“The only correct actions are those that
demand no explanation and no apology” — Red Auerbach
In June 2013, after the Celtics’ elimination of the playoffs and the mega-trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets, Boston changed its course. So, Doc Rivers, astute and far-sighted, asked to leave a franchise that was going to face a long and tedious reconstruction. The Clippers offered as a new home and to let him out, Boston only asked for a first round: it arrived and became two years later in RJ Hunter (currently a two-way player in Boston). June 2013 is the date of the last transfer between the Celtics and the Clippers, but not the first one.
Thirty-five years earlier, during the 1978 summer, the Celtics and Buffalo Braves made a much bigger trade. One that almost ends with Red Auerbach out of Boston, with Larry Bird being a player of the Clippers and with more than 20 players involved. A trade that change the past and future of both franchises and that the history of the NBA has ignored, avoided and overlooked for decades. When the Braves and the Celtics exchanged franchises.
I’ll explain, but piece a piece.
THE IRV LEVIN ERA IN THE CELTICS
1976, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the Celtics won their 13th championship. They did it eliminating the Braves in the conference semifinals before beating the Suns 4-2 in the finals, including the famous and bizarre fifth game and the triple-overtime. Boston was the best team in the conference and the ruthless dominator of the NBA since its inception, with Red Auerbach as a coach first and general manager since 1966. However, if the context on the floor was idyllic, the owners’ situation wasn’t that good. Close to the opposite.
Irv Levin was the face of the Boston Celtics owners. A Jewish businessman, born in Chicago with roots and money in Hollywood and who staked the stability of the Irish franchise. Levin tried to repurchase half of the Celtics in 1972 but was rejected by the NBA for an interest’ conflict (shared companies with the owner of the Seattle Supersonics). Two years later, January 13th, 1975 and after months of trials, he finally managed to buy half of the team.
Before the 1976 season, he was already the owner of all the shares (co-owner with the lawyer Harold A. Lipton) of the Celtics and the one who made every single business decision. Fate or not, his greatest ambition and only desire was to move a franchise to California.
FROM KENTUCKY TO SAN DIEGO
The same year, a few miles west. In 1976, the ABA shut down for good. Pacers, Nuggets, Nets and Spurs moved their franchises to the NBA and the other teams folded after brushing the bankruptcy or sell their participation. The Kentucky Colonels were from the second group, mainly because their owner was John Y. Brown, the tycoon owner of KFC, future senator of Kentucky and heir of the Brown fortune, the largest in the state.
Brown, a businessman like very few, saw a golden opportunity at the end of the ABA. A season before the close, he sold his best player, Dan Issel for half a million, and in summer accepted another 3 million as compensatory for not entering the NBA. Money that he instantly used to buy half of an NBA franchise: the Buffalo Braves. By 1977, he was the only owner and managed to get a 30-52 team to trade and pick Tiny Archibald and Billy Knight. Buffalo recovered the illusion.
The Braves played playoffs for the past three seasons, had the MVP Bob McAdoo on the roster and Eddie Donovan, one of the best executives in the NBA with the ability to pick the best young players and find the best trades. They were ready to be a big team in a small market who only had eyes for the Bills, mostly after their first NFL playoffs run in 1974.
Flash forward until July 7th, 1978. The NBA board of governors met in Chicago with a single topic in the daily act: the transfer of the Braves. The owners voted 21-1 in favour of sending the Braves, or the team known to date as such, to San Diego. «San Diego was always the first on the list for an expansion, it was a relevant city in the NBA,» said David Stern in his first season as General Counsel of the league. San Diego already had at the time the Rockets for four years, an adventure as disastrous as the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA, which lasted three seasons.
What really happened? It was a swap, an exchange.
Levin, as we explained, sought to move the team to Hollywood, but the NBA would never allow the transfer of the best franchise in the league, the only with roots among the Boston fans (with Red Sox and Patriots being mediocre and losing finals). The Boston Garden was the birthplace of basketball in the States and Red Auerbach the universal heir of Dr. Naismith. However, there was an option, small and sophisticated but still viable. In the summer of 1978, John Y. Brown and Irv Levin met for the first time in New York with their lawyers.
Levin asked around the league, owners and executives if anyone was willing to exchange franchises. Someone would keep the Celtics and Levin would own a new team with the purpose of moving it to California. Of course, John Y. Brown answered the call the first. From holding a folded ABA team to possess the NBA champions. However, what was going to be a simple swap, it got way complicated — a lot.
By different regulations between the state of Massachusetts and New York, changing the name of the owner was not a legal option, so they went to the old method. They exchanged rosters, coaching staffs and the name of every franchise. Levin was still the owner of a team with 13 championships but under the name of San Diego Clippers; and John Y. Brown had the new Boston Celtics, formerly known as Buffalo Braves. Players of both teams changed the franchise but not the city. Legally, this is the past of both sides.
It was two weeks of negotiations, since the first contact at the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, during the annual owners meeting until the deal was closed, signed on June 29th, 1978 in Los Angeles. A couple of months later, the Clippers and the Celtics traded some players to complete the exchange, once the transfer to San Diego was approved. The deal and the trade were both made without the knowledge of Red Auerbach, who would become Brown’s biggest enemy.
BRAVES received — Kermit Washington, Kevin Kunnert, Sidney Wicks and Freeman Williams’ rights, drafted in 1977.
CELTICS received — Nate Archibald, Marvin Barnes, Billy Knight and two second round picks, 1979 and 1981.
Of all the assets traded, only one of the second round ended up being a real value: the pick of 1981 that the Celtics received was magically converted into Danny Ainge, two-time NBA Champion and current GM of the team (and probably, the only one capable of making an equal trade today). The rest, only Tiny Archibald (363) and Sidney Wicks (199) played more than a hundred games with their new teams.
THE LARRY BIRD EFFECT
“I absolutely could have had Larry Bird if I wanted. No question about it. But I knew Red was very high on the kid, Red would in some way make sure that he never signed with me’’ said Levin a few years later. Larry was drafted just some days before the swap so the rights of the best white player in the history could have been part of the exchange. “Of course, had I known then what I know now, I would have taken that risk.”
Technically, the rosters were exchanged a few minutes after the signing, so for a moment, Larry Bird was part of the San Diego Clippers – like Red Auerbach, Dave Cowens or Cedric Maxwell. Auerbach himself was that summer signing free agents Kunnert and Kermit Washington, and both left to San Diego in the trade. “I felt like the Japanese ambassador in Washington, D.C., going to the White House on Dec. 7, 1941,” said Jan Volk, Celtics’ assistant manager.
A couple of seasons later, in 1979, Brown sent three first round in exchange of Bob McAdoo, the all-star playing for the Pistons. He again closed the deal without the approval of Red Auerbach and Cowens, head coach back then. Once Red realized, was close to left the team and sign as a general manager of the New York Knicks, a movement that would have changed the 80s entirely in the NBA panorama.
ARE THE CLIPPERS 13 TIMES NBA CHAMPIONS?
Legal and technically, yes. Just like the Lakers, when they moved from Minneapolis to LA, they adopted their history and titles, the situation is the same: two franchises that change their name, location and absorb the past in the same season. In this case, the Clippers with the 13 rings of the Celtics, and Boston with the short track record of the Braves.
“Yes,’’ Granik said. “In a strictly legal sense.” That was Russ Granik answering to the question if the Clippers are the heirs of the Celtics. “My understanding, as best as I can remember, is that the current Celtics team is a successor to the Buffalo Braves.” Granik was the NBA’s assistant general counsel in 1978 when Levin and Brown signed the deal. Also, he is not the only one who sees that way.
Some sources claim that the original idea came from the mind of the future NBA commissioner, David Stern, copying what the NFL did six years before with the exchange of franchises between Carroll Rosenbloom (Baltimore Colts) and Robert Irsay (Rams). “John was a character. He was always looking for the next transaction. I was trying to keep it orderly” said Stern to Sports Illustrated.
By that rule of three, Bill Russell has no relationship with the current Boston Celtics, who saw Larry Bird in 1981 win the first ring of the franchises (of the total of four, 1984, 1986 and 2008). Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey or John Havlicek are legends in the history… of the Clippers. Something that would make the rivalry between Boston and Los Angeles even more intense, by the way.
“But in the NBA world, none of that legal mumbo-jumbo matters,” said Granik. The change meant that the Celtics back then had a new owner and the Braves moved to San Diego with also a new owner. Nothing changed. The Celtics will always be the Celtics, the best franchise in NBA history with 17 rings… right?
Sources — NY Times, ESPN, Clippers Nation, Celtics Life, Democrat & Chronicle, Bangor Daily News, Buffalo News, The Tuscaloosa News, Wikipedia, Lewinston Evening Journal (Maine) and Basketball Reference.
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