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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Paul Ruffner

(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.)

Paul Ruffner is the answer to a really difficult trivia question. He was part of the only trade involving both an ABA and NBA team in history. It’s a good thing he picked up some notoriety there, because most of his professional career was spent on the bench – especially for his two years in Buffalo.

Paul Ruffner was born on October 15, 1948, in Downey, California. He stayed in that part of the Los Angeles area through high school, as he attended what is now known as Warren Senior High School. The facility was named after Earl Warren, the former Supreme Court Chief Justice and Governor of California.

Ruffner played high school basketball in the mid-1960s, graduating in 1966. From there it was on to Cerritos College, a junior college in Norwalk, California. Then he moved on to Brigham Young University in 1968 to play for coach Stan Watts. Paul had a pair of good seasons for the Cougars. The 6-foot-10 center averaged 15.1 points and 9.6 rebounds in 1968-69, and helped the team reach the NCAA tournament. The Cougars lost to New Mexico State in the first round. He improved on those figures as a senior, scoring 17.7 points and grabbing 9.8 rebounds. Paul was an honorable mention choice for the all-conference squads. However, the team’s record dropped from 16-12 to 8-18.

Since teams are always looking for a big man who can score, Ruffner went fairly high in the NBA draft. He was picked by the Chicago Bulls in the second round, No. 28. Paul also was taken by Virginia in the middle five rounds of the ABA draft. He signed with the Bulls.

Ruffner made the team as a rookie, but there was a line in front of him for playing time. Tom Boerwinkle was the starting center, while Jim Fox backed him up. That left Paul as the third-stringer. He only played in 10 games that season, with a scoring average of 3.4 points per game. Ruffner’s best moment as a pro might have been on March 20, 1971. After playing 22 minutes in the entire season, he scored 13 points in the final period and 19 for the game as Chicago downed Atlanta. Paul spent part of that season in the Continental League. Then Ruffner was traded by the Bulls, and the story picks up an interesting twist.

It seems that the Pittsburgh Condors of the ABA couldn’t wait until the end of the season to sign Villanova’s Howard Porter, and the star forward signed a contract with them in December 1970. In February 1971, Porter testified in court that he never signed a pro contract. Villanova surprised everyone that year by reaching the NCAA Final Four. The Wildcats lost to UCLA, but Porter was named the tournament’s outstanding player. When Porter’s contract was discovered later, Villanova had to vacate its second-place finish.

The Bulls drafted Porter in the second round of the NBA draft, and signed him to a $1.5 million deal. Then, to clean the legal issues up, the Condors traded Porter’s playing rights to the Bulls for $150,000 on June 15, 1971. As part of the transaction, Pittsburgh dropped its legal action against Chicago. On July 20, Ruffner signed with the Condors as part of the transaction. For what it’s worth, he received a raise from $30,000 to $40,000 and a $3,000 bonus; the Bulls paid the extra $13,000. “I feel like I can get the job done if I have the chance to prove myself,” Ruffner told the Daily Herald about the trade.

The Condors hoped that Ruffner would step into the lineup at center, but they were disappointed. Paul only averaged 13.4 minutes per game, 12th on the team, in 79 games. Ruffner averaged 5.7 points per game. Most of the shooting by Pittsburgh that season was done by John Brisker, George Thompson and George Carter. They all averaged more than 20 points per game, but it didn’t help. Pittsburgh finished 25-59, with the last home game drawing 689 to the Civic Center. Shortly after that, the ABA cancelled the Condors’ franchise. “When I was in Pittsburgh, I was with the worst franchise that ever was in professional basketball,” he said in 1973. “So naturally, I have bad feelings about the league.”

Ruffner headed back to Utah, worked toward a graduate degree at BYU, and played in the Central Utah Basketball League. He caught the Braves’ eye at the Los Angeles pro summer league. It didn’t take Ruffner long to become a fan of Buffalo coach Jack Ramsay. “I haven’t played in a long time for a coach that would really come out and tell you things,” he said that summer. “I’m really impressed with him. I love it here and I think a lot of Ramsay even though I’ve only known him for a week.”

Paul made the roster, but he was at the end of the bench. Ruffner only took part in 20 games, and had a total of 30 points. The problem was as far as he was concerned was that Bob McAdoo had been moved to center that year, and he became a superstar right before Ruffner’s eyes. Bob Kauffman spelled McAdoo for rests, leaving Ruffner some scraps of playing time. But at least he was in the pros, and his team made the playoffs.

Kauffman departed in the offseason, but the Braves added Dale Schlueter to be a backup center. McAdoo again averaged 43 minutes per game, so Ruffner again did a lot of sitting. He had a total of 45 points in 22 games. Buffalo reached the postseason again but was eliminated in the first round.

The Braves and Ruffner parted ways after the 1974-75 season. Paul tried out for the Baltimore Claws in the ABA. That franchise never made it to the starting line, as it folded after a few exhibition games. He was taken in the dispersal draft by the Spirits of St. Louis of the ABA, a team that featured such players as Marvin Barnes, Ron Boone, M.L. Carr, Moses Malone, and Maurice Lucas. Ruffner was picked up for two games early in the season. He scored four points, and was sent on his way. Ruffner’s career was over after parts of five seasons in the NBA and ABA.

Ruffner returned to Utah, and became the color commentator on radio for the Brigham Young basketball team, and held that post for a couple of decades through the late 1990s. He also went into the real estate business in Provo. Paul’s wife, Lael, was a cheerleader for BYU. As of 2017, the couple was up to 23 grandchildren.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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