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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Jim Washington

(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.)

Jim Washington is a mere footnote in the history of the Buffalo Braves. He helped fill a short-term void when the team needed someone with his skills. The reverse is also true – a stop in Buffalo was only a footnote in a basketball career that probably extended farther than he could have dreamed.

James H. Washington was born on July 1, 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Washington was not an instant success story in the sport of basketball. He grew up near the airport in Philadelphia, and was known as the kid who used to dribble his way to elementary school. He worked instead of playing basketball during his junior year at West Catholic High School because of his mother’s illness, and he was part of a mediocre team as a senior. “To the best of my recollection, we didn't have an exceptional team," Washington told writer Mike Sheridan. "We didn't win any championships. It was a rebuilding time. I didn’t become a starter until midway in my senior year." It was quite implausible that Jim eventually would become a first-round NBA draft choice, joining West Catholic alumni Michael Brooks and Ernie Beck in that small club.

But he was willing to put in the time to get better, spending many hours on the outdoor courts of Philadelphia. Jim graduated from West Catholic in 1961, and his future was uncertain. Suddenly the phone rang, and West Catholic coach Jack Devine asked Washington if he was interested in attending Villanova University. Jim’s guess is that someone else turned down a scholarship at the last minute. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me?’” he said. “I couldn’t have afforded to go to school. The other options were going into the service or getting a job somewhere. Jack's call was a blessing."

One quality that Washington did have probably earned the attention of varsity coach Jack Kraft was his height: 6-foot-6. When Jim was done practicing with the freshmen, he moved over to the varsity to work with the Wildcats’ All-American center, Hubie White. "Hubie was our center – at 6-3," he told Sheridan. "Even in those days the centers were much taller. Jack had me come out to play Hubie just so he could face someone taller. I was a rebounder and a shot-blocker. Hubie was more of a guard than a center and it helped me to play someone that was as agile and fluid as Hubie was. He was just a great basketball player."

White graduated from Villanova in 1962, and so the job of starting center was open for the Wildcats. Washington claimed it. In his first varsity game, he ran up against a Princeton team that was led by future college superstar Bill Bradley. The Tigers won, 68-53. "I had an awful game," Washington said. "It was a terrible induction into varsity basketball at the collegiate level. But they never beat us again."

Villanova rebounded from the loss, and Washington had a solid year for the 19-10 team. He averaged 12.8 points and 12.2 rebounds per game, and was helped by future NBA starter Wally (later Wali) Jones. Washington helped the team reach the semifinals of the NIT in New York, where they lost to Canisius. Life was even better for the Wildcats in 1963-64, who added another future pro in sophomore Bill Melchionni. They went 24-4 and were ranked seventh in the final Associated Press poll. The independent team reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, losing to No. 3 Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. Washington’s scoring stayed about the same (12.5), but his rebounds per game jumped to 14.2.

Jones was gone the following year, but Washington and Melchionni were part of another fine team in 1964-65. Oddly, it didn’t start that way for Jim. “I got off to a terrible start that year,” he said. “Then we played St. Francis of New York on the road and I had a terrific game, and that just turned my whole season around. I was starting to think that I might have a chance at the NBA.”

Villanova went 23-5, but the Wildcats were kept out of the NCAA field. Villanova went to New York to play in the NIT as a consolation prize, and did well there. The Wildcats beat Manhattan and NYU to reach the final, only to lose to St. John’s by a score of 55-51. That was the last game in the career of Joe Lapchick, the legendary St. John’s coach. Washington was a rebounding machine that year, grabbing 15.8 caroms per game. That set a school record that hadn’t been touched as of 2021. He also averaged 15.2 points per game. Those numbers were good enough for Jim to win the Robert Geasey Award as the Philadelphia Big Five Player of the Year, and to win Villanova’s Athlete of the Year award as selected by his classmates. "I have that little trophy somewhere," he said to Sheridan about the latter. "You can't ask for more than to have your peers recognize you in that way. It's always meant a lot to me.”

For his career, Washington averaged 14 rebounds per game, making him one of the best players in the region’s history at that particular skill. Assistant coach George Raveling once said that he’s never seen someone improve so much in four years as Washington did. Jim’s uniform number 50 was retired by Villanova in 2019. "It's a fantastic honor," Washington said. "How many people does this happen to?"

The next stop was the NBA Draft. Washington started to get his hopes up when Philadelphia’s turn came around at No. 5, but he had to wait for one more selection to be made. "When it came around to the draft, I was told I was going to be taken by Philly, which would have been great because it would have been the chance to go back home right away,” he said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But they took Billy Cunningham, which ended up being a good pick for them. The St. Louis pick was a good pick for me. Bob Pettit had just retired and I am told that he had something to do with the Hawks taking me. I got to play with a lot of veterans.'' It was revealed later that the Sixers’ front office was split on that decision, and that owner Irv Kosloff cast the deciding vote for Cunningham. Only one Villanova player ever was taken earlier in the NBA draft – Paul Arizin in 1950.

From a distance, it looks as if the 1965-66 St. Louis Hawks should have been a contender. They had a fine backcourt in player-coach Richie Guerin and future player-coach Lenny Wilkens. Bill Bridges, Zelmo Beaty and Cliff Hagen were good up front, and Joe Caldwell was a heck of a sixth man. They even had a couple of future NBA starters way down the bench in Jeff Mullins and Paul Silas. The Hawks stumbled to a 36-44 record, but got their act together in the postseason. They swept the Bulls in three games, and extended the Lakers to a Game Seven – but lost the deciding game, 130-121. Washington averaged 5.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 65 games. Maybe he’d be a part of a better future for St. Louis.

Then again, maybe not. The NBA expanded by one team for the 1966-67 season, and that franchise landed in Chicago. The new Bulls scooped up Washington with the hopes he could help the new team get off to a good start. Chicago had a respectable if undersized starting five, which might have helped Washington finish sixth on the team in minutes. He saw playing time at center, where he certainly spotted opponents some bulk. The Bulls made the playoffs, but were swept away in three games by St. Louis.

Chicago shuffled some bodies around in the next season, due in part to some injuries. That helped Washington average almost 31 minutes a game – and he played in all 82 games. Jim put up a 12.5 per game scoring average and a 10.1 per game rebounding average. Chicago never did settle its situation at center and finished 29-53, and thus were easy pickings for the Lakers in the postseason. Dick Motta brought some changes with him as the new coach in 1968, but he left Washington alone. Jim responded with better statistics: 14.0 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. "I got a lot of opportunity there, especially my second year when they put me at center and then my third year at power forward,” he said later. “I was at the top of my game then and in really good shape.”

Motta knew what he was doing in terms of personnel, and he thought Chet Walker of Philadelphia might be a good fit into his offense. The Bulls traded Washington and a player to be named later (who turned into Bob Kauffman almost a year later) to the 76ers for Walker and guard Shaler Halimon. Motta was right about Walker; “Chet the Jet” averaged more than 19 points per game in all six of his seasons in Chicago.

In the meantime, Washington was happy to be home. The Sixers were adjusting to life without Wilt Chamberlain, who had been traded to Los Angeles in the summer of 1968. Darrall Imhoff saw the most duty at center, and Washington became the power forward when Luke Jackson suffered injuries. This was the season when Jim set a career high with 34 points on February 15, 1970, against Phoenix. For the year, he averaged 12.7 points and 9.3 points per game, and Philadelphia finished 42-40. Milwaukee took care of the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. It was a similar story for Philadelphia in 1970-71. Washington was consistent as usual, the stars like Cunningham, Archie Clark and Hal Greer were good, and the bench was weak. Philadelphia reached Game 7 of a playoff series with Washington, but a terrible second quarter doomed them to defeat in the first round again.

The Sixers needed to do something a season later, and decided that a swap of power forwards was in order. Washington was dealt to the transplanted Atlanta Hawks on November 19, 1971 for Bill Bridges. The Hawks’ situation hadn’t changed since moving from St. Louis – the total didn’t quite equal the sum of the parts. In other words, Pete Maravich, Lou Hudson and Walt Bellamy couldn’t lift them above 36-46. "Boy, their styles were different,” said about guards Maravich and Hudson. “That first year, we had fun but we didn't win a lot of games. There was a lot of pressure on Pete. His style of play was very flamboyant and flashy.”

The seasons in Atlanta started to look alike. Washington was a regular at forward, and he seemed to be always good for something around 11 points and 9 rebounds per game. His consistency helped the Hawks go 46-36 in the regular season of 1972-73. Their playoff run lasted six games in a loss to Boston. A year later, Atlanta almost reversed its won-loss record by finishing with a 35-47 record despite having many of the same players. While the seasons weren’t too successful, Washington discovered he loved Atlanta. "When I came down here, it was just a good match," he said. "The city was young and growing. I got a chance to meet a lot of people, and it just worked. It was a comfortable place to be and it felt like home."

The Hawks decided to blow up the roster in the summer of 1974, trading Maravich to New Orleans. The team brought in players like Tom Van Arsdale, John Drew and Mike Sojourner. Washington’s minutes had gone down, particularly at the start of the season. On January 8, 1975, Atlanta was 17-23 and going nowhere. The team traded Washington to Buffalo for cash and a fifth-round pick in 1976. "I remember it to this day as I was in Boston, relaxing for a game,” Jim remembered. “And (Atlanta coach) Cotton Fitzsimmons called me and said (he) had bad news. I thought there are two places NBA players don't want to go and that is Cleveland and Buffalo. But we had a very talented team and the fans were great.''

The Braves were in much better shape at that point, with a 24-15 record. They didn’t have much depth at power forward, though, as Jack Marin was more of a small power forward. When Gar Heard tore ligaments in his ankle, they were very weak up front. Washington was a good solution, as Buffalo soon took off on a seven-game winning streak. Overall, he contributed 4.2 points and 4.7 rebounds in 16 minutes a game. Buffalo finished 49-33 for the season. The Braves put up a good fight but lost to the Bullets in the playoffs; Washington averaged less than seven minutes per game in the postseason.

Buffalo retained much of the same nucleus during the next season, but it did add its top draft pick – Tom McMillen – from 1975. He had been in Europe. Washington did not play in the first game of the Braves’ season, and only played seven minutes in the second. Jim must have seen the writing on a wall that his playing time would be limited. When McMillen was activated off the injured list, Washington was waived. Jim played 776 games in the NBA, averaging 10.6 points and 8.6 rebounds. Jim took part in nine playoff series, but only won the first one.

Washington returned to the Atlanta area, and made it his permanent home. He started by taking over a beer distributorship. (“As someone who doesn't drink, it wasn't a great fit," he quipped.”) Then it was on to an installation company, which later became a paper recycling firm. Washington’s next job was with the City of Atlanta, as the Director of Recreation. From there Jim managed his own business interests before landing a job as community relations director with the Hawks for eight years.

At last report, Washington was single. He has two daughters, Kelly and Tiffany.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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