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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Bob Weiss

(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.)

Bob Weiss looks back on his basketball life with surprise and delight. He beat the odds in coming out of a small town to spend more than 50 years playing and coaching the game – including a two-year stop in Buffalo.

"I never expected to play in the NBA because I honestly never thought I was good enough,'' Weiss said. "But once I got drafted, I took full advantage of the opportunity and it led to a 12-year career. Please don't ask me how.”

Robert William Weiss was born in Easton, Pennsylvania, on May 7, 1942, the son of Victor and Gertrude Weiss. Soon he and his family moved from the eastern edge of the state to the northern edge. They landed in Athens, which is where the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers merge and start to head south toward the Chesapeake Bay. Bob attended Athens High School; that facility later became Athens Area High School.

It appears that Weiss was almost too good for the competition. As a senior, the 6-foot-3 guard displayed his talents at a holiday tournament in Oneonta (N.Y.). He was named the event’s most valuable player even though his team finished third. “Weiss is an excellent college player. He’s the coach’s dream of a big guy who can shoot from the outside and play an excellent defensive game to boot.” coach Tony Drago of Oneonta High School said after the event.

Weiss scored 273 points in 10 games for the Bulldogs in the 1970-71 season to break the Roosevelt Trail League record. Bob almost doubled the scoring total of his nearest rival. The scoring crown was one step up from his performance as a junior, when he finished second. Along the way, Weiss scored 52 points in a game against Padua. He achieved honorable mention status for the all-state team for Pennsylvania. Bob’s 1,444 career points was still a school record in 2020. By the way, Weiss was a left-handed starting pitcher for the Athens baseball team.

Graduation arrived in the summer of 1961 for Bob, and he was still picking a destination for college. Weiss was recruited by such schools as Syracuse, North Carolina and North Carolina State as well as Cornell and Colgate. Finally in early August, Weiss picked Penn State University and its business administration program. His high school principal had played there, influencing his decision.

When Bob arrived at University Park, the Nittany Lions were coached by John Egli. He was in the middle of a generally successful 14-year run, but his best years were on the horizon. When Weiss was a freshman, Penn State was 12-11. But the situation instantly improved a year later, when Weiss moved right into the starting lineup. He averaged 15.3 points per game for the Nittany Lions, who went 15-5. A year later, Weiss became the team’s leading scorer (17 ppg.) as Penn State finished with a 16-7 record. In both of those seasons, the team was shut out of a postseason tournament.

Finally in 1964-65, the Nittany Lions improved to the point where the NCAA tournament could no longer overlook them. They finished 20-4, the best season in Egli’s tenure. The team closed the regular season with 12 straight wins, Weiss was second on the team in scoring at 16.4 points per game, including a 36-point game against Duke. Penn State earned a March 8, 1965, date with Princeton in the first round of the NCAAs.

The Tigers had a player named Bill Bradley, and even on an off-night (7 of 22 from the field for 22 points) he helped them take a 60-58 win. Weiss had 13 points in his final collegiate contest. “I saw the last three seconds tick off, and I said to myself, ‘God, it’s over. Basketball has been my life, and now it’s over,’” Weiss said later. “Coming from Penn State, being in the NBA was like being a movie star. I wasn’t exactly a hot name, so I didn’t even think about playing in the pros.”

Therefore, he must have been surprised when he found out he was drafted by an NBA team. What’s more, he didn’t have to leave the state to join it, as he was taken in the third round (25th overall) by the Philadelphia 76ers. Weiss was not an overnight sensation in the pro ranks. He lasted only seven games before he was cut by the 76ers. That sent him to the Eastern Professional Basketball League, a minor league of sorts that offered good competition with low wages. Bob taught gym at a New Jersey high school during the week and played basketball in Wilmington on weekends. Coach Neil Johnston told Weiss that a reserve guard needed to make something happen instead of playing to not make mistakes, a tip that stayed with Weiss for a lifetime.

The NBA life wasn’t much better a season later, when Bob was cut before the start of the season. But he was an all-star with Wilmington, and signed with the Sixers when Larry Costello tore his Achilles tendon. Philadelphia went an amazing 68-13 (setting a record for wins in a season) and eventually won the NBA championship. "I never played on a better team than that Philadelphia team," Weiss said about a decade later. "We lost only 13 games and there were only 10 teams then. The league was very concentrated and strong."

In most cases, that might be the end of the story; a rookie usually comes along and replaces such a marginal player. But Weiss was thrown a lifeline by expansion, as the new Seattle Supersonics selected him on May 1, 1967. It was a huge break for Bob, who capitalized on it by playing well enough in a reserve role to play almost 20 minutes per game for the first time in his career. "I came off the bench firing," Weiss said to the Washington Post about his role. "We didn't have a patterned offense. It was more or less free-lance. Al Bianchi was the coach then and it was more the old NBA style than what has evolved now. I had a lot of 25-point games (actually seven of at least 20 points), usually playing only about 24 minutes.” Speaking of breaks, Weiss was drafted by the armed forces around this time, and time in Vietnam seemed to lurk in his future. But his induction was cancelled at the last minute.

Even so, Weiss didn’t find a home in Seattle, because another expansion draft was on the way. The new Milwaukee Bucks – coached coincidentally by Costello – entered the league in 1968. The Bucks were busy sorting through their roster, and it didn’t take long for Weiss to start packing again. He and forward Bob Love were traded to the Chicago Bulls on November 23 for guard Flynn Robinson. The Bulls were interested in Weiss, and the Bucks told them they had to take Love as well in order to complete the transaction. The Bulls didn’t know it at the time, but the deal turned out to be an absolute steal that made them a contender for years to come.

Chicago was guided by first-year coach Dick Motta, who was restructuring the team. Weiss received an average of 20 minutes per game in playing time upon joining the Bulls. Love sat on the end of the bench as the Bulls finished 33-49. But in the following season, Chicago added Chet Walker in a trade from Philadelphia and paired Love with him at forward; the two thrived together. Weiss backed up Jerry Sloan and Clem Haskins at guard, and suddenly the Bulls had the makings of a solid team. Weiss averaged 11.5 points per game – a career high – as Chicago made the playoffs.

In 1970-71, Haskins had been traded for center Jim Fox, so Weiss split guard duty with Sloan and Matt Guokas. The Bulls took a big step forward, going 51-31 and extending a powerful Los Angeles team to seven games in the playoffs. Then early in the 1971-72 season, Chicago acquired guard Norm Van Lier, who moved into the starting lineup. He and Sloan’s defensive intensity gave those Bulls’ teams a distinct personality. Weiss came off the bench and often provided a spark, averaged more than 11 points per game. A 57-25 season had Chicago’s fans dreaming of big things, but the Lakers were too good again and swept a playoff series.

It was the same story in 1972-73 – a successful regular season (51-31), and a first-round elimination to the Lakers. Weiss averaged about 25 minutes per game, and scored 8.7 points per game. The frustration of getting only close enough to dream was wearing on everyone with the Bulls. In 1973-74, Chicago went a very respectable 54-28, and even won a playoff series against Detroit. But the Bucks thrashed the Bulls in four straight games. Weiss was good for 8.5 points in 21.6 minutes per game. Late in the season he suffered an injury that kept him out of a few games, snapping his consecutive game streak at 538 – the league’s longest active streak at the time. Still, the Bulls were in danger of having their lineup turn stale.

Philadelphia came close to trading the top overall pick to Chicago that summer for Weiss and center Clifford Ray, but the deal fell through. Later that year, though, Weiss was traded to the Buffalo Braves on September 4, 1974, for Matt Guokas and a pair of second-round draft choices. The Braves had a pair of young guards in place in Ernie DiGregorio and Randy Smith, and they thought Weiss might add to the group as a reserve. He was 32 years old, and his offensive opportunities dropped off in Buffalo. Weiss’ scoring averaged dropped to 3.4 points per game in 17.6 minutes; his field-goal attempts went from 3.3 per game to 1.3. Still, the Braves improved to 49-33, the best record in team history. They lost to Washington in the playoffs.

While in Buffalo, Weiss picked up a hobby: magic. "My last couple of years in college is when I really started getting into card tricks and stuff," he told the Washington Post. "I'd go into the novelty shops all the time and see what I could find. Then I got traded to Buffalo. There was a bar there and on Friday and Saturday nights, magicians would do their acts. I started going and watching them. If you watch a trick two or three times it's not that difficult to figure out what's going on."

Some of Weiss’s playing time disappeared in his second season in Buffalo. DiGregorio hadn’t fully recovered from a knee injury and had to come off the bench, and Kenny Charles was the usual starter with Smith. That left Weiss at 15 minutes per game. The Braves reached the playoffs but were eventually eliminated by Boston, the NBA champion that season. The following September, the 34-year-old Weiss was waived by Buffalo.

However, his career wasn’t done yet, as Motta – now coaching in Washington – needed a veteran guard. Bob was signed by the Bullets on November 15. Weiss’ minutes were down to 12 per game, but he held a roster spot through the rest of the season. Once Washington was done, Weiss knew he’d played his last game. "After 30, you lose a little bit of speed each year," he said earlier in that season. “You rely more on your experience then. But when you reach that point where the lines cross, your legs start holding you back and your experience can't make up for it.”

The kid from Athens had played parts of 12 seasons in the NBA, scoring 5,989 points in 783 games. Anyone smart enough to do that figured to have coaching potential. After a year in the business world, Weiss landed an assistant coaching position with the San Diego Clippers in 1978 – a team that had just arrived from Buffalo. He had a similar job in Dallas, under Dick Motta, that lasted six seasons and no doubt that helped him land a head coaching job in San Antonio in 1986. He drafted Hall of Famer David Robinson in 1987, but never got to coach him because of Robinson’s Navy commitment. Weiss lasted two years, winning a total of 59 games with the Spurs.

After a year’s break, Bob took an assistant’s job in Orlando for a year before earning another head coaching job in Atlanta in 1990. That lasted three years, and the Hawks bounced between one side of the .500 mark to the other in that span. It was there that Weiss came up with his most famous quote; “The Atlanta Hawks are a bunch of guys who would prefer to pass kidney stones than pass a basketball.” They parted ways in 1993, and Weiss immediately landed on his feet as a head coach with the now-Los Angeles Clippers. But he left after a 27-55 season.

From there, Weiss had a 10-year run as an assistant in Seattle. Bob was a head coach for the Sonics for 30 games in 2005-06 before he was fired. He went to China as a coach for a while, and returned to the Atlanta staff in 2012. Then he took jobs with Charlotte and Denver through 2019 – even though he was in his mid-70s by then. “I like to kind of learn how things work and then kind of go to something else,” Weiss said while with the Nuggets. “I always have to have something to do. I can’t get on a plane and just ride the plane. I’ve got to have a book, Sudoku puzzle, so I got to have something. So I try to keep busy that way.”

His apparent career head coaching record is 223-299, and he never won a playoff series. It’s simply not an easy job, especially when you don’t have talent. “I had players who were on respirators,” Weiss said about his past teams. “They were complete rebuilding jobs. We weren’t even finished [with] the deterioration process yet.”

Weiss married his wife Kit in 2013.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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