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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Jim Price

(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.)

Life on the basketball court provided a good life for Jim Price. He had some great moments in high school and college, and earned a nice living in the National Basketball Association. It’s when he left the court that problems began. Price has been battling some demons for a long time, and he’s helped several others with similar problems along the way. It’s quite a story, and we probably don’t know half of it.

James E. Price was born in Russellville, Kentucky on November 27, 1949. That city is about 55 miles north of Nashville, near the Tennessee border. He was the fifth of six boys in a family that included nine children. The family moved to Indianapolis, and that’s where Jim went to high school. Price played prep basketball for Arsenal Technical. The facility used to be an arsenal for the United States during the Civil War.

Price did well in high school, starting for three seasons. He played for Jack Bradford, a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. His sophomore team finished second in the state in 1966. Jim received plenty of help on the court from older brother David, who led that team in scoring. As a senior in 1967-68, Jim averaged 24.3 points, 18 rebounds and six assists. That earned him a spot on the Indiana All-Stars team. “He was so strong, he’d go up for a rebound and (opponents) would bounce off him,” former Arsenal Tech athletic director Howard Catt said in 2008. “He was a competitor even in practice, and he loved defense. Everybody we played, it was, ‘What are we going to do to stop Price?’”

After graduation in 1968, Price opted to attend the University of Louisville. He just missed the chance to play with the dynamic combination of Wes Unseld and Butch Beard. Unseld graduated before Price arrived on campus. That Cardinals’ team went 21-7 and finished ninth in the final AP poll. The following year, Louisville was still good at 21-6 under coach John Dromo. The team was led by Beard, who led the team in scoring with 20.6 points per game.

Price was an instant starter at Louisville as a sophomore, as he averaged 13.3 points per game to rank second on the team. Jim was one of five sophomores who were in the team’s top six in scoring, and the young squad figured out a way to finish 18-9. Price’s contributions increased in 1970-71, as he scored 16.5 points per game to lead the team. “I think (defense) was my calling card,” Price said to the St. Petersburg Times in 2007. “I scored, and I had a good overall game, but I think defense is what stood out. I think being in attack mode is what opened up the rest of my game. If I didn’t work hard, I really got nothing done.” That team was shaken by a heart attack to Dromo. He retired from coaching after only nine games in that season. Howard Stacey filled in for him the rest of the way, and Louisville finished 20-9.

The Cardinals needed a full-time coach for the following season, and they chose wisely. Denny Crum had been an assistant for fabled UCLA coach John Wooden, and he was hired. Louisville lost Crum’s debut to Florida, and then ripped off 15 straight wins. It led to a magical regular season, with a 23-3 record and rankings in the top five of the polls in the final weeks. While Crum was a center of attention, Price also was noticed for the way he guided the team as a guard. He led Louisville in points (21.0) and assists (4.4) per game.

Louisville beat No. 11 Memphis in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, and then moved into the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals opened with an 88-84 win over No. 8 Southwest Louisiana, as Price scored 25 points. Then they took care of Kansas State in a 72-65 decision; Price had 25 more points. That meant Louisville was going to the Final Four for the second time (1959), a trip that also represented a homecoming for Crum. Not only was the trip a return to Los Angeles, but UCLA was waiting in the national semifinals. The Bruins were loaded that year with Bill Walton and Jamaal (then Keith) Wilkes. They scored 57 points in the second half in pulling away to a 96-77 win. Price – in his first game before a true national audience – sparkled with 30 points in a losing cause. The Cardinals also lost the consolation game to No. 2 North Carolina, 105-91. The 6-foot-3 guard finished his college career with a 23-point performance. He was saluted after the season as a second-team All-American choice.

It was time for Price to move on. He was picked in the second round (No. 16) by the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA draft, and somewhere in the first five rounds of the Memphis Pros in the ABA draft. The Kentucky Colonels made a last-minute bid to keep Price in Louisville, by giving up a fourth-round draft pick and cash to Memphis for Price’s rights. It didn’t help; he signed a three-year contract on May 18 with the Lakers.

Price joined a team that was enjoying its offseason immensely. The Lakers had just won their first NBA title since moving to Los Angeles in 1960 after losing seven straight finals before that. Los Angeles offered two all-time greats in Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, as well as a strong supporting cast. They certainly would be good again in 1972-73. And they were, going 60-22 even though Chamberlain was 36 and West was 34. Price averaged 14 minutes a game, as the team wasn’t overly deep at guard behind West and Gail Goodrich. Jim was chosen for the NBA’s All-Rookie team. The Knicks’ balanced attack was too much for LA in the Finals, as New York won in five games.

The Lakers’ situation changed a season later. Chamberlain and Keith Erickson left, and West was injured. Price became something of the next man up at guard, and he played all 82 games for Los Angeles. What’s more, he averaged 15.4 points per game in 32 minutes. The Lakers took a step backwards to 47-35, but Price looked like he had a chance to be a starting guard in the NBA once that season was over – especially with West retiring after the end of the 1973-74 season. He was even named to the league’s All-Defensive team.

But it wouldn’t happen for very long in Los Angeles. After averaging 21.2 points in nine games for the Lakers, Los Angeles dealt Price to Milwaukee on November 8 for guard Lucius Allen – a part of some great UCLA teams in the late 1960s. Price averaged almost 15 points per game for the Bucks, but only played 41 games due to a knee injury. He did play in the NBA All-Star Game, scoring eight points. Still, he was trying to replace Oscar Robertson as a point guard, and that wasn’t going to happen. Milwaukee missed the playoffs with a 38-44 record in spite of the presence of superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Lakers and Bucks got together in the offseason of 1975 for another deal, this one much bigger than the one that sent Price to the Midwest. Abdul-Jabbar went to Los Angeles for four players, revamping the Bucks roster drastically. Price was one of the few holdovers from year to year, and he led the team in assists but saw his scoring average fall to 11.7 per game. The Bucks won their division in spite of a 38-44 record, but were quickly excused from the playoffs.

Once again, Price found himself packing up for a new team only a handful of games into a season. On November 2, the Bucks traded him to Buffalo for a first-round draft choice. The Braves needed some depth at guard, as there were few dependable options behind Ernie DiGregorio and Randy Smith. Price never got much of a chance to fill that role. He only played 16.7 minutes per game in Buffalo, averaging 5.3 points per game. It only took six weeks for the Braves to move Price to Denver for forward Gus Gerard and guard Chuck Williams.

Price saw more action with the Nuggets, who were in their first season in the NBA after moving over from the ABA. He averaged 25.2 minutes per game. Denver’s top three of David Thompson, Dan Issel and Bobby Jones could play with anyone, and they propelled the Nuggets to a 50-32 record and a division title. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to Portland, the eventual champion.

Price was still a part of the rotation for Denver in 1977-78, playing 22.2 minutes per game. That Nuggets team had a lot of familiar names on it, but wasn’t quite coming together. Denver tried a shake-up by trading Price and a first-round pick to the Detroit Pistons for Ralph Simpson. Jim provided more scoring than Simpson during their relatively similar times in Detroit that season, averaging 11.5 points per game in 24.7 minutes. The Pistons finished 38-44 and missed the playoffs.

Price’s contract had expired at that point, and he opted to return to Los Angeles for one last shot with the Lakers. The Pistons eventually received a second-round pick as compensation. Price was the fourth guard in Los Angeles, averaging 16 minutes a game. The Lakers were still a couple of pieces away from having a top-flight team, as they finished 47-35 and lost in the second round of the playoffs. Help for them would arrive in the following season, when Magic Johnson arrived. Price never had the chance to play with him with the Lakers; he was waived on August 9, 1979. Jim played seven seasons in the NBA, scoring 5,088 points in 510 games.

Price’s playing days were over, but his association with basketball wasn’t. After finishing his degree at Louisville in 1979, Jim was an assistant coach at Louisville for one season. Then he took over as coach of the IUPUI women’s team in 1982 and stayed for five seasons. The Jaguars made the NAIA tournament three times. Price was an assistant at Butler for four seasons, and a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks.

It’s tough to keep track of minor league basketball in America, but it’s safe to say Jim has seen an amazing variety of teams and leagues over the years. A partial list might include the Gainesville Knight of the WBA, the Nebraska Cranes of the USBL, the Albany Pontiacs and Tulsa Fastbreakers of the CBA, the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs of the ABA, the Miami Tropics of the USBL and the Greensboro City Gators of the GBA. Price also spent a year coaching a club team in Kuwait.

"This is a career," he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2006. "A career is a lot different from a job. With a career, the (work) day can be a lot longer than eight hours. For people who clock in, clock out, it's over. In a career, you will work whenever it's needed. You don't put a beginning or an ending time on your days."

That’s quite a resume, which only can be partially explained by the instability in minor league basketball. A clue to all of it came with an Internet search of the Miami Tropics, which was purchased by former NBA player John Lucas in 1991 in an attempt to help certain talented players with substance abuse problems. Such players as Roy Tarpley, Chris Washburn and Duane Washington were on the roster. In newspaper stories, Price’s problems with substance abuse (cocaine) were mentioned, and that it ruined his playing career. In one of them, written in 1991, it was disclosed that Price had been an addict for 15 years. This puts the time that his issues began fairly close to the point when the Braves acquired him.

He worked with the NBA as a substance abuse after care facilitator from 1991 to 1995, a substance abuse counselor at Charter Hospital in Indianapolis in 1996, and a United coordinator assistant at Options Treatment Center in Indianapolis from 2003 to 2006. He’s worked with the River of Life Christian Center in the Tampa area, taking monthly trips to prisons to speak to inmates and going on missions overseas.

Price has had many honors since retiring from play. He went into the Louisville Hall of Fame in 1986, and he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. The best of all of them might have come in 1999 when his uniform number (#15) was retired by the Cardinals. He soaked in the cheers one more time at Freedom Hall, where he loved to play. “You just felt basketball,” he told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2010. “You felt the crowd. It was definitely a part of the atmosphere. It wasn’t an artificial crowd.”

At last report in 2021, Jim was single and lived in Tampa. He was working for a nonprofit group, Pyramid Sports Inc., that offered mentoring to youths in that region. He’s been associated with that organization since 2008.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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