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Braves New World: John Hummer

(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.)

John Hummer was something of a scapegoat for the Buffalo Braves in their early years. The team wasn’t too good, so someone had to be blamed. Since he wasn’t Calvin Murphy, he heard some boos in his days here. That’s not overly fair, but the sports business isn’t about fairness.

John R. Hummer was born on May 4, 1948, in Washington D.C. His father, Ed, was an FBI agent who was involved in the Alger Hiss case in the 1950s. He stayed in that area through high school, as he attended Washington-Lee in Arlington, Va. That facility has gone through a name change in recent years. After the 2017 controversy over the General Lee statue in Richmond, the school board voted to change the name. The debate was as lively as you’d expect, and the winner eventually was Washington-Liberty High School. That took effect in the 2019-20 school year. The school has some famous alumni, especially in entertainment: Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, Sandra Bullock and Gena Rowlands.

It doesn’t take long in examining the life of John Hummer without bringing up the story of Ed Hummer Jr.. The older brother pointed the way of his sibling into basketball success. Ed, who was 6-foot-6, led the Generals to back-to-back state championships in 1962 and 1963. That 1963 team went undefeated.

It was a tough act to follow, but John did his best. He graduated from Washington-Lee in 1966, after playing varsity basketball for three seasons. As a senior he took the Generals to a state championship – meeting a goal of his. John once said to his father, “Two times Ed won the state title. I’ve got to do it once.”

That means in a six-year span, W-L went 119-14 with three state crowns. John took all-region honors, was All-State in Virginia, earned the state’s Most Outstanding Player title, and captured All-American honors. By the way, in the spring John was a good high jumper for the W-L track team. He is in the high school’s athletic Hall of Fame.

As you might expect, John looked to Ed for guidance about where to go to college, and certainly Ed had an opinion. He had gone to Princeton, and been part of the greatest era in Tigers’ basketball. The 1965 team won the Ivy League title and went all the way to the Final Four, led by Bill Bradley. The 1966-67 team was ranked in the top ten and finished a school record 24-3.

John packed up for Princeton, where he and Ed both studied during the 1966-67 school year. Ed had a brief pro career and then headed to law school. Meanwhile, John was busy at Princeton.

The junior Hummer had plenty of success too. He was all-Ivy League for all three years of his varsity career, although he wasn’t on the first team as a sophomore. In 1967-68, Hummer was part of a team that went 20-6 for coach Pete Carril. He was Mr. Inside to fellow sophomore Geoff Petrie, a world-class shooter from the backcourt. Hummer averaged 11.4 points and 6.6 rebounds that season. Princeton lost the Ivy title in a playoff game to Columbia that year.

As a junior, Hummer moved up a notch to a first-team all-league selection, and his .564 field goal percentage set a school record. He helped Princeton go 14-0 in conference play and reach the NCAA tournament. Its 18-game winning streak was the longest in the nation that season. The Tigers were eliminated by St. John’s in the first round in a game played in North Carolina. His scoring average went up to 15.8 points per game, and his rebounding improved to 8.0 per game. Finally in 1969-70, Hummer had his best season yet statistically. His scoring average reached 17.5 points per game, and he grabbed 9.5 rebounds per contest. The Tigers went 13-9 and finished third in the Ivy League.

"That was big-time basketball,” Hummer said about his time at Princeton to the Washington Post. “Both my team and my brother's team could play with any team in the country. When I went to Princeton, I didn't view it as forsaking big-time basketball."

That led us to the drafts by the NBA and the ABA. The Braves traded down to No. 15 from No. 9 in the first round, adding guard Mike Davis from the Bullets in the process. Then Buffalo took Hummer. Petrie had gone eighth to Portland, which means that Princeton had two of the first 15 players taken in that year’s draft. Meanwhile, the Floridians (Miami) selected Hummer with the first pick in the second round – one pick ahead of Niagara star Murphy, and two ahead of Petrie. The pick turned out to be a game-changer for Hummer. The Milwaukee Bucks, featuring center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the No. 16 pick. “And (coach) Larry Costello wanted me,” Hummer told Tim Wendel, “and arguably I would have been a better fit with the Bucks. But that’s the way it goes.”

Both Princeton players signed with their NBA teams. Hummer agreed to a contract on May 21. The deal was announced in New York City, and he was told to go to LaGuardia Airport and a flight to Buffalo to meet the media. The problem was that he only had $15 with him. “When the cab pulled up at the terminal, the fare read $14.90. “I tried to tell the cabbie what had happened, how sorry I was,” Hummer told Wendel. “But he just threw the dime back in my face.”

Hummer turned up on the roster of a team that was typical of expansion teams of that era. It was an odd collection of veterans and young players who were mostly hand-me-downs. Dolph Schayes, one of the NBA’s all-time greats, was the head coach of the team, and he had to sort out what sort of players were around and where they fit. Bob Kauffman was acquired in a trade, and he turned out to be a very helpful player at center under the circumstances even if he was a little undersized for the position. Hummer slid in next to him at strong forward, and statistically had a decent season. He averaged 11.3 points (third on the team) and 8.9 rebounds (second), and played an average of 32.6 minutes per game. That earned him an honorable mention on the All-Rookie team.

Hummer had a few problems, though. His strengths – defense and rebounding - weren’t particular obvious to fans. "John already is one of the top four defensive forwards in the league,” Schayes said, putting John in a class with Gus Johnson of Baltimore, Dave DeBusschere of New York and Jerry Sloan of Chicago. Hummer’s weaknesses – foot speed and free throw shooting – were more obvious. In addition, Hummer wasn’t Murphy, who was starting a solid career with the San Diego Rockets that season. “I couldn’t blame them,” Hummer said to Wendel. “I knew what they wanted. They wanted Calvin Murphy and I wasn’t that kind of player.”

On the other hand, Hummer turned out to be a good fit in the community. “I was the only player in those early years to live downtown,” he said. “Everybody else was out in Amherst or Williamsville. I had a place right off Elmwood Avenue. I enjoyed getting out and talking with the people. For me, Buffalo will always be the ultimate bar town.”

In the summer of 1971, Hummer caught a bad break in terms of the roster. The Braves made center Elmore Smith their No. 1 draft choice, and gave him a lot of money to sign a contract. He was going to play a lot of minutes. That meant Kauffman, the team’s All-Star player in 1970-71, moved over to strong forward, and he’d be on the court a lot too. The 6-9 Hummer had to play small forward in order to see regular duty, and that wasn’t a good fit. He had to chase players such as John Havlicek and Bill Bradley around the court. The alternative was a seventh-round pick named Randy Smith, who made the team as a 6-3 small forward, but that wasn’t a good match either. Hummer also had an ankle injury that bothered him that season, and his numbers dropped to 55 games, and 5.2 points per game.

What did the Braves do in the next NBA draft? They picked another big man in 6-9 Bob McAdoo. The only consolation was that the Braves had virtually no depth up front, and Hummer served as the first forward off the bench. His minutes went up to 23.4 points per game, and his scoring average rose to 8.0. Hummer apparently got a little mileage about the time that he and McAdoo once “lit up” Seattle for 43 points in a game that season. The joke was that McAdoo had 41 of the points, and Hummer had two. The Braves went 21-61 after winning 22 games in each of their first two seasons, and it became obvious that the team’s roster needed to be sorted out.

General manager Eddie Donovan did exactly that in a matter of days in September, 1973. Elmore Smith went to the Lakers for small forward Jim McMillian, and Hummer and a second-round draft pick went to the Bulls for forward Gar Heard and the rights to center Kevin Kunnert. McAdoo was installed at center, and the Braves finally had gotten it right. With Ernie DiGregorio coming in at point guard, Buffalo was going to run. Hummer, who was on his way to seven operations including six on his Achilles’ tendon, wasn’t going to be part of that. Even so, Hummer was hardly happy to leave. “I loved Buffalo,” he said. “Sure there were some ups and downs, but I really enjoyed those days.”

The Bulls were a better team, but they were all set at forward. Bob Love and Chet Walker were a dynamic combination at forward that averaged about 40 points per game. Howard Porter backed them up, and Chicago had three centers to fill up the middle. There wasn’t much space for Hummer, who played for about 10 minutes a game. On January 7, 1974, the Bulls moved the Princeton grad on to Seattle for a second-round draft choice.

That Sonics team had Bill Russell as its coach and another odd collection of talent. Spencer Haywood was the star of the team, but the rest of the forecourt was a jumble made up of Kenny McIntosh, Jim Fox, Dick Gibbs, John Brisker, and Jim McDaniels. Hummer got to play more than 26 minutes per game for Seattle, and averaged 8.2 points per game. The team suffered through a 36-46 season. By 1974-75, the Sonics had added forward Leonard Gray and center Tom Burleson. That meant fewer minutes for Hummer, who went down to 13 minutes per game. Seattle made the playoffs and reached the second round, losing to Golden State.

If Hummer didn’t realize that the end of his basketball career wasn’t far off, he’d reach that conclusion soon. The Sonics waived him in December, 1975, only to bring him back a month later. He played the rest of the season in Seattle, and finished 10th on the team in average minutes per game. The Sonics were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. That was it for Hummer, who scored 2,248 points in parts of six seasons with three teams in the NBA.

Luckily for John, Princeton graduates usually are well equipped to transition into the next stage of their life. He was off to Stanford to earn his Master of Business Administration in 1980. Hummer entered the business world, and in 1989 started a venture capital company called Hummer Winblad Venture Partners in San Francisco. It was the first such firm to invest in computer software exclusively. The “Winblad” of the company was Ann Winblad, who has received attention as the high school girlfriend of Microsoft executive Bill Gates. Many of those investments paid off nicely, although others didn’t fare as well. That’s the nature of that business. By the way, brother Ed followed the same career path in New York City.

Along the way, Hummer was able to indulge in his love for flying. He first flew a Cessna 206 Piston, but figured he needed something longer. It didn’t take long for him to fall in love with the Twin Commander, a powerful turboprop plane. He often flies between his homes in Seattle and Idaho. John apparently cut back on his work for the company in 2015, but was still listed as a partner a few years later.

He still follows basketball, too. John recently made a comment on social media that “the three point shot has ruined the game.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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