top of page
  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Billy Knight

(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.)

A good case could be made that Billy Knight is the most underrated member of the Buffalo Braves in their history. He played in the team’s final season when few were paying attention, and his season ended early because of an injury. At least Western New York had the chance to see this excellent player for a few months.

William R. Knight was born in Braddock, Pennsylvania, on June 9, 1952. Braddock is a suburb to the southeast of Pittsburgh. It is named after General Edward Braddock, the head of America’s colonial forces during the French and Indian War. The town has been a reflection of the rise and fall of the steel industry, starting in 1873 with its first mill. Many immigrants settled there in order to work at the facility. When business collapsed in the 1970s, Braddock suffered greatly.

Sure enough, Knight’s father was a millworker. Billy stayed in Braddock throughout his childhood, and he had plenty of company. He was the fourth of 11 children. Knight attended General Braddock High School, and is listed as the only player from that school to reach the pros in basketball. Billy – who picked up the nickname “Mooney” somewhere in childhood – averaged almost 30 points per game as a senior. He helped the Falcons win a sectional championship in 1970, and went on to be picked as second-team All-State by the Associated Press. He graduated from Braddock later that year.

Knight opted to stay close to home for college, as he attended the University of Pittsburgh. That team was coached by Charles “Buzz” Ridl, who arrived in 1968. The Panthers went 4-20 in his first year, but Ridl helped them improve from there. Pittsburgh jumped to 12-12 in 1969-70, and was 14-10 in 1970-71 when Knight watched from the sidelines as a freshman.

Knight moved on to the varsity roster for the 1971-72 season, and he was ready to make an impact. Not only did he start as a sophomore, but he led the team in scoring at 21 points per game. The Panthers finished 12-12, and took a small step backwards the following season (12-14). Knight was even better in his junior year by averaging almost 24 points and 11 rebounds per game.

A highlight came when he scored 37 points in a loss at UCLA on Dec. 22, 1972 – the Bruins’ 50th straight win in a streak that eventually reached 88 games. “I’ll never forget at the end of the game, the old man, John Wooden (the Bruins’ coach), comes walking across the court to shake Billy’s hand,” Pitt radio announcer Bill Hillgrove said in a video.

All of that mediocrity must have made the 1973-74 season even sweeter. Pitt lost its opener to West Virginia, and then won its next 22 games. No wonder Pittsburgh climbed as high as No. 7 in a national poll. “He was like a quiet assassin,” teammate Tom Richards said. “He didn’t make a lot of noise, and he didn’t want a lot of fanfare, but he just went about his business and put up incredible numbers.”

The team, with five starters from the Pittsburgh area, qualified for the NCAA tournament. There the Panthers scratched out a 54-42 win over Saint Joseph’s, and followed it with an 81-78 victory over Furman (Knight had 34 points in that game). Pitt was only a game from the Final Four, but North Carolina State was in the way. The Wolfpack even had the extra edge of playing on its home court in Raleigh, N.C. The eventual national champion buried the Panthers, 100-72, even though superstar David Thompson missed most of the game with an injury. Knight concluded his college career with 19 points and 10 rebounds. The team finished 25-4; it still ranks as one of the best seasons of the modern era in the school’s basketball history.

The 6-foot-6 forward averaged 21.8 points and 13.4 rebounds per game as a senior. Billy was a second-team All-American and had his No. 34 retired by the school in 1989. He was part of the university’s first class in its athletic Hall of Fame in 2018.

The 1974 NBA draft was rather stacked with talent. Bill Walton of UCLA was the first pick, and every player taken in the first round spent at least three years in the league. The Lakers took Knight with the third pick in the second round, No. 21 overall. But three months earlier, the ABA had staged its draft. The Indiana Pacers took Knight as the sixth pick in the first round. Knight signed with the Pacers on July 29.” I think that I was part of that,” Pittsburgh announcer Bill Hillgrove said later. “I escorted him to an ABA game where Julius Erving was playing. We went to their locker room afterward and Dr. J sat down with Billy and convinced him that the ABA was the best option for him.”

Indiana, under coach Bob Leonard, had a good team in that era. Its star was George McGinnis, who was close to unstoppable as a power forward. Darnell Hillman and Len Elmore also were upfront, but Knight received plenty of playing time as a rookie since he could play forward and guard. He averaged 17.1 points per game, as the Pacers went 45-39. Knight was picked for the ABA’s All-Rookie team. Indiana made it all the way to the Finals that year, but lost in five games to Kentucky. Against the Colonels, Billy averaged 41.6 minutes and 22.8 points – peaking with 40 points in Game Five.

McGinnis jumped to the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers in the summer of 1975, which meant more shots for Knight. He responded with a spectacular season, with averages of 28.1 points (second in the league) and 10.1 rebounds per game. That earned Bill a first-team All-ABA selection. However, the team slipped to 39-45, and was eliminated by Kentucky, two games to one, in the first round of the playoffs. Knight averaged 33.7 points in the postseason, leading his team in scoring in all three games. “I could sneak around and do a lot of things on the court,” he said about his play later. “I think that's one of the reasons I lasted so long. I could play both inside and outside, if one part of my game wasn't working, I could do something else.”

The NBA and ABA merged in the summer of 1976. If the new league was more competitive, Knight didn’t notice it. He averaged 26.6 points per game in a smooth transition. The Pacers, one of the best and most stable franchises in ABA history, didn’t do too well in their new surroundings. They went 36-46 and missed the playoffs.

At that point in his career, Knight was looking for long-term security, but couldn’t find it in Indiana. “We wanted to renegotiate Billy's contract which had two years to run,” general manager/coach Bob Leonard said later. “But his agent put too much pressure on him. He wanted a seven-year contract at $400,000 per year. We just couldn't enter into a contract like that at this time and didn't want an unhappy player on the team.”

Meanwhile in Buffalo, owner John Y. Brown was wheeling and dealing in an attempt to turn the fortunes of the Braves around. He particularly liked collecting players from the ABA, because he had been the owner of the Kentucky Colonels there. He had Adrian Dantley, a small forward who had played college ball at Notre Dame in Indiana and had been the NBA’s rookie of the year in 1976-77. That led to an exchange of Knight for Dantley and forward Mike Bantom. "I hated to give Adrian up," Brown said the day of the trade, “but we had three inside players up front with Swen Nater, John Shumate and him. This way, we'll have a great perimeter shooter in Knight and someone who can get him the ball in (Nate) Archibald."

Knight arrived in Buffalo for training camp, and watched as Archibald tore his Achilles tendon in a preseason game and was lost for the season. That essentially ruined any chance of the team reaching the playoffs. Knight soldiered on, averaging 22.9 points per game. Not only was he an elegant scorer, but quickly became one of the class acts on the Buffalo roster. “I can’t say enough good things about Billy,” Braves’ coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said at the time. “If there’s a nicer person than Billy Knight, I want to meet him.”

Along the way he had 41 points against Milwaukee on December 27, 1977. He was picked to appear in his only NBA All-Star Game, but missed the game because of injury. “I went to one of his first NBA games in Buffalo with my family,” Hillgrove said. “I noticed that every single time Billy got the ball, Randy Smith clapped his hands and asked Billy to pass it to him.” Knight later tore cartilage in his right knee and needed surgery; he didn’t play after February 26. As it turned out, the Braves only had a few more months left to live.

The Braves were moved to San Diego to become the Clippers in the summer in a complicated transaction involving the ownerships of the former Buffalo franchise and the Boston Celtics. As part of the deal, the new Clippers team gave up Knight, Archibald, Marvin Barnes, and two draft choices to the Celtics for Kermit Washington, Kevin Kunnert, Sidney Wicks and Freeman Williams. Knight is said to have heard about the deal while on a fishing trip in Quebec.

The Celtics were something of a mess that season, with a collection of oddball talents and personalities. The marriage between the team and Knight never did work out. In hindsight, he may have lost a step because of the knee surgery that he never recovered. Billy averaged about 14 points per game for the Celtics. Boston then dealt him back to Indiana for center Rick Robey. “I'm happy to be going back to Indiana,” Knight said at the time. “I'm not going to say anything derogatory about Boston. I don't want to be that type of guy. I never told people how I felt but obviously I wasn't enjoying myself. I didn't enjoy sitting on the bench. Once it started, I always wanted to leave. There were a couple of plays for me here (Boston) but I only saw them once in a blue moon. Usually I wound up standing around and setting picks.”

Boston sports columnist Bob Ryan had a different viewpoint to Knight’s time in Boston. “Knight was a finesse player on offense and a nonfactor in every other facet of his game,” he wrote. “He didn't defend, he didn't pass, and he didn't appear to work up a sweat - ever. One letter-writer told me his personal theme song should be Jackson Browne's ‘Running on Empty.’ The Boston Garden crowd loathed him, and he shrank at home.”

Knight’s scoring average went up a bit during the rest of the 1978-79 season (14.7 ppg), but the days of consistent 20-point games were over. Billy never averaged more than 18 points per game for the rest of his career. Knight stayed in Indiana through 1983, averaging about 15 points per game in 25 minutes. By 1983, the Pacers were down to 20-62, and it was time to rebuild.

On September 17, 1983, the Pacers dealt Knight to the New York Knicks for Vince Taylor and a first-round draft choice. Knight immediately was shipped to Kansas City for Ray Williams. Billy started in about half of the Kings’ games and averaged 12.8 points per game. Knight’s minutes dropped considerably in the next season. He stayed in Kansas City until December 11, 1984, when he was dealt to San Antonio for reserve center Mark McNamara. Knight was on the bench for most of his time with the Spurs.

He knew the end had arrived at that point. Knight played 11 seasons of pro basketball, and averaged 16.9 points per game. The forward spent one last season playing basketball, as he went over to France. After relaxing for a year – he had a nice touch when it came to investing, too - Billy went back to Indiana again, joining the team’s front office in community relations in 1987. He had a variety of roles for the Pacers, and later worked for the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies in several positions.

From there, Knight was hired as director of basketball operations in Atlanta. In 2003, Knight was promoted by the team to general manager. Unfortunately, he is mostly remembered by the Hawks’ fans for some draft picks that didn’t work out. Atlanta had the chance to select such players as Chris Paul and Brandon Roy, but didn’t. On the other hand, the team’s ownership was rather dysfunctional at that point in history, and it would have been tough for anyone to win under those circumstances. The Hawks never had a winning season during his time there, although they did reach the playoffs in his final season as GM. Upon resigning, Knight said the team was much better off at that point than it was when he arrived, and maybe he had a point. Atlanta had five straight winning seasons after that.

Knight stayed in Atlanta and essentially retired after leaving the Hawks. He returned to Braddock on July 21, 2018, for “Billy Knight Day.” “I’m proud of the fact I’m from Braddock,” Knight said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We had a lot of good basketball players come from that area — Braddock, Rankin, North Braddock. I was fortunate and blessed to be able to navigate through all of that to get to where I got to. I’m proud of the fact I’m still friends with a lot of the guys I grew up with. Everybody I played with, we’re still friends. They can’t call me a gunner or that I didn’t pass because we’re still friends today. If I was like that, they wouldn’t even talk to me today.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page