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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Jack Marin

(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.)

Buffalo never saw Jack Marin at his best, at least in a Braves’ uniform. He arrived when he was a bit past his prime. However, Jack still retained many of his skills during his two years in Buffalo, and he was a good-sized part of the most exciting era of Braves’ basketball.

John Warren Marin was born on October 12, 1944, in Sharon, Pennsylvania. That city is located northwest of Pittsburgh, right on the state border near Youngstown, Ohio. His parents were “Chick” and Louise Marin. Jack grew up in Farrell, which touches Sharon.

Jack played basketball at Farrell High School for the Steelers. His predecessors had set a good-sized standard for him to match. Willie Somerset and Brian Generalovich had led Farrell to the state championship in 1959 and 1960. Somerset became an unexpected star in the American Basketball Association in the late 1960s, averaging more than 20 points per game for four straight seasons. His success came despite his 5-foot-8 height.

Marin watched those teams as a freshman and sophomore respectively. Jack was good as a junior, as he was picked as a second-team selection in the region. He broke out as a star in his senior year, when he scored 529 points and was a first-team All-State selection. Jack was 6-5 at this point, and had developed an excellent outside shot and could handle the ball. Since Marin could do everything well, he did not play center. That job was left to a 5-foot-11 teammate. Jack’s skills made him a difficult matchup for most high school opponents.

Marin and the Steelers were coached by Ed McClusky, one of the legends of high school coaching in Western Pennsylvania. He won 590 games and seven state titles in 29 seasons. “Coach was as much of a Marine drill sergeant as you’d expect,” Marin said later. “Back then, there were no skateboards, swimming pools or video games. Only sports. And he demanded utter devotion and complete immersion in basketball.”

By the way, Marin also finished as the valedictorian of his class. He had an impressive combination of athletic ability and smarts. It’s no wonder that Marin had a good-sized choice of destinations for college, as 70 schools recruited him. He picked a university that has seen more than its share of top basketball players wear its uniform – Duke.

“I had scheduled a visit to Pitt at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning,” Marin said later. “The assistant coach who was supposed to meet me never showed up. My father and I waited around until 9:40 then finally left. We figured they didn’t want me anymore, so I chose Duke. That night, the coach called me and apologized. It was daylight-savings weekend, and he forgot to turn his clock ahead an hour.”

Marin landed in Durham at just the right time. The Blue Devils were coached by Vic Bubas, who had come to Duke in 1959 … and promptly saw his team win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Duke went 22-6 and 20-5 in the next two years, but didn’t reach a postseason spot. Marin wasn’t eligible to play for the Blue Devils in 1962-63, but that’s the season that started a golden era for Duke basketball. The team went 27-3, won the ACC tournament, and advanced all the way to the Final Four.

That autumn, senior All-American Art Heyman had graduated, but there was plenty of talent on the 1963-64 roster. Jeff Mullins averaged more than 24 points per game to lead the team, while Marin and Steve Vacendak – two talented sophomores from Pennsylvania – helped round out the roster nicely. Marin averaged eight points per game and played all 31 contests. In the tournament, the Blue Devils lost to UCLA in the national semifinals, and the Bruins went on to win their first NCAA championship.

The 1964-65 season wasn’t quite as good for Duke. It did finish with a 20-5 record, first in the ACC. But in the finals of the conference tournament, the Blue Devils had to play a North Carolina State team on the Wolfpack’s home court. N.C. State came away with a 91-85 win, sending Duke home for the season. With players like Mullins gone, Marin took a bigger role on the team. He averaged a double-double (19.1 points and 10.3 rebounds). Vacendak also improved his numbers, and sophomore Bob Verga led the team in scoring with a 21.4 scoring average. What’s more, the Big Three were all back for the 1965-66 season.

Duke added a center in 6-7 sophomore Mike Lewis, and thus the team had a Big Four in scoring in 1965-66. All four players averaged at least 13 points per game, but none were better than Marin’s 18.6 points per game. Jack also averaged 9.7 rebounds per game, second only to Lewis. Duke made a statement in December by beating defending champion UCLA in back-to-back games. Two days later, the Blue Devils were the No. 1 team in the country, and they stayed there through the end of January.

In the regular season, Duke went 20-3 – and the losses came by a combined seven points. In the ACC tournament, North Carolina played “stall ball” by rarely taking a shot in an attempt to keep the game close. The Devils still won, but by an unlikely score of 21-20. Duke then beat North Carolina State to advance to the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils downed Saint Joseph’s as well as Syracuse (featuring guards Dave Bing and Jim Boeheim) to advance to the Final Four. However, Duke’s title dreams were derailed by a loss to No. 1 Kentucky, 81-77. Marin put on a great show in the national semifinal, scoring 29 points on 11 of 18 shooting from the field. The Associated Press named him a second-team All-American for his work that season. Bubas later called Marin the best all-around player he ever coached. Jack went 72-14 in his career at Duke and two Final Four appearances.

Now it was decision time for Marin. He had majored in chemistry during his undergraduate days at Duke, and he had been accepted at Duke Medical School. However, the professional ranks were calling. The Baltimore Bullets drafted him in the first round with the fifth overall choice.

"I thought I'd play ball for a couple of years to get money for med school," Marin told the Baltimore Sun later. "I didn't know that I'd find the game so enjoyable and challenging. I guess I just wanted to be an adolescent a while longer."

During his rookie year in 1966-67, Marin must have wondered if he had made the right choice – in spite of his $18,500 salary, high for rookies then. The forward joined a team that finished with a 20-61 record and went through three coaches. The Bullets had a little talent, but the top eight scorers were at least 26 years old. Marin was one of the few players under 25, and he averaged 9.6 points in 17.9 minutes per game. That was good enough to make the All-Rookie Team.

Luckily for the Bullets, help was on the way. Baltimore’s first draft choice in 1967 was Earl Monroe, and it took only a few minutes for everyone to realize he was something special. “About three times every game, Kevin Loughery and I would look at each other and say, ‘Did you see that?’ Earl would come up with things that made him ‘Black Magic.’” Baltimore already had veterans like Gus Johnson, Ray Scott and Kevin Loughery around, and the Bullets started climbing in the standings. They finished 36-46, as Marin’s contribution jumped to 13.5 points per game.

Another piece of the puzzle arrived a year later. Wes Unseld was Baltimore’s first pick in 1968. He may have been undersized for a center at 6-7, but he set the widest picks in the game and threw great outlet passes to start fast breaks. Marin worked his way into the starting lineup to average 15.9 points per game, and Baltimore had a worthy starting five. The Bullets went 57-25 to have the league’s best record and reached the playoffs, only to exit quickly as they were swept by New York. "What chemistry we had," Marin said later to Mike Klingaman of the Baltimore Sun. “It was fun, up-tempo basketball, to play and to watch. I left after every game, exhausted."

The same nucleus was back in 1969-70, and the team’s balance was breathtaking. All five starters averaged at least 16 points per game, with Marin improving to a 19.7 average. The Bullets went 50-34, and extended the Knicks to seven games before losing in a series in which the home team won every game. The series was terrific, featuring big stars, great plays and fierce competition. The problem for the Bullets was that they kept coming up second-best against the Knicks.

That would change in 1970-71. Baltimore struggled in the regular season, finishing 42-40. That was good enough to win the Central Division title, at least. The Bullets took out Philadelphia in seven games to earn a date against … the Knicks. The first six games were won by the home team again, and the Bullets went back to New York for Game Seven. This one, though, had a surprise ending. Baltimore earned a 93-91 win to take the series. Marin played 46 minutes and had 20 points, while Monroe led the way with 26. "Those games were works of art," Marin said to Klingaman. "Perfect matchups, perfect drama. The Knicks had Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and a championship aura. We were less disciplined, the upstarts. Those were chess games, all."

The Bullets were off to the NBA Finals, where a possibly emotionally drained team had no answer for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks. Baltimore lost four straight games, and a championship remained out of reach. And then the nucleus fell apart in 1971-72. Monroe was unhappy with his contract and was traded to the Knicks for Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth, and Johnson’s knees wouldn’t let him play at full effectiveness. Marin had a career-high average of 22 points per game, but it wasn’t enough. Baltimore fell to 38-44 and was quickly eliminated in the playoffs by the Knicks.

With Johnson’s career ending, the Bullets needed a power forward. One turned out to be available from Houston, where Elvin Hayes had worn out his welcome. Hayes had been a terrific scorer for the University of Houston, and kept it up in the pros. But he wasn’t getting along with coach Tex Winter. On June 23, 1972, the Bullets acquired Hayes – and the price was Marin and future considerations in a swap of two high-scoring forwards. “I can say that I’m really flattered by the caliber of ball players they got for me,” Marin told the Associated Press. “It’s good to find out your value in the open market.”

The Rockets had some talent, with Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy on the team. But none of it could play center, as Otto Moore and Don Smith (later Zaid Abdul-Azir) couldn’t compete with the league’s best. The Rockets went a dreary 33-49, although Marin averaged 18.5 points per game. There was one nice fringe benefit for Jack in Houston, though. "I met my wife (Robin) in Houston," he said to Klingaman. "She wasn't into basketball. I told her I was with the Rockets. She thought I worked at the space center."

The Rockets were still less than mediocre as the 1973-74 season started, partly because they still didn’t have a center. It turned out that the Buffalo Braves had a player at that position to spare. Bob McAdoo emerged as a superstar that year, and he was averaging 43 minutes per game. That wasn’t much time for backup Kevin Kunnert to show he could play. The Braves needed some veterans to fill out their roster, and the two teams agreed on the terms. Kunnert and Dave Wohl were dealt to Houston by Buffalo for Marin and Matt Goukas on February 1, 1974.

The move came only five days after Marin reached 10,000 points in his career in a game against Buffalo. Suddenly the Braves were more than a starting five; they had a full team that could outscore almost anyone in the league. It was another huge deal in the remaking of the Braves by general manager Eddie Donovan, who soon would be called “Fast Eddie” in Buffalo.

Marin was a nice fit as a third forward, spelling Jim McMillian and Gar Heard. Goukas could give Ernie DiGregorio and Randy Smith a breather. Buffalo was 26-29 at the time of the deal and finished 42-40. The 6-7 Marin averaged 13 points in 25 minutes per game, picking up the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” in the process. He quickly became a fan favorite for the way he’d come off the bench firing to give the Braves a boost. When those fans watched, they no doubt noticed the birthmark that extended from his shoulder to his arm. "I told people that one night my shooting was so hot that I set my arm on fire,” he told Klingaman with a laugh.

The Braves were even better in 1974-75, going 49-33, and Marin continued to contribute. He averaged almost 12 points per game over 81 games. That set up an interesting first-round playoff series, as Buffalo faced the Bullets – who had moved to Washington since Marin left. Jack’s minutes went down in the postseason matchup, but the Braves extended Washington to seven games before losing.

Marin was 31 by the time the next season started, and his statistics were starting to drop. He only played an average of 23 minutes for Buffalo, scoring a bit under 10 points per game. Even so, it was a bit of surprise when the Braves traded Marin to Chicago for a first-round draft choice in midseason 1977. Buffalo needed more talent to advance deep in the playoffs, not less.

The Bulls needed all the talent it could find too. Chicago had Bob Love and Mickey Johnson at forward, but were a long way from contender status. The Bulls finished 24-58 and missed the playoffs. Jack did contribute 11 points per game. A year later, Marin’s minutes were down to 16 per game. At least the Bulls received a boost from newcomers Artis Gilmore and Scott May, and reached the playoffs with a 44-38 record. Chicago lost to the eventual NBA champion, Portland.

Marin had played 849 games in his career at that point, averaging 14.8 points per game. Jack played in All-Star Games in 1972 and 1973. His career free throw shooting percentage was a spectacular .843. He turned down a good contract offer from the Bulls at that point. It was time to move on, and Marin had prepared for the day by taking some law courses at the University of Maryland during his playing days.

Marin went back to Duke to finish law school and became a lawyer in 1980. Not surprisingly, Jack settled in Durham, and remained there for decades. Marin ran for Congress in 1982 – he wasn’t shy about expressing his conservative views in his playing days - but lost in the general election. He kept a hand in basketball by working with the National Basketball Retired Players Association, and by helping players who were pursuing opportunities overseas. What’s more, Marin found an outlet for his competitive side: golf. He became an outstanding golfer, even taking part in some celebrity tournaments. Marin teaches the sport to wounded veterans as part of the “Hope for the Warriors” program.

Jack has spent some of his time in retirement picking up honors. He is in the Hall of Fame for Mercer County (Pa.), the states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and Duke University. In 1991 he was selected to the National Association of Basketball Coaches Silver Anniversary All-America Team.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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