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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Claude Terry

(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.)

Claude Terry barely spent enough time in Buffalo to figure out how to drive to practice. His stay was one of the shortest parts of a basketball journey that took him to a variety of locations – and lasted for most of a lifetime.

Claude Lewis Terry was born in Modesto, California, on January 12, 1950. Terry’s father, Leon, was a banker in Modesto. Claude attended Modesto High School, one of the few schools in California that date back to the 19th century. The facility’s most famous graduates might be a couple of winemakers – Julio and Ernest Gallo.

Terry was coached in high school by Len Kaiser, in the middle of a great 12-year run. Claude joined the varsity as a sophomore, and by his senior year he had become the Most Valuable Player of the Central California Conference. Terry later was selected for the Modesto Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989, and also was inducted into the Sportsmen of Stanislaus Hall of Fame. Ron Agostini of the Modesto Bee once wrote that “Claude’s name virtually means basketball in Modesto. He was one of the best shooters ever produced by Modesto City Schools.” Terry graduated in 1968.

Then he headed to Stanford University to continue his academic studies and his basketball career. Howard Dallmar was the coach of the Indians (as they were known then) when Claude arrived. Terry watched Stanford go 8-17 for the season, 4-10 in the Pac-8. Claude averaged more than 20 points per game on the freshmen team.

As a sophomore, Terry needed virtually no time at all to have an impact on the Stanford team. Claude had 32 points in his first game with the varsity, a 96-94 loss to Utah. The 6-foot-5 sharpshooter led the team in scoring with 19.6 points per game. He didn’t have a great deal of help, as Dennis O’Neill was the only other player who averaged in double digits in scoring. Stanford suffered through a 5-20 season, 2-12 in the Pac-8.

As a junior, Terry picked up his scoring average a little bit, as it reached almost 21 points per game. He had what became a career best when he scored 41 points against Oregon State that season, and added 36 points a night later against Oregon. Injuries hampered some of the team’s other players off the court, so Stanford suffered through a difficult season. It was 6-20 overall, and 2-12 in Pac-8 play. That was good for a seventh-place tie with Washington State in the conference. Maybe the highlight of the season came on January 15, 1971, when the Indians only lost to UCLA by a score of 58-53. The Bruins won their fifth straight NCAA championship later in the year.

Terry spent part the summer of 1971 playing with a Christian group in such places as Australia and New Zealand, and worked on driving to the basket whenever possible. Stanford improved slightly in Terry’s senior year. The team had a 10-15 record, 5-9 in the Pac-8. Terry led the team in scoring for the third straight year, averaging 21.2 points per game to break his own school record set the previous year. He had help from sophomores Michael Mann and David Frost. “I don’t think anyone in the conference has played under more pressure than Claude,” assistant coach Bub Bowling said. “It got to be that if he got 20 to 25 we stood a chance of winning; if he got 15 we’d be in trouble. So teams knew all they had to do was put extreme pressure on him.”

Terry’s college career ended with a home game against UCLA, which had added a fabulous sophomore class that featured Bill Walton and Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes. The Bruins won, 102-73, and went on to win yet another title. At the end of that game, when Terry left the contest near its end, UCLA coach John Wooden walked to the Stanford bench … and shook Claude’s hand.

Claude picked up an all-conference honor at the end of the season, and was a third-team All-American on at least one list. Terry left as the leading scorer in Stanford history, finishing with 1,566 points. As of 2021, he was still 10th on that list, even though he didn’t play a large number of games in a season, freshmen weren’t allowed on the varsity, and there was no three-point shot. Terry later was inducted into the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame. He was the second player in school history to lead the team in scoring for three straight years. His scoring average remains the second-best figure in conference history. With all that, Claude couldn’t change the course of history. Stanford was in the middle of a 42-year drought between appearances in the NCAA tournament that didn’t end until 1989.

Claude played in the East-West All-Star Game in Dayton, Ohio, after his season ended. Soon Terry had a choice of destinations to continue his basketball career in the pros. He was picked by the Phoenix Suns of the NBA draft in the third round, and also by the Denver Rockets of the ABA draft in the second round. Claude picked Denver for the next stop in his hoop career. “I feel I have a better future in the ABA,” Terry said at the time. “Phoenix has a whole flock of guards while Denver is kinda thin back there.”

Terry was surrounded by some interesting names when the joined the Nuggets. Alex Hannum was the coach of the team. He is remembered as the coach of the teams that won NBA titles in the only years that the Boston Celtics didn’t win championships between 1957 and 1969. Ralph Simpson was an explosive guard who averaged 23 points per game in 1972-73. Warren Jabali and Dave Robisch were solid starters as well.

Terry played in 68 games as a rookie, averaging about five points a game in a little less than 10 minutes per appearance. Along the way, he set a career high with 23 points against the New York Nets on March 21, 1973. Denver won 47 games that season, a 13-game improvement over 1971-72. The Pacers made short work of the Rockets in the playoffs, winning in five games.

A season later, the Rockets added Al Smith through the draft and veteran Steve Jones via a midseason trade. Terry’s minutes took a hit as a result, as he was the only player on the roster who didn’t average 10 minutes per game. Denver finished 37-47, and lost a one-game tiebreaker to San Diego for a playoff spot.

The Denver franchise made a variety of changes for the 1974-75 season, and they all seemed to work. The team became the Nuggets and hired Larry Brown as the coach. Bobby Jones was signed out of North Carolina, and he was a superb team player. Even better for Claude, the two men became friends, roommates and Bible study partners. Mack Calvin proved to be a fine scorer at guard. Center Mike Green improved to score 17 points per game. Their addition meant the Nuggets had some depth, and they raced to a 65-19 regular season record – only to lose to Indiana in the semifinals. Terry’s playing time went up a bit under Brown to 14 minutes per game over 70 appearances.

Claude’s autumn had a brief, odd interlude. He was picked by the new Baltimore Claws franchise in an expansion draft. That team played all of three exhibition games before folding. Then a dispersal draft was held on October 21, and Terry went right back to Denver.

Denver became really serious about winning a title in the fall of 1975. The Nuggets added two of the great scorers in basketball history in David Thompson and Dan Issel. They combined with Simpson, Jones and guard Chuck Williams to form an excellent starting five. Terry played 79 games that season and averaged 17 minutes in them. The Nuggets reached the ABA finals, only to lose in six games to Julius Erving and the New York Nets.

It was a terrific team, and Terry was a part of it. Curry Fitzpatrick described him this way in a Sports Illustrated article on the Nuggets: “Claude Terry, 6'5" third guard. Brains and guile. Out of Stanford, so figures. Another terrific shooter. Made 50 straight free throws recently. Looks like blond Sonny Bono.” Oh, yes – the hair. Claude was cited by an ABA tribute website page called “When big hair ruled the ABA” for the mop that would fly everywhere when he was playing.

Along the way, Terry had the pleasure of participating in his only All-Star Game. The ABA matched the league’s best against the Nuggets, and almost 18,000 jammed McNichols Arena to see the show. They got one, as the home team took a 144-138 decision. Terry played 25 minutes in the contest, and had 14 points. Two of them came on free throws with 36 seconds left, helping to clinch the game for Denver.

The basketball world certainly changed in the summer of 1976, when the NBA and ABA merged. Four teams, including the Nuggets, joined the senior league. One of the side-effects of the deal was that rosters around the league were in flux. The Braves entered the 1976-77 season needing some help at guard, as Ken Charles and Bob Weiss had departed and were not really replaced. Meanwhile, the Nuggets were crowded at guard and had several players with no-cut contracts, leaving Terry as someone who could be dealt easily. Buffalo gave up future considerations to Denver for Terry.

If Claude didn’t know that he was in for a wild ride, he found out soon enough. Early in the season, Moses Malone turned up in Buffalo after a trade with Portland. But Malone didn’t stay long.

“When we first got (to Buffalo), we were living in an efficiency apartment,” Terry said. “Moses lived right next to us. He hadn’t been there very long when my wife and I were coming in one afternoon, and Moses had his bags. … I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘I just got traded.’ I said, ‘What? You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I had played against him in the ABA. He reminded me of a young Bill Walton.”

“I had played four years and I knew my role. But when I found out what happened, I called the general manager, Bob MacKinnon. I said, ‘Bob, explain this to me. You just traded one of the best rebounders in the league. Why did you trade him?’ He said it was his contract – the team had to pay so much for playing so many minutes. I said, “You should pay that guy to play every minute. I think you just traded away the best offensive rebounder in the history of basketball.’”

A few weeks later, the Braves essentially sold Bob McAdoo to the New York Knicks for cash. At that point, everyone thought the franchise’s future had turned for the worse. “I think everybody saw the uncertainty and the lack of purpose about what was going on, with people coming and going,” Terry said. “Later Tates Locke got fired as coach. He was in a different world. Tates thought he could treat NBA players like college students. All the guys eventually yelled back. It was a militaristic situation. The guys turned him off, and he lost control.”

Claude played 33 games for the Braves, spelling Ernie DiGregorio and Randy Smith. Terry loved playing with DiGregorio (“He was one of the greatest passers I’d been around,” he said.).

But then it was his turn to leave, with a trade to Atlanta for cash and future considerations coming only a few days after the legendary “Blizzard of ‘77” in Buffalo in late January. Claude remembers leaving Buffalo in a minus-50 degree wind chill, and landing in 72-degree Atlanta a couple of hours later – a 122-degree increase. He hasn’t returned to Buffalo since then.

The Hawks weren’t in much better shape in the standings, and eventually finished 30-52. But with Geoff Petrie and Lou Hudson hurt, Terry had the chance to play more in Atlanta. “Hubie Brown was a great coach,” Terry said. “He called my number a lot. He played the statistics. One of my plays was 52, and I would go off a high screen off a post with two or three options. If you were scoring on 52, he’d call it a lot. He utilized the abilities of his players.”

However, Terry was hurt late in the season, and the injury was misdiagnosed. He only participated in 27 games the following season, and he played as many as 10 minutes four times. By the time Terry’s medical situation was clarified at the end of the 1977-78 season, his career was over. Claude played six years in the NBA.

After a couple of years away from the game, Terry turned to coaching. He landed a job as an assistant basketball coach at Seattle Pacific University, and stayed for about three years. It plays in Division II, and won five national championships in men’s soccer between 1978 and 1993. Then Terry became the head coach of California State University at Stanislaus for a year, going 13-12. He returned to Seattle Pacific for about six years as the head men’s basketball coach.

Terry wasn’t bashful about trying to collect some wisdom from Wooden at this point in his life. “When I was coaching at Seattle Pacific University, I would go visit Coach at the start of the season to get my batteries charged,” he said later. “He was always so gracious to me. We would always go to his favorite coffee shop for breakfast where everyone knew him. Then we went back to his condo for a day of X’s and O’s.”

After resigning from the coaching job, Claude became Executive Director of the Pro Basketball Fellowship in 1990, and stayed for 15 years. He coordinated the NBA’s chapel program while there. Terry also served as the Pastor of World Outreach at CrossPoint Community Church in Modesto for 16 years, starting in 1995. Claude and son Shane worked for the United Petroleum Company (they founded and then sold the firm) and Calument Specialty Products Partners from 2014 to 2015. In 2017 he became the owner-president of Old School Partners LLC, which works in a variety of athletic and financial areas out of Gilbert, Arizona. That’s where he and wife Gayleen live.

Terry was one of the plaintiffs in a class action suit against the NBA involving retired ABA players; the two sides reached a settlement in 2014.

Basketball remained part of the Terry family for years to come. Shane was an all-district selection at Modesto Christian. Shane went on to play three pro seasons in Spain, and Claude served as that team’s Player Development Director for one of those three seasons. Claude’s grandson Blake played at Modesto Junior College in the mid-2010s. “You never know how good you’ll be until you maximize your talents,” Claude told the Modesto Bee. “I’m really happy for Blake. He’s a great kid and a great student. He’s got to be his own person, and he will. He’ll continue to get better because he has his head screwed on straight.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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