If things had turned out differently during the 1970s, basketball fans might not now be celebrating the Toronto Raptors’ first appearance in an NBA final. Instead, they could be cheering on a franchise, transplanted from another city by Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, that started off surrounded by the same three-ring-circus atmosphere as his hockey team.
Nearly 50 years ago, the NBA tested the Toronto market via two seasons of Buffalo Braves home games, hosted at Maple Leaf Gardens. The city won the right to a franchise — but the financial chaos that marked professional sports in the ’70s, combined with other issues, delayed the permanent arrival of the NBA until the Raptors took to the court in 1995.
After the Toronto Huskies — who played in the first game of the league that eventually became the NBA — folded in 1947, MLG held on to the team’s court, hauling it out annually for the Harlem Globetrotters. By the time Toronto lawyers/basketball promoters Reuben “Ruby” Richman and Norman Freedman arranged a January 14, 1971, game between the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) and the Los Angeles Lakers, the equipment was showing its age. The cords of the nets were so tight that Lakers star Wilt Chamberlain cut them open with a pair of scissors. The shot clock short-circuited before the game began.
Stay up to date!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.
But roughly 12,000 spectators showed up, so Richman and Freeman organized two more matches, hoping to show that Toronto could support an NBA franchise. The first, played on December 2, 1971, featured the Toronto debut of the Buffalo Braves, who had entered the NBA in 1970 alongside the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Portland Trail Blazers. Expansion teams were often known for lousy play, but the Braves had additional problems: they had issues securing home-game dates at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, because top priority was given to the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, who also began play in 1970, and, after that, to the Canisius College’s basketball program. When Braves owner Paul Snyder offered Canisius president James Demske $125,000 to free up some Saturday-night slots, the college refused, fearing that such a move would damage the popularity of college hoops in western New York.
Although coach John McCarthy missed the game due to stomach problems, the Braves defeated the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) at MLG 109-105. But this game drew fewer than 5,000 spectators. Ticket sales were so poor that ads emphasized a pre-game match between local players and a team headed by a former Harlem Globetrotter. “I wouldn’t say this ended our hopes for a franchise, but it is pretty discouraging,” Richman told the Toronto Sun. “There is no way we can hope to sell a Wilt Chamberlain every time.” A January 1972 doubleheader featuring four teams from the rival American Basketball Association fared slightly better, but not well enough to bring basketball back to MLG. “Basketball is a sport for girls,” Ballard reportedly said around this time. “I couldn’t get interested in it.”
Harold might not have been interested, but his son Bill was. He ran MLG while the elder Ballard served a criminal sentence for fraud, tax evasion, and theft, and discussed Toronto dates for the Braves with Snyder. They agreed on nine regular-season and one exhibition game during the 1973-74 season. Freedman, whose partnership with Richman had disintegrated, filed an injunction to prevent the Braves from playing in Toronto, claiming that he and Richman had signed exclusive rights to promote pro basketball games at MLG through 1975. Although the injunction failed, Freedman continued legal action against Richman, MLG, and the Braves and was awarded damages in December 1976.
Over the course of the 10 games, attendance averaged 7,600 — just under half of MLG’s capacity. The Braves, led by back-to-back NBA Rookies of the Year Bob McAdoo and Ernie DiGregorio, won five of the matches. The biggest problem was temperature. The court was installed on top of the ice and insulated with an inch of Styrofoam — but it was noticeably cold. Players stiffened on the bench. They threatened to skip the final two games in Toronto if the temperature couldn’t be raised. “I guess it is cold at the start of the game,” Harold Ballard told the Toronto Star. “But maybe if the Braves played harder they would keep warm. Or I could give them all hot water bottles.” Ballard promised to buy more Styrofoam. The games continued, ending on a high note on March 10 when the Braves clinched their first playoff berth.
Ballard did express interest in an expansion team. “Attendance would increase if we had our team, a club where the people would get to know the players,” he told the Toronto Star in January 1974. “There would be a sense of identification, a personal thing like the way hockey fans feel about [then Maple Leafs captain] Dave Keon.”
When merger talks with the ABA failed in June 1974, the NBA granted a franchise to Toronto. While no formal applications had been submitted, the frontrunner was an alliance between MLG and Richman. The board of governors was impressed by a presentation Ballard had given earlier in the year — and with the $50,000 bond guarantee he offered. The price for the team was expected to be around $6.15 million. The Braves were entitled to an indemnity fee, but comments from Ballard and Snyder suggested this would have been only a minor inconvenience, and both owners hoped to promote a regional rivalry. Ads for season tickets to six Braves games to be played at MLG during the 1974-75 season promised fans that they would serve as a warmup for the new team, expected to begin playing the following year.
But plans for an NBA team in Toronto soon fell apart. Snyder turned down an $8.5 million offer to merge the Braves with the new team. While MLG initially agreed to pay half the cost of starting a team from scratch, Richman had difficulty finding backers for the rest. Investors were concerned not just about the general economic downturn, but also about the financial health of professional sports: a growing number of franchises across North America were failing; new leagues, such as the ABA, World Football League, and World Hockey Association, were losing money.
At MLG, temperature remained an issue. Prior to a February 1975 match against the Phoenix Suns, Braves coach Jack Ramsay refused to play stars DiGregorio and Gar Heard, who had just returned from injuries. “This place is so cold,” he told the Globe and Mail, “it’s almost impossible for players with injuries to get a proper warmup.”
The Braves won all but one of the Toronto games in 1974-75, but Ballard cancelled plans for them to continue playing at MLG during the 1975-76 season. Snyder accused him of attempting to blackmail the league into placing a team in MLG; Ballard claimed that the Braves had demanded too much money.
Richman tried to buy the Braves but balked at the $9 million price tag (“We don’t want to blow our brains out,” Richman told the Globe and Mail). He pleaded with Metro Toronto chairman Paul Godfrey for help, suggesting in a 1976 letter that “now that you’ve brought baseball to Toronto, remember to help with the NBA.” Attempts by Ballard and Richman to purchase the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets failed. And after the NBA got four new teams in 1976 from the now-defunct ABA, the league’s interest in Toronto as a potential home for an expansion team faded.
Richman, who had coached Canada’s Olympic basketball team in 1964, remained optimistic. For the next decade, he could be counted on for quotes in which he insisted that Toronto was only a couple of investors away from a team. As late as 1985, Richman predicted (incorrectly) that Toronto would play in the NBA before the SkyDome opened.
By that point, the league was transforming into the sports empire we know today, although it was still experiencing franchise instability. The Braves became the San Diego Clippers in 1978, then shifted to Los Angeles in 1984; the Cleveland Cavaliers nearly moved to Toronto in 1983 (in some alternate universe, we’re all cheering for the Toronto Towers).
“We think there’ll be an expansion in a couple of years,” NBA general counsel (and future NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman told the Toronto Star in 1985. “We’re having ongoing dialogue with people all the time — Toronto, Minneapolis, the Tampa area, Miami — but some people are more serious than others and we don’t have a list of places in any particular order. An expression of interest is something we always like to hear but, right now, nobody has a $100,000 cheque on file.”
Toronto wouldn’t have its own NBA team until 1993, when a group of investors laid down $125 million to cover the expansion fee. When the Raptors took to the court in 1995, local sports fans were able to cheer on their own hometown basketball team for the first time in almost half a century.
Sources: the April 22, 2016, edition of the Buffalo News; the June 22, 1974, October 5, 1974, January 14, 1975, February 19, 1975, October 11, 1975, January 22, 1976, and March 3, 1976, editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 15, 1971, January 4, 1974, February 5, 1974, and January 30, 1985, editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 3, 1971, and February 13, 1973, editions of the Toronto Sun.