(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.)
Don Adams didn’t look like a pro basketball player, as everyone in Buffalo who saw him play probably noticed. Memorial Auditorium’s lights reflected off his head, and his body shape didn’t remind anyone of Randy Smith. On the other hand, Adams played like a pro basketball player. Smarts and effort can take someone a long way.
Donald Lamar Adams was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 27, 1947. Don apparently spent his childhood in the Atlanta suburb of East Point, where he attended South Fulton High School. The facility was built in 1952, and it was constructed to maintain segregation in the area. Therefore, only African Americans attended that school.
Adams was a high school All-American as a senior, and he was intelligent. He wanted to stay relatively close to home for college. That sounds like an irresistible combination for some school in his home state. However, the doors at Georgia and Georgia Tech would not open up for him. The color of his skin was the problem. He packed his bags and went to Northwestern University.
Adams played well on the freshman team in 1966-67, showing that he might be able to help the mediocre varsity a year later. This was right about the time that the television series, “Get Smart,” had started a wildly popular run. Its star was named Don Adams. Therefore, it was almost inevitable that the basketball-playing Adams would pick up the nickname “Smart.”
Adams moved right into the starting lineup as a sophomore, and made a difference. He averaged 12.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, ranking third and first on the team respectively. Northwestern improved to 13-10 overall and 8-6 in the Big Ten. After that season, Adams showed a social conscience by taking part in a sit-in as black students took control of the bursar’s office at Northwestern. “I’m protesting not because I’m an athlete, but because I’m a member of the black race,” he told reporters.
In 1968-69, Adams picked up his game a notch, as he averaged 15.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. The Wildcats finished 14-10, so they were getting better in that sense, but they were still in the middle of the Big 10. Then they went in the wrong direction in Adams’ senior season, finishing 9-15 and ninth in the conference. Adams’ scoring average reached 16.3 points per game, and again led the team in rebounds for the third straight year even though he spent some time at guard. He was an honorable mention all-conference pick that season.
Even so, Adams was a long shot to have a pro career. He was drafted by the Carolina Cougars of the ABA in the late rounds (11 to 15). About a week later, Adams was taken in the eighth round by the San Diego Rockets of the NBA – and there’s a story connected to that.
Teams were throwing darts at that point in the draft, and general manager Pete Newell asked Frank Hamblen – a recent Syracuse grad who was something like an intern at the time – to make the pick. Hamblen had a problem: “I don’t know one player who’s left,” he told writer Tom Callahan while they hid in a rest room. The two looked up some names in a basketball magazine, and Hamblen remembered that Adams had grabbed a bunch of rebounds in a game he had seen. He became the team’s pick.
When the rookies gathered at the Rockets’ training camp that fall, Hamblen had a chance to see his pick in person. Callahan described Don as “a black man with an Elizabethan beard, a pathetic fringe of hair around a shiny bald head, and a little potbelly. He looked like a sportswriter – a 50-year-old sportswriter.” After practice, Adams ordered a double martini … with three olives.
Spoiler alert, courtesy of Callahan: “He was a wonderful player. He couldn’t hit any kind of outside shot. But he was smart as hell, deft around the glass, never threw the wrong pass, and collected many more than his share of rebounds. … He was a good guy. Wherever Don played, he never failed to come to the table just before the tip-off to thank me again for drafting him.”
Don wound up averaging 29 minutes per game that season. This was a team that had three future Hall of Famers on it in Elvin Hayes, Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy. Adams joined Tomjanovich, Murphy and Curtis Perry as part of a terrific draft class. The Rockets went from 27 wins to 40. Adams averaged 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, fourth and second on the team respectively.
But the Rockets – who had moved to Houston in the offseason – drafted Cliff Meely in the first round of the draft in 1971, and the 6-foot-6 Adams got stuck n the bench at the start of the following season, Don only played in three games and averaged less than 14 minutes per game. He probably wasn’t surprised, then, when he was traded with guard Larry Siegfried to Atlanta for center Jim Davis and guard John Vallely. The Hawks had some talent, starting with Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson. Adams found a niche as a reserve forward, averaging 11.7 points in 29 minutes per game. The Hawks never did come together as a team, finishing 36-46. They were quickly ousted by Boston in the playoffs.
The 1972-73 season must have seemed like a do-over for Adams. He only played in three games for the Hawks, averaging 19 minutes, before he was traded again. This time, the Detroit Pistons gave up a second-round draft choice for him on October 31. Once again, Adams had some new teammates who could score – Dave Bing and Bob Lanier – so he could fill an unselfish role player in Detroit. Sure enough, Don’s playing time went up to 25.7 minutes a game, and his scoring average approached double digits. The Pistons missed the playoffs with a 40-42 record. Bing was thrilled to have Adams around. “He was one of the NBA’s top defensive players, a rugged rebounder, and could perform well at a number of different positions,” Bing wrote in his autobiography. “For these reasons and more, Don had quickly become an important Piston and one of my best friends on the team.”
At least Adams didn’t have to pack in the next season of his career. In fact, he was something of a regular in 1973-74 at 31.1 minutes a game, and his scoring average was 10.3. Lanier and Bing led the way as Detroit improved all the way to a 52-30 record. They gave a good Chicago team all it could handle in the first round of the playoffs, but fell short in Game Seven.
It would be easy to think that Adams had established himself at that point, but his hold on a roster spot proved tenuous. After a brief preseason holdout that left some hard feelings, Don took part in 51 games in the 1974-75 season, averaging 27 minutes a game. Suddenly, on February 18, the Pistons cut him. They had lost 10 of 11 games, and management decided the team needed a shakeup.
About two weeks later, Don landed with the Spirits of St. Louis of the ABA. He had been guaranteed $90,000 per season from Detroit, so he simply wanted to play basketball for the rest of the season. St. Louis signed him for the league minimum of $200 per game. That season must have been quite an experience, considering the Spirits had such characters as Marvin Barnes and Fly Williams on the roster. Adams soon made quite a first impression with his teammates. During a game with San Antonio, the Spurs’ Swen Nater got into a tussle with Barnes. The strong Nater tossed Barnes down the court with ease, but Adams came in from the blind side and decked Nater with one punch.
“What Adams did changed the whole team’s attitude toward him,” announcer Bob Costas said in the book, “Loose Balls.” “This man was built like Mickey Lolich, but he was a man to be reckoned with. He was a smart player and he fell right in there with Steve Jones and Freddie Lewis, giving us more maturity on the court. The team just shaped up after we got him, even though he only played 20 minutes a night and averaged six points.”
St. Louis finished the regular season with a 32-52 record, but still earned a playoff spot. The first-round assignment was against the powerful New York Nets, led by Julius Erving. The Nets were 58-26 that season and were the defending ABA champion. New York won the opening game of the series, and then somehow lost the next four games. MacKinnon essentially used six players in that entire series, with Adams serving as the sixth man. Don’s job essentially was to push Erving around and annoy him, and he did it well in an historic upset. The Spirits lost the next round to Kentucky.
As the 1975-76 season began, the Spirits continued to add talent. Moses Malone, Caldwell Jones and Don Chaney were among those who turned up. Eventually, Don was squeezed out of the lineup, and he was waived on December 4. A day later, the Buffalo Braves of the NBA signed him. The connection was that former Spirits coach Bob MacKinnon was now an executive with the Braves’ team, and remembered Adams’ contributions. Buffalo needed a little more depth at small forward, and Adams figured to be able to fill that role. He played in 56 games for Buffalo, only averaging 3.1 points. But he was the first big man off the bench in the playoffs for the Braves, who beat Philadelphia in a mini-series before losing to Boston.
The 1976-77 season was a turbulent one for the Braves, as they traded Bob McAdoo to the New York Knicks in midseason, and acquired and then dealt Malone within several days. Adams, at least, was a constant. He played in 77 games, giving starters Adrian Dantley and John Shumate a breather. His most memorable game came on November 9. John Shumate of the Braves and Kermit Washington of the Lakers had a fight. Washington wrote in his autobiography that Fred Foster and Adams followed by throwing punches at him as the benches cleared. The Laker claimed he had scars on his hands years later, and that Braves players called him to apologize for their teammates’ actions. As for the season, Buffalo crashed to a 30-52 record and missed the playoffs.
Don had attained free agent status that summer, and he signed with the Pistons on August 5, 1977. The Braves received a third-round pick as compensation. “If I live to be 202, I still will believe an injustice was done when I was released (by Detroit),” Adams said upon rejoining Detroit. “But if I had any hang-ups about it, I wouldn’t have signed a new contract. I should have never left the team the first time and I’m glad to be back.” Adams never played for Detroit due to a torn Achilles tendon in training camp, and he was waived on October 17, 1977. His career was over, after 523 pro games with 4,598 points with 2,916 rebounds.
It was easy to guess that a Northwestern grad might do fine after basketball, and Adams met that test. He worked as a Financial Advisor for Lincoln Financial Advisors, and lived in Southfield, Michigan. Don died on December 25, 2013.