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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Lee Winfield

(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.)

Lee Winfield might be the second-most famous member of the Buffalo Braves to wear a headband on the court. Emmette Bryant arrived on the team first, but Winfield brought his sense of style as well as his speed and jumping ability to the team in the mid-1970s.


Leroy Winfield was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 4, 1947. He grew up in the St. Louis area, and eventually went to high school at Charles H. Sumner High School. That institution is known as the first high school for African-American students located west of the Mississippi River in the United States. It was founded in 1875, and was first located in an industrial area. Parents complained that their children had to walk past a morgue on the way to school, and eventually a new facility – the current one – was built in 1908. Sumner was an abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts. The list of alumni is a distinguished one – Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, Dick Gregory, Robert Guillaume, and Tina Turner.


Sumner has had five graduates move on to pro basketball. Gene Moore, who spent seven years in the ABA, is the only one to match Winfield’s longevity. He was not a star in high school like so many other future pro players. In fact, the 1965 graduate was described as a role player for the Bulldogs.


Lee began his college career at St. Louis Baptist Junior College, now known as Missouri Baptist University. Then it was on to North Texas State. The 6-foot-2 guard found a home there, leading the team in scoring as a junior at 16.5 points per game. The Mean Green went 8-18 under coach Dan Spyka. Winfield’s role changed in 1968-69, as his scoring average dropped about a point but he led the team in total rebounds. Lee was named a Division II All-American in 1969, and a quarter-century later he was named to the North Texas Hall of Fame in 1994. The team, meanwhile  improved to 15-10. After graduation, he was picked for an All-Star Game in Honolulu, with Dean Smith of North Carolina serving as his coach.


That got him on the radar of the NBA, and he was picked in the third round (32nd overall) by Seattle. The Los Angeles Stars of the ABA also drafted him, somewhere between rounds six and 10. The Sonics signed him, and Lee couldn’t have had a better tutor about the nuances of guard play as a mentor. Seattle had named Lenny Wilkens as the team’s player-coach. Lenny had been the Sonics’ best player in 1968-69, and the team opted to have him coach too. If Winfield wasn’t at the end of the bench, he could see it from his seat. He was 10th on the team in minutes, as he watched Wilkens, Dick Snyder and Lucius Allen play guard. Winfield averaged 5.7 points per game, and he and Allen brought significant speed to the Sonics backcourt. Seattle improved a few games under Wilkens, but still were under .500 at 36-46.


Allen was dealt to Milwaukee in the offseason, replaced by the veteran Rod Thorn. Winfield’s minutes went up to 20.3 per game, and he averaged 10.5 points. A bigger addition was Spencer Haywood, who teamed with Bob Rule to give the Sonics a great deal of scoring up front. But it didn’t help give the Sonics more wins; they finished 38-44. Seattle had something of a breakthrough in 1971-72, going 47-35. Rule missed most of the season, but others like Don Kojis and Zaid Abdul-Aziz (formerly known as Don Smith) plugged the gap. Winfield played 81 games and averaged 25 minutes; his scoring average reached 10.6 points per game.


The Sonics decided to change their lineup for 1972-73. Wilkens and forward Barry Clemens were dealt to Cleveland for guard Butch Beard. Fred Brown was the team’s first round draft choice. Those two newcomers joined Snyder and Winfield in the guard spots. The St. Louis native was getting plenty of playing time when a knee injury essentially spoiled his season. He had surgery on it in February. Lee’s scoring average and minutes both dropped that season (6.6 and 20.0 respectively), and the team staggered to a 26-56 season.


The SuperSonics brought in Bill Russell to coach the team for the 1973-74 season. Winfield still had knee trouble, and he was waived by the team on October 19. A little more than a month later, Winfield signed with the Buffalo Braves as a free agent and was ready to play in a couple of weeks. The Braves needed a little depth at guard to back up Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio, and Lee could do that. Lee played 36 games that season, averaging three points and 12 minutes a game.


The Braves went on to reach the playoffs that season with a 42-40 record, giving Winfield his first taste of postseason action. They clinched the spot with a win over Portland on March 11. “We approached this one like a normal game,” Winfield said after the game. “But deep inside I think all the guys were anxious to wrap it up. I know I was. I can sure use that playoff money.” He only appeared in one game of the six-game series with the Celtics.


The Braves were hoping for better things in 1974-75, However, some of their plans were derailed when DiGregorio suffered a severe knee injury on October 29. He came back later in the season and played 31 games, but his effectiveness was greatly diminished. That changed the team’s rotation at guard, as Ken Charles eventually moved into the starting lineup. Lee and newcomer Bob Weiss saw some time in the Buffalo backcourt during the course of the season.


Ernie D tried to come back, but was told in late March that he was done for the season. “We pulled together after Ernie went out and played well together, establishing a winning rhythm,” Winfield told the Associated Press after hearing that news. “When Ernie came back, we had to change the rhythm and we started pressing. Now we have to go without him again and I hope we can get that rhythm back. We did it once and we can do it again.” The Braves finished with a 49-33 record, the best year in team history, but suffered a playoff loss to Washington. Winfield averaged 5.5 points in 18.5 minutes per game.


Winfield contributed to the team in many different ways. The New York Times reported that Winfield had a classic Volkswagen Van that he used to collect players around the area as they headed to the airport to start a road trip. Then they hopped on a small plane, usually run by Allegany Airlines, and headed somewhere on the NBA road. There was no first-class seating, so the players were quite cramped. “By the third game in the third night in the third city, you wouldn’t even know what the score was,” Charles said.


The Braves hoped for better play by DiGregorio in 1975-76, and only kept four guards. They cut Winfield on October 10. Luckily for Lee, the Kansas City Kings claimed him. He stayed for a season, playing in only 22 games. Nate Archibald was the leader of that team, and the Kings’ guard didn’t come out of the game very often. Kansas City fell to 31-51 that season.


Winfield didn’t even make it to training camp that fall, as the Kings cut him on July 29, 1976. In his pro career, Lee played in 403 games in seven seasons, averaging 7.3 points per game. Winfield had been a dependable reserve guard who could handle the ball and play some defense.


Some years later, he was looking for work in basketball. Rich Grawer was hired as the head coach at Saint Louis University in 1982, and he needed an assistant. "I'd known him as an NBA player," Grawer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Whoever dropped off his resume with me said ‘You should talk to him.’ He was a mild-mannered guy, impressive in height, in extremely good shape and he knew basketball. I hired him immediately and he was with me all 10 years at St. Louis. You could call him the voice of reason. He was always calm and very good with the kids. He was a really good foil to me because I tended to be more excitable and rambunctious. He was a good fit for St. Louis University."


Winfield helped the Billikens achieve some success, in part because of his recruiting work in the St. Louis area. They reached the finals of the NIT in 1989 and 1990. He also brought his clothing style to the job, which was pure 1970s. One time Saint Louis played at Duke, a place known for its loud fans. They taunted Winfield about his loud jacket and signature bow tie. After the game, when asked about the students’ comments, he replied, “It's obvious that they have money here but no idea of what style is all about.”


When Grawer was fired in 1992, Winfield eventually worked his way to an assistant coach’s position at Missouri under Bill Stewart. Lee brought his children along for the ride. Son Julian played for his father at both Saint Louis and Missouri. Daughter Leslie spent four seasons playing basketball for SLU.  Lee was married to Christine.


“Coach Win” wrapped up his coaching career with some time as an assistant coach at Forest Park Community College. He was a close friend of head coach Preston Thomas. He always kept himself in good shape, and could dunk at the age of 50.


Winfield died on his 64th birthday – February 4, 2011. The cause of death was colon cancer. His final resting place is in Normandy in St. Louis County. Appropriately, his gravestone has a drawing of basketball on it, above the words, “A soul that touched and influenced many lives.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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