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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Cornell Warner

(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.)

Cornell Warner’s basketball life was an interesting one. For someone who, according to teammate Oscar Robertson, couldn’t make a basket from beyond eight feet away, he used his rebounding skills to stay in the NBA for more than six seasons. However, his life before the NBA must have been even more interesting, as he spent it in one of the hot spots of the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

Cornell Warner was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 12, 1948. The city was named after Andrew Jackson in 1821, at a time when Jackson’s memory in the climactic battle at the end of the War of 1812 was still fresh in people’s minds. Jackson was burned to the ground by General William Sherman in the Civil War, but was rebuilt and became Mississippi’s largest city in the 1920s.

But Jackson underwent its biggest changes in the 1960s, and Cornell was around for all of it. In 1960, all of the city’s facilities were segregated by race. That was when non-violent protests started to pop up. The famous Freedom Riders of 1961 saw their attempt to integrate interstate bus service come to an end in Jackson on May 24, 1961. Civil right activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson on June 12, 1963. The atmosphere began to change with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

There probably was more to be learned by walking through downtown Jackson in that era than by going to school. Warner did both around the time he attended Lanier High School. He was on the team in 1964-65 when the Bulldogs had a season to remember. Lanier went 43-0, averaging 102 points and winning by about 40 points per game on average. After a win in a national tournament in Montgomery, Alabama, some declared Lanier as the winner of the Negro National High School Championship. There’s no doubt that this was a special group – worthy of eventual induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

How good was that team? This good: Warner, a junior, was the third man off the bench. “That team knew how to play basketball,” he said much later. “Our basketball intelligence was off the charts. We just loved the game.”

The championship tournament disbanded after 1966, as only two states had failed to integrate their schools by this time. Warner had moved up the team’s depth chart thanks to graduation, and scored 32 points in one game against Jim Hill HS. That was when Warner graduated from high school, and eventually opted to stay close to home and play basketball at Jackson State University.

It’s a bit difficult to follow Warner’s basketball story throughout the 1960s. African-American high schools and colleges did not receive the newspaper coverage of their white counterparts in that era. He apparently enrolled in the fall of 1967, although it’s certainly possible that Cornell took a year off from playing in college because of an injury. New coach Paul Covington arrived at Jackson State in 1967, and he would stay as coach of the Tigers for two decades.

Covington didn’t waste any time winning a title in the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC), as Jackson State took the title in 1968. He had so much fun that time that he and the rest of the Tigers – including Warner - did it again in 1970. They went on to the NAIA tournament as the No. 7 seed, where they lost to Central Washington State in the quarterfinals in spite of Warner’s 20 points and 24 rebounds. Jackson State also played in the NAIA tournament in 1969, losing in the first round. Individual and team statistics from that era aren’t readily available, but Warner is credited as a second-team all-NAIA selection and an All-Conference pick in 1969-70. Cornell still had a year of eligibility left at Jackson State but decided to turn pro instead. Therefore he finished college with 1,590 points and 1,300 rebounds –earning the nickname “Super Tiger” in the process.

Warner had a decision to make immediately. Cornell was an early (sometime in the first five rounds) selection of the Pittsburgh Pipers of the ABA. The Buffalo Braves of the NBA – one of the three expansion teams in that season – took him in the second round (No. 24 overall) in that league’s draft. Buffalo signed Warner on April 14, and it was time to leave Jackson and head north to upstate New York - which must have been something of a cultural shock after about 22 years in Jackson. He got married (Carolyn) and headed north.

Entering their first season, the Braves were thought to have a good, deep backcourt. Yet it was up front where the team’s top scorers played. Center Bob Kauffman and forward Don May were the top two scorers, and forward John Hummer wasn’t far behind in fourth place. Warner at least was the first big man off the bench, serving as a reserve at strong forward and center. He played about 20 minutes a game, and averaged six points and seven rebounds per game. The team, though, struggled to a 22-60 season under coach Dolph Schayes.

The Braves drafted center Elmore Smith with their first pick in 1971, and he moved right into the lineup. Still, Warner again averaged about six points a game in 20 minutes as he played 62 games. He wasn’t much of a scoring threat, but at 6-foot-9 he could take up space and grab some rebounds. Buffalo had an identical 22-60 record that season.

Then came the 1972-73 season, and with it a big man taken in the first round named Bob McAdoo. With the North Carolina star joining Smith, Kauffman and Hummer, it definitely was getting crowded among the forecourt of the Braves. Warner turned out to be the odd man out. He played four games, averaging only 11.8 minutes per game, and was waived by the Braves on November 1.

Three days later, the Cleveland Cavaliers – another team that was part of the expansion class of 1970 – claimed him. The Cavs were a little thin up front and needed a rebounder, so Warner was a good fit. He played 68 games that season, averaging 5.7 points and 7.5 rebounds in 19.5 minutes – quite similar to his Buffalo numbers.

Along the way, he was part of a funny story. Broadcaster Joe Tait invited Dwight Davis and Warner to his house for Thanksgiving dinner; Cornell brought his mother along. When they got out of the car at Tait’s house, the announcer’s two dogs ran right at Davis … who jumped on top of the roof of the car to escape. “The best part was Cornell Warner,” Tait said later. “He didn’t speak three words all year, but he was laughing so hard, tears were coming down his face. His mother was behind him, telling Cornell to quit making fun of Dwight. But Cornell couldn’t stop laughing.”

The Cavaliers finished 29-53 that season, prompting them to draft Jim Brewer in the first round in 1973. He joined Dwight Davis, Steve Patterson and Bob Rule up front, and there wasn’t much room for Warner. Cornell was waived on October 29.

After he was cut by two expansion teams, Warner must have wondered what his basketball future looked like. This is where he caught a break. The Milwaukee Bucks signed him on November 5. This was better. The Bucks had won 60 games the previous year, but they needed a little more rebounding. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t do all the work himself in that area, and Curtis Perry was a bit undersized at 6-7 to play against some teams. Warner couldn’t have landed in a better situation, and he saw plenty of duty with Hall of Famers Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Dandridge and Robertson. He set his career high in scoring on March 26, 1974 against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, netting 21 points to go with 18 rebounds. Milwaukee cruised to a 59-23 record, first in the Midwest Division.

It would seem that Warner had found a home, as coach Larry Costello said, “I don’t know where we’d be if we hadn’t picked up Warner.” Cornell even contributed on offense at times. “The other coaches I had said I couldn’t shoot,” Warner said. “I had to be able to shoot to average 22 points a game in college, but they kept telling me to pass off. It took me a long time to get my confidence back.”

When the playoffs arrived, Warner saw even more playing time – about 31 minutes per game. He helped the Bucks roll past the Lakers in five games, and then sweep the Bulls in four. It was on to the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. It was a tough, competitive series, with the road team winning four of the first six games. Abdul-Jabbar took care of ending Game Six with a win by hitting a long skyhook with three seconds left to end a double-overtime classic. "He got up high and I said, 'There's no doubt about it,'" Warner said after the game. "He was up so high he was looking down at the basket. ... This should have been the seventh game. It has got to be one of the best ever."

Abdul-Jabbar figured to be Boston’s biggest problem in Game Seven, and coach Tommy Heinsohn made a key strategic move for that showdown contest. He’d double-team Abdul-Jabbar whenever possible, and dared Warner to score enough points to beat his team. It worked. Kareem was held to a manageable 26 points, and Warner was held to one point on 0 for 3 shooting from the field. Boston led almost all of the way in taking a 102-87 win and the NBA title.

“We had a forward who didn’t even hardly score, or hardly play, so you call timeout and you try to get adjustments made – it’s up to the coach to make the final decision,” Robertson said. “Cornell Warner could not have been the hero of that situation because we didn’t call on Cornell Warner to shoot the whole year, so why would we put all that pressure on him then? We should’ve put a shooter over there.”

Robertson retired after that loss, and the Bucks’ fortunes took a nosedive. They won only 38 games in 1974-75, and missed the playoffs. Abdul-Jabbar was out for 17 games with an injury, and the team’s lack of depth hurt. At least Warner was busy, averaging 32 minutes per game at power forward in playing 79 games. He averaged 7.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, both career highs.

Abdul-Jabbar announced in the summer of 1975 that he wanted to be traded, and on June 16 he was off to the Lakers for a package of talent that included Dave Meyers and former Warner teammate Elmore Smith. That pushed Cornell out of the Milwaukee picture, and his contract was sold to the Lakers on October 22. Los Angeles had given a large amount of talent to obtain Abdul-Jabbar, and a tall rebounder who was an experienced sidekick for Kareem was welcome. Warner played in 81 games that season for Los Angeles and averaged 31 minutes. Cornell was good for seven points and nine rebounds per night. The Lakers were 40-42 that season.

In the fall of 1976, Kermit Washington was ready to move into the lineup. He only played in 36 games the season before, but at this point he could rebound as well as Warner but could score more points. In other words, Warner wasn’t needed any more. He was released on November 2, 1976. Cornell finished with career totals of 445 games, 2,860 points, and 3,353 rebounds. He did go to the Philippines in 1979, spending a season with the Crispa Redmanziers.

There’s little evidence available on what Warner has been doing since retiring from basketball. It’s almost as if he returned to the anonymity he had during his years in Jackson. He appears to have settled in a suburb of San Diego. Social media reports say Cornell has been recognized occasionally by fans, who say that the former NBA player has been good-natured and gracious in all such encounters.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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