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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Don May

(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.)

To put it in musical terms, Don May’s professional basketball career was something of a one-hit wonder. He was never better than he was during his one year as a member of the Buffalo Braves. As a result, he’s still fondly remembered by those in Western New York who had the chance to see him play in the team’s first season.

Donald John May was born in Dayton, Ohio on January 3, 1946. He was one of seven children of Stella (Streit) May and Edward S. May. Don grew up in Dayton, two blocks from the University of Dayton field house, and was a paperboy at 10. He defined his toughness at a young age when he challenged a 6-foot-8 Dayton basketball player. “He tried to stiff me,” May said years later. “The papers cost a nickel and he bought one. He put the money in my hand and when I looked, it was a penny. So I walked up to him and said, ‘You just gave me a penny.’ He looked at me and stood up in my face and said in a deep voice, ‘Are you sure about that?’ I said I was. He gave me my nickel.”

Don attended Belmont High School where he was teammates with future Buffalo Brave Bill Hosket. May’s favorite sports as a youngster were football and baseball, and he played basketball for something to do in the winter months. However, when he played football as a freshman at Belmont, he broke his collarbone. That ended his football career, and let him put more emphasis on basketball. For both Don and Belmont it turned out to be a fortuitous injury.

May and Hosket led Belmont to the 1964 Ohio state basketball championship. They captured the championship in convincing style, winning the semifinals by 24 points and the final game by 29 points. In front of 13,859, Belmont - led by May’s 24 points and 12 rebounds - won the state title over Cleveland East, 89-60. The Bison, coached by John Ross, finished the campaign 26-1; in the only loss, both Hosket and May fouled out. In one game, the two combined for 88 points with May scoring 50 and Hosket 38. May and Hosket were the first teammates ever to be named All-Ohio. May was also an outstanding baseball player for Belmont as he hit .385 as a senior and received a scholarship offer from Wake Forest for the sport.

Don received 75 basketball scholarship offers and it came down to Notre Dame and Dayton. He chose Dayton because he felt he fit its style of basketball best. Plus his mother and sister both worked at the school and his brother-in-law was pursuing a master’s degree there. “The highly talented left-hander, said by many to be the best all-around athlete ever to attend Belmont high school, signed his papers yesterday and made the announcement. Two things stand out when one watches May perform. ONE—His tremendous jumping ability. TWO—His coolness under fire,” wrote Hal McCoy of the Dayton Journal Herald.

May played on the Dayton freshman team during the 1964-65 season where he averaged about 20 points and 19 rebounds per game. When May joined the varsity for the 1965-66 season, he did not disappoint. The 6-foot-4 forward led the Flyers to a 23-6 record as a sophomore. He averaged 20.3 points and 11.4 rebounds, both second on the team behind senior center and future NBA player Henry Finkel.

The highlight of May’s sophomore season was a 45-point night to celebrate his birthday with a 105-79 win over Xavier. “The hottest item since the Zippo lighter,” is how Chicago writer Jim Enright described May. Don also had outstanding games against Loyola of New Orleans with a 31-point, 16-rebound effort in an 88-57 victory and he had 27 points and 15 rebounds in an 85-71 win over Auburn.

The Flyers qualified for the NCAA tournament with their 22-4 regular season record. “To most knowledgeable basketball observers, a glimpse of Don May in action results in a case of love at first sight. There is a special quality of excitement surrounding Dayton’s sophomore whirlwind,” said Ritter Collett, Dayton Journal Herald reporter. “Naturally we are not looking at sophomores, but you have to notice a kid like this,” said Red Holzman, chief New York Knicks scout at the time. “You can bet every team in the NBA knows about him right now.”

Dayton defeated Mid-American Conference champion Miami (Ohio), 58-51, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, as Finkel had a dominant game with 25 points and 17 rebounds. May chipped in with 12 points and seven boards in the Flyers’ win. Kentucky defeated Dayton, 86-79, in the Sweet Sixteen. Finkel had 36 points and May scored 16 for the losing Flyers. The Wildcats went on to win the national championship. At the conclusion of the season, May was named to one All-American team. The Sporting News selected him as a second-teamer.

May improved his play as a junior, leading the team in scoring and rebounding at 22.2 points and 16.7 rebounds per game. The Flyers ran through the regular season with a 22-5 record and again qualified for the NCAA tournament. Dayton won its opening game in overtime over No. 6 ranked Western Kentucky, 69-67. May had 26 points but only one point in the final 12 minutes; Dayton pulled the game out as guard Bob Hooper hit the game-winning field goal.

The Flyers defeated No. 8 ranked Tennessee, 53-52, in the Sweet Sixteen, even though May was held to nine points. However he more than made up for it with 28 points and 16 rebounds in Dayton’s 71-66 win over Virginia Tech, enabling the Flyers to win the Mid-East Regional championship and advance to the first and only Final Four appearance in school history. “The best thing was the wonderful feeling that was generated when we went to the Final Four," May said later. "And seeing (Dayton athletic director) Tom Frericks as we left the court, he was so happy. I'd never seen that face so happy.”

May scored 34 points and grabbed 15 rebounds as the Flyers stunned No. 4 ranked North Carolina, 76-62, in the national semifinals. May missed his first shot of the game and then made an incredible 13 straight on the way to the remarkable victory – finishing 16 for 22.

The Cinderella season for the Flyers came to an end in the national championship game against Lew Alcindor and the UCLA Bruins. Kenny Heitz held May without a basket in the first 15 minutes, and the Flyers never could catch up. Don finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, but Dayton lost by a score of 79-64. “They’re a tremendous team,” May said after the game. “Better than we thought they’d be. No one else has beaten them and I don’t see how anyone can.”

Following the season Mays was a consensus second-team All-American. He broke Dayton’s all-time single season rebounding record (519) and his 13 straight field goals was also a school record.

May increased his scoring average to 23.4 in his senior year while also contributing 15.0 rebounds per game. However the Flyers got off to a slow start, losing four of their first six games and needed a nine-game winning streak at the end of the season to qualify for the National

Invitation Tournament with a 17-9 regular season record. Any disappointment about not playing in the NCAA Tournament was quickly forgotten. The Flyers stormed to the tournament championship with a semifinal overtime 76-74 win over Notre Dame and a 61-48 victory over the Jo Jo White-led Kansas Jayhawks in the title game. May led all scorers with 22 points in the final, and was named the MVP.

“He had a will to win and seemed to rise to the occasion when the moment meant the most: he was a horse,” Donaher said about May’s play in the NIT. “We were supposed to be top-10 in the country but started 7-9 before getting rolling. We were probably the 16th of 16 teams invited but he put us on his shoulders.”

He left Dayton as the all-time scoring and rebounding leader with 1,980 career points and 1,301 rebounds. As of 2021, he is still second in both categories. May was again a consensus second team All-American.

May was selected in the third round of the 1968 NBA Draft, overall pick number 30, by the New York Knicks. Don’s former high school teammate Bill Hosket was the Knicks’ first-round pick. May was also selected in the third round of the ABA Draft by the Indiana Pacers. He signed with the Knicks on May 22, much to the chagrin and anger of Pacers general manager Mike Storen. He claimed that May was naïve, and his agent was not working in his best interest. “We made an offer we’re not liable to make again to anyone in a long time,” Storen said. “If he got the same offer from New York, I’d be the most surprised man in the world. There isn’t a 6-4 forward in the NBA and if he wants to play the next five to 10 years the only way to get a salary increase is if he gets playing time. He would have a much more realistic opportunity to play with us.” Donnie skipped the Olympic trials that summer, citing exhaustion, and started to get ready for life in the NBA.

May made his professional debut on October 15, 1968, in the Knicks’ 100-96 loss to the Chicago Bulls. May played four minutes and scored his first NBA field goal. The Knicks were strong at forward with Cazzie Russell, Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson and Willis Reed, so playing time was limited for May. He played in 48 games while averaging 11.7 minutes and 4.3 points per game. His best game of the season was a 21-point, seven-rebound effort in a win over Milwaukee. The Knicks finished with a 54-28 record and swept the Baltimore Bullets in the playoffs, 4-0, but were beaten by the Boston Celtics in the next round. May played in nine of the playoff games and scored 2.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in almost 10 minutes per game.

May played less during the 1969-1970 season. He appeared in only 37 games as the Knicks finished with the best record in the East at 60-22. Don averaged only 6.4 minutes and 2.6 points per game. However, he did cash in on his status while playing for the Knicks. Don starred in a funny Vitalis commercial in which he was benched at the last minute for using “greasy kid stuff” on his hair.”

In the postseason, New York defeated Baltimore, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Lakers on its way to the NBA title. May appeared in only two of the 19 playoff games, but secured an NBA championship ring. May was married to Brenda in 1969 and they took a delayed honeymoon to Hawaii following the 1970 playoffs.

The NBA expanded following the 1970 season, adding three franchises in Buffalo, Cleveland and Portland. May was exposed by the Knicks and was selected in the expansion draft by the Buffalo Braves on May 11. His former high school teammate, Hosket, was also picked by the Braves. Don upon hearing of his selection said, “It was great being a member of the World Champions, but it is better to be in Buffalo where I will get a chance to play.” Eddie Donovan, general manager of the Braves, said, “May is a strong, tough kid. He’s a great jumper for a guy 6-5.”

May immediately stepped into the starting lineup for Buffalo at small forward. He led the Braves with 24 points in their 107-92 opening day win over Cleveland. May had 12 games scoring over 30 points during the season, accentuated by a 40-point performance (his career high) against the Lakers. The 1970-71 season in Buffalo was far and away May’s best professional season. Don’s scoring average of 20.2 was second on the team to Bob Kaufman’s 20.4. He was third on the team in rebounding despite his 6-4 size with a 7.5 per game average. He played in 76 games while averaging 35.1 minutes per game, his career high.

Perhaps the Braves knew that May might not be the focal point of the offense if the team became better, and decided – as they say on Wall Street - to “sell high.” Despite his excellent season in Buffalo, the Braves traded him and Herm Gilliam to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Walt Hazzard and Jerry Chambers on July 26, 1971. From that point forward, May’s career can only be summed up as a vagabond. He played the 1971-72 season with the Hawks. His minutes were less than half of what he played in Buffalo at 17.1 per game. His scoring average fell to 7.9 points per game. He played behind Lou Hudson and Bill Bridges on the 36-46 Hawks. Atlanta did qualify for the playoffs but were eliminated in the first round, 4-2, to Boston.

He was back with Atlanta for the 1972-73 season but only lasted for 32 games before being shipped to Philadelphia for Dale Schlueter. The 76ers were one of the worst teams in NBA history as they went 9-73. May played in 26 games and averaged 11.9 points in 23.2 minutes per game – his only other season besides 1970-71 in which he scored in double figures.

May was back with the 76ers for the 1973-74 season, but injuries cut short his season as he appeared in 56 games. His scoring average fell to 7.0 points per game while his minutes also shrunk to only 14.5 per game. The 76ers improved under head coach Gene Shue to a 25-57 record but still had a long way to go for respectability. Shue waived May in training camp, but Don was signed by the Kansas City-Omaha Kings on October 16, 1974. He played in 29 games for the Kings, and then was released. May played seven NBA seasons while participating in 379 games with an 8.8 points per game scoring average and one NBA championship ring.

In the offseason during his later playing days he sold real estate, and turned that into a full-time profession after retirement. He then was a counselor at Tobias Funeral Home in Dayton for several years.

May had two daughters with his wife Brenda, but they were divorced in 1991. He had a third daughter and had seven grandchildren as of 2015.

May was elected to the Dayton University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1974 and to the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. May attended the Knicks 40th anniversary celebration of their NBA championship in 2010.

He is still fondly remembered at Dayton University. “I’ve been following UD basketball a long time. He’s the greatest forward ever at UD. He may be the best player ever. A totally complete player.” said former teammate Bobby Joe Hooper in 2004. “If you had a son or daughter who was an athlete, you’d desire for them to be like Donny. He played hard and was consistent. Very humble, very committed.”

Donoher added, “If the university decided to put a statue in front of the arena, it has to be Don May.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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