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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Dave Wohl

(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.)

Most pro basketball players are known for almost freakish athletic ability. Dave Wohl was something of an exception. He wasn’t particularly tall, wasn’t particular fast, and wasn’t particularly quick by NBA standards. Even so, he figured out a way to mix some all-around athletic talents with large amounts of brainpower to turn basketball into a long and successful career - and one of his many stops in the journey was in Buffalo with the Braves.


David Bruce Wohl was born on November 2, 1949, in Flushing, New York. Wohl moved to East Brunswick, New Jersey, at the age of 10. East Brunswick is a township in Middlesex County suburban community is part of the New York City metropolitan area and is located on the southern shore of the Raritan River, 31 miles from Times Square. Wohl is the only alumnus of East Brunswick High School to play in the NBA.


Here’s an example of resourcefulness Dave had as a child. He was left-handed, but was stuck in the outfield at the age of 10 in youth baseball because left-handers don’t play second base, shortstop and third base. Besides, his family couldn’t afford a left-handed glove, so he had to use the right-handed model. Catching the ball with the glove on his left hand, transferring the ball to his left hand, and throwing it to the infield wasn’t working well. So Wohl simply practiced and practiced throwing right-handed. Soon he was ambidextrous. Dave became an infielder, and one time even pitched – using both hands to throw the ball.


Wohl attended East Brunswick High School, and was named All-Middlesex County first team in both football and basketball his senior year. He also was selected All-State in football, scoring 88 points in leading the Bears’ football team to a 7-1-1 record. Dave, who did not begin playing organized basketball until the ninth grade, rewrote the school record books while taking the team to the semifinals of the Central Jersey Group IV tournament. His 499 points in his senior season were the most in school history, as was his career total of 976. He also held the records for most points in a game (34), most points in a half (23), best foul shooting percentage (85), most assists in a season (119), and most steals in a season (118). In the spring Dave was a pole-vaulter, high jumper and long jumper in track. At the end of the year he was named the East Brunswick scholar-athlete of the year. Wohl also found time to teach swimming to brain-injured children. He graduated in 1967.


Wohl took his athletic skills to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He was recruited to play football but wasn’t sure when he started school whether he wanted to play football or basketball. “I decided after I’d been here a couple of weeks,” Wohl remembered. “I walked into this place (the Palestra) one day and I fell in love with it.” Wohl was the Quakers’ second-leading scorer (12.5 ppg) on the “Digger” Phelps-coached freshman basketball team that finished 18-5. As sports reporter Pete O’Rourke said about Wohl, “Everyone knew he was a standout athlete. But no one was quite sure just how good a basketball player Dave Wohl would be….and he turned out to be one of the finest all-around guards to wear the red and blue in quite a few seasons.”


Wohl joined the varsity for the 1968-69 season for coach Dick Harter, and he and sophomore guard Steve Bilsky led the Quakers out of the abyss of the previous season’s 9-17 debacle to a 15-10 finish and third place in the Ivy League. Wohl started from the opening game vs. Lehigh and led the team in scoring for the season, averaging 16.1 ppg while Bilsky averaged 14.5 ppg. The highlights of Penn’s season were wins over No. 9 Villanova and No. 14 Columbia. Wohl was named the team MVP and was an All-Ivy League selection.


Penn took a dramatic step forward in 1969-70, winning the Ivy League championship with an undefeated conference record and a 25-2 overall record to go along with a No. 13 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. Joining Wohl and Bilsky were sophomore big men Bob Morse and Corky Calhoun. Wohl was fourth on the team in scoring with a 14.0 ppg average on a balanced team with Morse – a future Braves’ draft choice - leading the team at 15.9. “I’m taking six or seven less shots and so is Steve,” Wohl said about his numbers. “This year we have forwards 6-7 soph Corky Calhoun and 6-8 soph Bob Morse who can really score. Believe it or not, I’m really enjoying it a lot more this year because we are winning more.” The Quakers stormed through the regular season with a win over No. 9 Villanova and two victories over No. 18 Columbia. The team’s only regular season loss was an 88-85 loss to No. 17 Purdue. In a 90-75 win over Brown on February 14, Wohl broke the school assist record, dishing out 13. It was still the Quakers’ record more than 50 years later.


In Penn’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1953, it had the unenviable task of playing a Calvin Murphy-led Niagara squad. Penn led at the half, 34-33, and Wohl had held Murphy to 12 points. But the All-American Murphy exploded in the second half and finished with 35 points as the Purple Eagles downed the Quakers, 79-69.


Penn put together an even better season in Dave’s senior year. The team went through the entire regular season unblemished, finishing 26-0 and earning their second consecutive Ivy League crown. Penn defeated No. 14 Villanova along the way. Wohl was Penn’s second-leading scorer at 15.3 ppg. He also led the team with 5.2 assists per game.


Penn qualified for its second consecutive NCAA tournament and the Quakers defeated No. 11 ranked Duquesne Dukes, 70-65 in the first round of the tournament. Morse had 24 points and Wohl added 19, including five straight free throws in the final minutes to clinch the win. The Quakers beat ACC champion and No. 6 ranked South Carolina, 79-64, in the East Regional semifinals with surprising ease. Wohl outplayed All-American John Roche, scoring 20 points to Roche’s 14 and doing an outstanding job as floor general. Wohl, standing that day on the floor of Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, NC, said, “We know these people don’t think anyone plays this game better than the ACC. We feel maybe our team, and Philadelphia basketball in general gets overlooked some. But we also feel that if you’re really good you have to prove it. That’s what we set out to do.” It set up a game with Villanova in the regional finals, with a trip to the Final Four at stake.


Penn picked the East Reginal final to play its worst game of the Dick Harter era, losing by 90-47. Howard Porter led the Wildcats with 35 points and not one Quaker scored in double figures. Wohl ended his stellar career with six points. Penn was ranked No. 3 in the AP’s final poll of 1970-1971, the highest in school history.


Wohl was named Penn’s MVP for the second time, was an All-Ivy selection, and was picked All-East. Dave finished his career with 1,226 points, fifth best in school history at the time. “His ability to pick the weak point in an opponent’s defense, then set up a play which will take advantage of it, made him a great floor leader,” Harter said.


Wohl was taken in the third round (46th overall) in the NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers on March 29, 1971. Earlier in March Dave had been chosen in the ninth round by the ABA’s Carolina Cougars. “From what I saw of college basketball this season he’s one of the five best guards in the country,” 76ers coach Jack Ramsay said. Wohl signed a one-year $30,000 contract with the 76ers on April 20. “I’m pleased to remain in Philadelphia. Pro ball was not the only option I had. I could have gone into teaching and coaching,” said the 6-foot-2 Wohl, who had graduated with a history degree.  


Wohl made his NBA debut on October 10 in the 76ers’ season opener and scored his first NBA basket in Philadelphia’s 114-100 victory over the Chicago Bulls. Two days later he had one of the best games of his rookie season, pouring in 18 points in helping the 76ers to a 105-94 win over the Houston Rockets. Dave had his season high in assists on January 2, 1972, when he dished out 12 in a win over Cleveland. Six days later he had his season high in points when he scored 26 in a win over Phoenix. Wohl played in 79 games as a rookie, averaged 20.6 minutes per game, which was tenth on the team, but scored 8.1 points per contest.


Somewhat surprisingly, before the beginning of training camp the following season, Wohl was dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers for forward Dale Schlueter. The 76ers had a plethora of guards including Archie Clark, Fred Carter, an aging Hal Greer and Kevin Loughery, which made Wohl expendable. But Wohl thought he had been done a disservice by new 76ers head coach Roy Rubin. “I think he’s double-talking a lot of people,” Wohl said. “I asked him about my situation, he gave me a lot of cliches. Hang in there. Don’t get down. And then I find out they’re talking about trading me. I felt like after three days of camp I’d been prejudged. My mark had already been given to me…the guy looks at me and he says, ‘I don’t think your teammates have faith in you.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘I think you’re wrong.’”


Wohl only played 22 games with the Blazers before being waived around December 5. The third-year Buffalo Braves claimed him off waivers a day later. Wohl alternated between coming off the bench and starting. Ramsay, now the Braves coach, was trying to find the right guard combination with Randy Smith, Walt Hazzard, Dick Garrett and Fred Hilton. After joining the Braves, Wohl played in 56 games and had the second-highest minutes among the guards with 27.5 per game. He averaged 8.8 points and 4.6 assists. Dave had a 10-assist effort in a loss to Cleveland and he set a career high in points with 27 in a 128-125 win over Seattle. But the Braves finished with the worst record in franchise history at 21-61.   


Dave was back with the Braves for the 1973-74 season, but with Ernie DiGregorio on the scene as the club’s No. 1 draft pick, Wohl saw his minutes reduced significantly to only 14.8 per game. He played in 41 games and averaged 4.0 ppg. His best effort was a 16-point output in a loss to Seattle in early November. The Braves completed what turned out to be a key trade for the team on February 1, 1974, when they packaged Wohl and Kevin Kunnert to the Houston Rockets for Jack Marin and Matt Guokas. The newcomers provided important depth as Buffalo rose from the bottom of the league.


Wohl played parts of the next four seasons with a mediocre Houston team as a backup to his old foe from Niagara, Calvin Murphy. Dave’s best season was 1974-75 when he averaged 6.5 points per game while averaging 23 minutes per game in 75 contests, all highs while in Houston. That was the only season that saw the Rockets make the playoffs during Wohl’s tenure. In his only playoff experience, Wohl saw very limited action in matchups with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics.    


On January 8, 1977, he was traded to the New York Nets and finished his career there, staying through November 19. He ended his seven-year NBA career having played in 410 games while scoring 2,553 points, an average of 6.2 ppg. He dished out an average of 3.4 assists per game while averaging 19.9 minutes.


After retiring as player, he briefly opened an art gallery in Houston but soon received a coaching offer. His first assistant job was with the New York Nets for the 1978-79 season. He served as the head coach/general manager of the Philadelphia Fox of the Women’s Basketball League, a pro league that literally lasted a month. Dave then spent two years in Milwaukee before joining Pat Riley’s staff with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982. He was with the Lakers through the 1984-85 season and was part of the Lakers’ 1985 NBA championship team.


That championship catapulted him to become head coach of the New Jersey Nets. He was with the Nets for two full seasons and 15 games into his third season before he was fired. His first year in New Jersey was promising as he steered the club to a 39-43 record and a fourth-place finish in the Atlantic Division. The Nets qualified for the playoffs but were quickly eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks, 3-0. The team regressed the following season to 24-58 and then started 2-13 in the 1987-88 season before Wohl was fired on December 9, 1987.


Since his tenure as a head coach with New Jersey, he served as an assistant for 15 seasons with seven different teams. He also spent three years as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Miami Heat from 1995-1997 and two seasons as Assistant General Manager with the Boston Celtics from 2007-2009. In 2013 he was the Los Angeles Clippers’ Director of Professional Scouting. Following that season he was promoted to become General Manager, a post he held from 2014 to 2017. During his three-year tenure he teamed with head coach Doc Rivers and the Clippers had a lot of regular season success as they won 50 games or more each season. However, that regular-season success did not translate to the postseason as the Clippers won only one playoff series in those three years and thus Dave was let go on August 24, 2017. He retired from professional basketball at that point.   


Wohl was enshrined in the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 1975 and in the Penn Athletic Hall of Fame in their second class on May 17, 1998.


Dave and his wife, Elena, have two daughters, Natalie and Katie. Elena, an occasional actress, is remembered by “Seinfeld” fans for her appearance on that television series.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB. This is the last article in this series; thank you for reading it.)

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