a half-share of the Buffalo Braves from Paul Snyder in 1976. Those were two strong personalities at the top of the organizational chart. Brown had no obvious ties to Western New York, and local fans were always worried that he’d figure out a way to move the Braves to Louisville. Those fears grew when Brown bought out Snyder’s share of the team in 1977.
John Y.’s tenure became noteworthy for its instability, and players and coaches went through a revolving door. The team became a loser. After qualifying for the playoffs for three straight years, the Braves didn’t come close to the postseason in their final two seasons of play (1976-77 and 1977-78). The team had three rosters – coming, playing, and going – and most had some connection to the ABA.
Brown also picked up a reputation for arrogance. City government leaders from that era still laugh about the time that Brown said he wanted them to simply buy a large amount of season tickets from the team in order to help its balance sheet. The request was denied, accompanied by rolled eyes.
By 1978, Brown’s relationship with Buffalo’s sports fans had more or less soured completely, and he started looking for an exit ramp. There were no obvious candidates for relocation – even Louisville didn’t seem to be a good spot for a team at the time. Then came news of a plan so outrageous it had to be absorbed and not simply heard. Brown agreed to trade the Braves for the Boston Celtics’ franchise, owned by Irv Levin. The Braves then took off for San Diego, leaving a bitter if admittedly small group of fans behind. Brown had taken a failing team and converted it into one of the NBA’s flagship operations – albeit one that was cratering after a run of success.
After a dreary 1978-79 season in Boston in which he dropped just above Bucky Dent in popularity in the state of Massachusetts, Brown sold his share of the Celtics to Harry Mangurian. John Y. also married former Miss America Phyllis George, and was elected as Governor of Kentucky that year. Brown left the job of running his native state after one term, and returned to the restaurant industry with mixed results.
Later in life, Brown admitted that while he was quite good at entrepreneurial efforts – putting businesses together – he wasn’t too sharp at the administrative end. We could have told him that. He gave a good-sized interview to Bucky Gleason of The Buffalo News a few years back, and offered something of an apology to the fans of Buffalo.
“I’m very sympathetic to the fact Buffalo doesn’t have a basketball team,” Brown said. “It’s a great sports market. You love your hockey. You love your football. I like Paul and have a lot of respect for him, but we didn’t understand the potential for pro basketball. It was a business we didn’t understand, I guess.”
It’s difficult to stay angry at someone who admits he was wrong like that. The remark provided a little closure for Buffalo’s basketball fans, even if the Braves represented Buffalo’s last chance at hosting an NBA franchise.
John Y. Brown lived one of the most interesting lives imaginable. Even his time in basketball was anything but boring – even if it represented the most spectacular public failures of his business career. No matter how things turned out, Brown’s story should not be ignored.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)