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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Ted McClain

(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.)

Ted McClain was a man on the move during his pro basketball career. He played for seven teams in eight years. They ranged from New York to Phoenix, with Buffalo in-between. Ted was a solid contributor in his American Basketball Association days, and hung on for a while after the merger with the National Basketball Association.

Theodore McClain was born in Nashville on August 30, 1946. For someone who didn’t stay in one place for long as an adult, Ted stayed put early in his life. He stayed in Nashville throughout his childhood, eventually attending Pearl High School in Nashville. The only other pro player to come out of that school was Les Hunter, who was part of the memorable Loyola of Chicago NCAA championship team of 1963.

McClain has a great story to tell when it comes to life at Pearl. It had been the only place in Tennessee in the 1920s where African Americans could receive a high school education. When Ted was a junior in 1964-65, Pearl – an all-black school – was allowed to join the state federation as an affiliate member. That didn’t mean the team could be on the court against white players immediately. The Royals went 31-2 that season, winning the all-black postseason tournament by beating Galatin Union. Along the way, they dunked the ball so many times and with such power that the rim gave way in one game at Tennessee A&I University. The game was delayed for five hours until another rim was found at Vanderbilt University.

A year later, Pearl was allowed to compete in the state championships against all comers. McClain and Company went 31-0, making quite a statement in the process. McClain developed a reputation along the way for stinginess with his money. His school teammates claimed that he’d have the same dollar in his wallet for an entire year.

Ted graduated from Pearl in 1966, and eventually headed to Tennessee State University – located in, yes, Nashville. The Tigers already had quite a tradition in the sport of basketball by then. They won the NAIA championship (small colleges) for three straight seasons (1957 to 1959) – the first university ever to win three titles in a row. Tennessee State didn’t match that record during McClain’s time there, but it did quite well. Before that, though, McClain popped up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to try out for the 1968 United States Olympic basketball team.

Tennessee State went 14-12 during McClain’s sophomore year, and then picked it up a notch or two. In 1970, the Tigers marched through most of the NCAA Division II tournament. They beat Buffalo State in the semifinals, but lost to Philadelphia Textile in the national championship game. McClain was named the outstanding player of the tournament, and he was on the all-tournament team with a future teammate in Buffalo – Randy Smith of Buffalo State.

Somewhere along the way, McClain picked up the nickname of “Hound Dog” or simply “Hound” because of the way he hounded opposing players while on defense. Sure enough, he sniffed out another fine season. The Tigers “only” reached the regional finals in 1971. They lost to Louisiana-Lafayette. That was it for McClain, as he completed one of the great seasons in school history. Ted was a three-time Little All-American pick after averaging 24.6 points per game in his career.

The 6-foot-1 guard had options when it came to his pro career. He was picked in the second round by Atlanta in the 1971 NBA draft, just one pick before future Braves teammate Jim McDaniels went to Seattle. Ted was a third-round pick of the Carolina Cougars as well. We can guess that McClain saw Pete Maravich firmly installed as the Hawks’ point guard, and thought he was better off in Carolina. He signed on April 30.

If McClain thought he’d see plenty of playing time in Carolina, he was mistaken at first. The Cougars had plenty of guards pass through their roster, including top scorer Larry Miller, George Lehmann, and Gene Littles. Ted played 64 games that season, but only averaged 14.1 minutes of playing time per game. McClain was said to be unhappy about that, as he had bonuses in his contract that gave him extra money for scoring a certain amount of points and making the playoffs. When coach Tom Meschery heard that story in midseason, he understood why Ted was a bit grumpy about his playing time. McClain set his career high in points only a few months into his pro career, netting 28 on January 4, 1972, against Pittsburgh. (Ted tied that figure a couple of years later.) The Cougars stumbled to a 35-49 record.

Lehmann and Miller were gone by the 1972-73 season, and McClain’s playing time jumped to 21.6 minutes over 84 games. Mack Calvin and Steve Jones had taken over as the top two guards, but Larry Brown rotated the guards and installed an uptempo system as he highlighted two new stars up front – Billy Cunningham and Joe Caldwell. The Cougars finished 57-27 and lost in seven games to Kentucky in the Eastern Division playoff finals. McClain moved into the starting lineup in 1973-74, and his scoring average (13.1 points) and minutes (30.7) both hit new pro highs. He was selected as a member of the ABA’s All-Defensive team, as he led the league with 250 steals. Ted also set the ABA record for steals in a game when he had 12 on December 26, 1973.

The Cougars were going broke in Carolina, and they moved to St. Louis in the summer of 1974. Ted didn’t go with them. His playing rights were sold to Kentucky on May 15, apparently proving the axiom that if you can’t beat them, join them. The deal comes with an odd story. Colonels owner John Y. Brown said that the transaction was first suggested by his 10-year-old son, John-John.

No matter whose idea it was, the move turned out perfectly for McClain and the Colonels. Kentucky had a starting lineup of Artis Gilmore, Louie Dampier, Dan Issel, Wil Jones and McClain. Ted played in 72 games and averaged 27.4 minutes and 8.6 points. McClain was capable of guarding any guard in the ABA or the NBA. Kentucky never really was challenged in the postseason, going 13-3 to win the ABA title under coach Hubie Brown. “It was a very competitive, very smart group of players, and we were able to play very well together,” Gilmore said later.

The Colonels lost Issel and added Maurice Lucas and Caldwell Jones in the offseason of 1975. McClain put up his usual numbers during the start of the 1975-76 season. But on February 15, 1976, Ted’s playing rights were sold to the New York Nets for $150,000. The Colonels were in the final months of their existence at the time, and financial issues might have played a role in the sale.

It was another good move for McClain, who joined an ABA team that probably could have played with any pro team in the country thanks to the talents of Julius Erving. Ted had been formally introduced to Dr. J’s talents while he was in Kentucky. “Julius brought the ball down the court on the fast break and Teddy McClain was between Doc and the basket,” former Nets assistant Rod Thorn recalled. “Teddy crouched a bit in the standard defensive stance. Doc just took off, high-jumped over Teddy and then dunked. I can still see McClain looking up and watching Julius fly over him.”

Erving was at the height of his powers in those days. He led the way as New York knocked off San Antonio and Denver to take the championship, McClain’s second in two years.

In the summer of 1976, everything changed for McClain and the Nets. The ABA and NBA merged into one league, and McClain was traded to Denver for two draft choices. It was reported that the deal was a shock to coach Kevin Loughery, who thought his team still needed a good guard. However, Nets’ owner Roy Boe had promised that he’d deal McClain back to the Nuggets. Boe had been having trouble raising the money necessary to complete his team’s entrance into the NBA. McClain wasn’t the biggest loss of the championship team, as Erving was dealt to Philadelphia in October. At least McClain was back with Larry Brown, who played Ted 28 minutes a game. The Nuggets had plenty of other talent in David Thompson, Bobby Jones, Issel, and Paul Silas. Denver went 50-32 but lost to eventual champion Portland in the first round of the playoffs.

McClain’s contract ran out in the summer of 1977, and he shopped around for a new deal. Ted signed with the Braves as a free agent on October 6, giving up a third-round draft choice as compensation. It seemed like a good fit for the Braves, who had Randy Smith and not much else at guard thanks to a season-ending injury suffered by Nate Archibald in preseason. Buffalo was in turmoil through much of the season, and McClain could only average 17.7 minutes per game. Ted’s highlight might have come on October 26, when he came off the bench to score 17 points in 21 minutes in a game in Seattle. While in Buffalo, Ted’s wife Margaret and three-year-old daughter Terra Lynn stayed in Nashville while he lived in a hotel. It proved wise; McClain only lasted in Buffalo until January 31, 1978, when he was traded to Philadelphia for another third-round draft choice.

The Sixers were top-heavy with talent, what with Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins and Company around. McClain mostly sat during his time in Philadelphia, averaging 10 minutes per game. The 76ers had hopes of winning the title, but Washington stopped them in six games in the Eastern Conference final.

Ted didn’t get out of training camp in Philadelphia the following fall, as he was released on October 11. More than three months later, the Phoenix Suns called and offered him a contract. Why not? McClain averaged about 13 minutes a game for the Suns as a little insurance at guard. The Suns made it to the West finals, but lost in seven games to Seattle. McClain was waived by Phoenix on September 4, 1979, and his time in the NBA was done. He had played in 555 pro games, averaging 8.4 points per game and earning two championship rings.

Ted returned to the Nashville region after retirement. He held a basketball camp at Nashville Opportunities Industrialization Center for several years. As of 2020, McClain is still second on the Tennessee State all-time scoring list with 2,309 points. He’s a member of the TSU Hall of Fame and the State of Tennessee Hall of Fame.

Ted stayed close to the Tennessee State basketball program over the years. “This is my alma mater,” he said in 2017 video. “I’m a TSU diehard. I always have been and I always will be.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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