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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Larry McNeill

(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.)

Larry McNeill’s life wasn’t long enough and wasn’t dull enough. His physical gifts allowed him a chance to climb out of poverty, and he played basketball as long as he could. Even though he had some good moments – some with the final edition of the Buffalo Braves – he became lost once the final buzzer on his career sounded. There is no happy ending to be found here.

Larry B. McNeill was born in Hoke County, North Carolina on January 31, 1951. It is located near Fayetteville, and was named for Robert Hoke – a Confederate general in the Civil War. That fact is not a big part of McNeill’s story, though, because he soon moved to New York City. His family was described in 1974 as including a mother, two sisters, two brothers, and a grandmother who was disabled.

Larry eventually enrolled in George Westinghouse Jr. High School of Career and Technical Education. That’s a mouthful, so it was shortened to Westinghouse, and its name honored one of the pioneers in electricity. The list of famous alumni lean more toward hip-hop artists than basketball players - Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, and The Notorious B.I.G.

In the meantime, Westinghouse wasn’t a basketball power. Future NBA referee Ronnie Nunn played in a New York City conference for Brooklyn Tech. The Warriors came into the league in 1968-69. “They finished last – and had Larry McNeill who went on to play in the NBA.” In most places, a team with a future pro often would have a chance at a state title. But not in Brooklyn, not then.

Still, people had noticed McNeill, nicknamed “The Roadrunner” because of the way he stooped a bit while running. One of them was Al McGuire, who eventually became a legend in basketball. Al had grown up in New York, and played in the NBA before turning to coaching in college. McGuire had been at Marquette as head coach since 1964, and he loved players from New York City. McNeill was one of them.

Larry didn’t actually arrive at Marquette until 1970, as he spent the 1969-70 season at Rockwood Academy in Lenox, Massachusetts – perhaps to raise his grades. Then he played freshman ball at Marquette in 1970-71. Meanwhile, the varsity was having one of the greatest seasons in school history. The Warriors did nothing but win during the regular season, taking their first 23 games. Marquette won its first NCAA game that season, but lost a 60-59 game to Ohio State.

The school still had talented players like Jim Chones and Bob Lackey returning, but McNeill had a starting spot open for him for the 1971-72 season. He grabbed it and averaged 13.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Oddly, his wife Gloria was involved in an incident at a home game on February 16 that season. She came down to the bench after Larry had fouled out and exchanged words with Larry and teammate Andy Friedrich, who said Mrs. McNeill was trying to squeeze extra people into a small space. “They scream and swear at people, and last night she spit at someone,” he said the next day. “I told her to sit down and shut up.” Gloria McNeill was fined $10 on a disorderly conduct charge.

Marquette won its first 21 games that season, and finished the regular season at 23-2. But there was a problem along the way – Chones left school in February to join the New York Nets of the ABA. That ended any hopes of a championship. McNeill moved to center and averaged more than 17 points per game at that position. At tournament time, Ohio fell to Marquette in the first round, but Kentucky handed the Warriors an 85-69 loss.

With Chones gone, McNeill took over as the team’s star as a junior. He had help up front in the form of Maurice Lucas, and the two players had the size and strength needed to dominate most opponents on the boards. The Warriors won 10 in a row, lost two games, won 10 more, and finished with a 21-3 record. Again, Marquette couldn’t get out of the Sweet Sixteen. Indiana took a 75-69 win. McNeill did lead the team in scoring average at 17.6 and was second in rebounding to Lucas at 15.4. It had been a great era, but the lack of postseason success had to be wearing on everyone.

At this point, Larry had a decision to make. He was eligible for the NBA draft, but he still could play another year at Marquette. He had a wife and a son, Larry Jr. The finances made the decision simple: McNeill needed the money. He might have signed a bigger contract had he stayed for that senior season, but didn’t wait. “I didn’t have much choice,” McNeill said later. “My bills were mounting up. My wife was working and I had a job at night, but I wasn’t making enough to support my family. Because of NCAA rules, the school couldn’t help. So I did what I had to do.”

"I couldn't convince Larry McNeill to stay in school for his senior year," McGuire said much later. "I figured leaving cost him $400,000 the next year. I couldn't imagine me not making sense to a young guy."

Marquette did quite well in 1973-74 without the man in Milwaukee known as “The Hawk.” It had Lucas, Bo Ellis, Earl Tatum, and Lloyd Walton – all future NBA players – around, and reached the championship game of the NCAA tournament. If Larry had hung around, maybe the Warriors could have won it all. But McNeill was off to the NBA. He was a second-round draft choice with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, going 25th overall.

The Royals had gone 36-46 in 1972-73, and things didn’t go any better in McNeill’s rookie year. KC-O had some talent, but Nate Archibald missed half the season to injury and the pieces didn’t fit together. The Royals went through three coaches that season, and none of them had a winning record as the team finished 33-49. McNeill was nailed to the end of the bench most of the time, averaging less than 10 minutes per game in 54 games – 14th on the team in average playing time. When he played, though, he did make an impression – mostly because of his leaping ability. As one anonymous press box occupant said, “Larry McNeill will set a pro record for rebounds caught in his naval.”

Larry’s situation improved the next season, as his minutes approached 22 per game. His scoring average was 9.8 and his rebounding average was 6.2. McNeill shared time up front with such forwards as Scott Wedman, Ron Behagen and Nate Williams. The Royals made the playoffs with a 44-38 record, but lost to the Bulls in six games. McNeill was dropped from the team’s starting lineup after Game Five, because, as coach Phil Johnson put it,” Larry McNeill is not helping defensively.” Still, McNeill had a career highlight in the postseason that year. He made 12 shots without a miss from the field during a 102-95 win in Game Two. That set a record for most field goals without a miss that has stood up for decades.

The Royals’ win total sunk again in 1975-76 (31). Archibald, Lacey and Wedman were the leaders in playing time, but not much worked. McNeill played about 20 minutes a game and averaged 9.7 points. But he probably figured out that the Royals needed to make some changes for the following season. Sure enough, he was dealt to the New York Nets for a third-round draft choice on September 9, 1976. That didn’t work out well. The Nets were a mess that season, eventually finishing 22-60. McNeill was something of a fan favorite, with the few fans in attendance frequently calling his name as he sat and watched the losses mount. “I knew I’d have to come off the bench, but I didn’t think it would be like this,” he said at the time. Larry only played in eight games before he was waived on December 13, 1976. He headed to the Eastern League to play for the Wilkes-Barre Barons for a solitary game – and scored 20 points.

Oddly enough, what followed is remembered as McNeill’s biggest moment in the NBA … even though he wasn’t playing for a particular team. Larry had been invited before he was cut to the league’s first-slam dunk contest, with individual matchups shown on the NBA’s Game of the Week on CBS. He turned up in a shirt publicizing the New York Post, earning an extra $15,000 from the newspaper, and won his first two matchups. McNeill then was signed by the Golden State Warriors, so he at least had a regulation uniform to wear in the final two rounds. Larry eventually lost to Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman of Indiana in the finals. Meanwhile, McNeill contributed little to Golden State that season, as the Warriors finished 46-36 and lost in the second round of the playoffs.

Larry made the Golden State roster in the fall of 1977, but didn’t stay long. He only played in nine games and was waived on November 14. McNeill went more than two months without an NBA job, but the Buffalo Braves eventually gave him a call. They were hard-hit by injuries, and signed him to a contract on February 2. The Braves wasted no time getting him into a game, playing him for all of one minute the next night. Buffalo went 11-29 the rest of the way, and McNeill played in 37 of those games. The 6-foot-9 forward did rather well as a Brave, averaging 11.9 points per game. It helped him set a career high with a 10.2 scoring average for the season – the only time he reached double figures in his career. McNeill scored 31 points in a 136-127 win over Milwaukee on March 17 to set a career high.

The Braves finished out their season and then headed to San Diego in a franchise relocation. McNeill went with them, at least for a while. However, the Clippers cut him on September 25, 1978 – even before the team’s media guide was printed. Three more months went by, and Larry finally hooked on with the Detroit Pistons. He signed a pair of 10-day contracts, but was cut for good on January 23, 1979. The final numbers: 297 games, 2,533 points, 1,440 rebounds.

Did that mean McNeill was done with basketball? Hardly. He started a journey through minor league and international basketball that lasted for years. The list was compiled on Wikipedia, and it takes up a lot of space. He popped up with the Rochester Zeniths of the newly named Continental Basketball Association I 1978-79, and helped them win a championship. McNeill made the league’s all-pro first team, and was the Most Valuable Player in the finals by scoring 251 points in nine games. It was the start of the “have ball, will travel” part of Larry’s life. The Utica Olympics. Back to the Zeniths. One more stint with Rochester. A trip north to play for the Toronto Tornados. In six different seasons in the CBA, he averaged 31.4 points per game.

But the story turned even more interesting when it comes to overseas play. McNeill spent parts of 1979 to 1983 in the Philippines, and legendary isn’t too strong a word to describe his play there. He averaged 41.7 points per game in the Philippine Basketball Association. That included an 88-point game in 1983. Larry teamed up with former NBA player Dean Tolson in 1979 for the Gibney’s Gin team. The two players were so good together that the league passed a rule saying they couldn’t play at the same time. After his final game in that country, McNeill tied his sneakers to the rim as a tribute to the fans who accepted him so warmly.

From there, Larry more or less fell out of sight, and was said in one newspaper tribute to have gone through “years of torment.” We are left to imagine what the full story is, but are assured that it wasn’t pretty. McNeill died on December 29, 2004. He was only 53 years old.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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