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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Bird Averitt

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called “Buffalo Braves From A to Z,” published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren’t so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material … so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Bird Averitt had a powerful benefactor during his time with the Buffalo Braves. John Y. Brown, who owned at least part of the team during Averitt’s two stints here, had won a championship in the ABA with Averitt on the team and hoped Bird could be a good-luck charm in Buffalo. Alas, those hopes did not come true.

William Rodney “Bird” Averitt was born on July 22, 1952, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. It’s a city located near the Kentucky/Tennessee border, and it’s about an hour northwest of Nashville. Averitt first enrolled in Attucks High School, the first public school for African Americans in the city, but it was converted to an integrated middle school in 1967. Averitt switched to an integrated Hopkinsville High School.

Averitt took to basketball almost immediately in his childhood, and discovered he could be good at it. “I liked to play the game,” Averitt told the Los Angeles Times in 2010, “and it seemed like just overnight it came to me. I just wanted to play against the best and I wanted to be one of the best.”

Averitt became something of a sensation in high school. He did it in brand-new surroundings, as his high school had a new $1 million gym that seated 5,000. As a junior, Averitt led the Tigers to a regional title to reach the “Sweet Sixteen” for the first time in school history. William made the All-State Tournament team by scoring 35 points in a loss in Louisville’s Freedom Hall in the state competition. He was a third-team all-state pick.

As a senior in 1969-70, Averitt picked up a first-team All-State selection from the Associated Press as Hopkinsville again reached the regional final but fell short of reaching the state tournament. After graduation, he played in the annual Kentucky-Indiana all-star game. Averitt “was the kind of player that, if I’d have left him in ballgames, there’s no telling how many points he would have scored,” former coach Roy Woolum said.

The 6-foot-1 Averitt picked up the nickname of “Bird” in those childhood years. “It was from sandlot football,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “One day it got hot, and I took my shirt off – and they said I had the frame of a bird. That’s how it started: It was Bird Chest. Then, after I started playing basketball, they dropped the ‘Chest’ and I became Bird.” The name stuck to the point where “William” was soon forgotten as his first name.

Averitt’s play didn’t catch the eyes of recruiters in Kentucky. The only school that did show interest was Kentucky State, but lost him when it didn’t even send a representative to pick Averitt up at a bus station during a recruiting trip. But Pepperdine assistant coach Fred Overton was from Kentucky, and had seen Averitt play during a holiday visit. Averitt flew to California – his first trip out of the state – and accepted a scholarship offer to head west to play college basketball.

He needed no time at all to make an impression with the Waves. Averitt scored 43 and 44 points against a UCLA freshmen team that was led by Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes. Bird moved up to the varsity in 1971, and quickly became a star for Pepperdine. He broke the school record for points in a season as a sophomore (when he led the nation in scoring), and as a junior. Averitt reached double figures in all 49 games during his college career, and had 52 points in a 1973 game with Nevada. He had 1,541 points in his two varsity seasons, which set another school record at the time.

“I don’t know if we ever realized what was going on,” head coach Gary Colson said. “It was so exciting, and it hit like a ton of bricks. Pepperdine’s usually on the ninth page of the sports section, eighth page maybe, but all of a sudden Bird starts cooking and Pepperdine starts moving up. It’s all about entertainment, and he was an unbelievable entertainer. Nobody could contain him.”

Averitt finished 1972-73 as the West Coast Conference’s player of the year.  Apparently, he thought it was time to move to the pros, as he applied for the draft of both the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association. Pro teams must have wondered if a player nicknamed “Bird” was big enough to thrive at the game’s top level. He went in the third round to Portland in the NBA draft. The San Diego Conquistadors took him in the second round of the ABA’s “Special Circumstance Draft” that year.

Averitt signed with the ABA that summer, but it wasn’t with the Conquistadors. ABA teams often worked out arrangements when it came to player signings. On May 10, 1973, Bird signed with the San Antonio Spurs, who had just moved there out of Dallas. Therefore, Averitt could call himself an Original Spur. It was a young team, featuring George Gervin, James Silas and Swen Nater. Averitt averaged 11.5 points per game in 22.1 minutes.

There was no second act for Averitt in San Antonio, as he was traded on June 24, 1974, to the Kentucky Colonels for a second-round draft choice. Bird was going into a good situation, because the Colonels had been one of the most stable franchises in the ABA in its existence. Owned by John Y. Brown, Kentucky had a couple of great players up front in Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore, and one of the best long-distance shooters in basketball history in Louie Dampier. Besides, Bird was coming home to Kentucky.

Averitt proved to be a good fit. He shared guard duty with Dampier and Ted McClain, and averaged 13.1 points in 24.2 minutes in 84 games. On November 23, Bird scored 31 points in a win over the Utah Stars. If his game had a weakness, it was that he was 7 for 47 (14.9 percent) in three-point shots. Bird was popular too. The team set up a fan club called the “Birdwatchers Society” for him. Members received a button as well as a whistle that was supposed to be blown each time Averitt scored a point.

At playoff time, the Colonels were the class of the league. Kentucky won three straight series by a margin of four games to one, including a victory over the Indiana Pacers in the finals. Averitt was a member of a championship team. “He was an outstanding talent — super quick, outstanding penetrator,” Colonels’ coach Hubie Brown said to the Los Angeles Times years later about Averitt. “He had a 3-point game, a mid-range game and could finish in traffic.”

“Hubie was a great coach, but we had our differences now and then,” Averitt said later. “I wasn’t the most disciplined player in the world back then. I was sort of a jokester, always cutting up and laughing, and Coach didn’t always like that. But I loved him as a coach.”

By the fall of 1975, the ABA’s days were numbered. San Diego and Utah folded a few weeks into the season, leaving the league with seven teams. Averitt averaged 17.9 points per game in 1975-76, second only to Gilmore. The Colonels finished fourth, and won a play-in series with Indiana to reach the semifinals. But Kentucky lost to Denver in seven games to end hopes of a repeat. In one of his last games, Bird scored 18 points in the final quarter and 40 for the game as the Colonels beat the Nuggets, 126-114.

The ABA died after the 1976 playoffs. Denver, New York, Indiana and San Antonio joined the NBA in a merger, while Kentucky and St. Louis folded on August 5, 1976. The players from the two defunct franchises were made available in a dispersal draft.  The Buffalo Braves traded a second-round pick in the college draft to Milwaukee for the seventh pick in the dispersal draft, and used it on Averitt. In the same week, Brown had bought half of the Braves from owner Paul Snyder, so it was obvious that Brown’s fingerprints were all over the deal.

Buffalo went into the 1976-77 season strong up front, with Bob McAdoo, John Shumate and Adrian Dantley. However, the Braves needed a playmate to go with Randy Smith. They hoped Averitt could fill that role, but it didn’t work out. He only averaged about 15 minutes per game, scoring 7.9 points. Meanwhile, the Braves more or less imploded on their way to a 30-52 record.

Averitt was on the move again at the start of the 1977-78 season. The Braves sold his playing rights to the New Jersey Nets on September 16. That team wasn’t much more stable than the Braves, and its backcourt was too crowded for Averitt to receive much playing time. The Nets waived him on December 12. But Brown, who had bought controlling interest in the Braves in 1977, hadn’t forgotten Bird. He signed him as a free agent on January 31, 1978, when the team needed some depth. Averitt played in 34 games down the stretch for Buffalo, averaging 9.5 points per game. Bird’s last game in the NBA came on April 9, 1978, in the Boston Garden. Averitt played 42 minutes, shot 7 for 26 from the field, and finished with 20 points.

It was the last game ever played by a Buffalo team in the NBA. Brown ended up taking control of the Boston Celtics, while most of the Braves ended up in San Diego. Averitt was cut by the Clippers in training camp on October 12, and his playing days were over. Bird finished with 4,434 points in five pro seasons. Averitt was inducted into the Pepperdine Hall of Fame in 1981 and the West Coast Conference’s Hall of Honor in 2017.

It was back to his native Hopkinsville after that. He had deferred more than $1 million of his basketball salary, so those $1,500 checks that arrived every two weeks until 2006 took care of many of his financial needs. His post-basketball career plans received a jolt in 1995 when he was injured in a car accident, leaving him partially paralyzed because of a broken neck. Averitt’s health never completely recovered, although he lived for about 25 more years.

“I miss doing things,” he said in 2010, “because I still played [basketball] until I got hurt – you know, pickup games, community programs, things like that. … Anything athletic, I enjoyed.”

One of his last visits to a gymnasium came in March 2020, when he was saluted at the Second Region Tournament that was played on the high school court where Averitt established his reputation as one of the city’s basketball legends. Then on December 20, 2020, he died of Covid-related illnesses in Hopkinsville at the age of 68.

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