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11.03.2012

When Buffalo and Boston Swapped Franchises, and How Larry Bird Almost Never Played for the Celtics



Here is something else you have you might know: The Los Angeles Clippers have a championship pedigree.

That is because, in the strictest of strictest interpretations of the law -- not to be confused with what actually goes on in the NBA -- the Clippers are, in reality, the Boston Celtics. The owner, Donald Sterling, longed to model his franchise after the Celtics (even though every move he made basically killed that plan). Well, he got his wish.

We are talking legalese and fine print here, and the story goes back to 1978, when the owner of the Celtics was a Hollywood guy, Irv Levin. He wanted to move the team to Southern California, but he knew the NBA would never allow that.

So Levin did the next best thing. He convinced the owner of the Buffalo Braves, Kentucky Fried Chicken magnate John Y. Brown, to swap franchises.

"My understanding, as best as I can remember, is that the current Celtics team is a successor to the Buffalo Braves," Russ Granik, former deputy commissioner of the NBA, said in a telephone conversation on Tuesday. He was the NBA's assistant general counsel in 1978.

And that would mean that the current Clippers team is the successor to the Boston Celtics?

"Yes," Granik said. "In a strictly legal sense."

But in the NBA, none of that legal mumbo-jumbo matters. The swap meant the Celtics had a new owner. The swap was OK'd by the NBA's Board of Governors by a 21-1 vote. The teams swapped rosters, but not before Brown and Levin completed a trade involving several players, including future Hall of Famer Nate Archibald. Levin moved the Braves to San Diego, where they became the Clippers.

The business entity that owned the Boston Celtics in 1978 moved to San Diego and became the business entity that owned the Clippers. When deferred compensation checks were mailed to the likes of the former Celtics player and coach Tom Heinsohn and others, they were from the Clippers' bank account.

Levin later sold the team to Sterling, who moved the team to Los Angeles in 1984.

Levin and Brown did their negotiating without consulting anyone in Celtics management. Red Auerbach, then the team's president and general manager, knew nothing of the franchise swap. He and the Celtics' assistant general manager, Jan Volk, had gone to Washington at the end of June to sign deals for Kevin Kunnert, a free agent, and Kermit Washington, whom the Celtics had acquired from the Lakers the previous December.

Little did the two men realize the deals were the final step in the franchise swap. They triggered the swap.

In an interview in the early 1990s, Volk said: "The next morning I woke up and found out the franchise had been sold. We had done their dirty work for them. I felt like the Japanese ambassador in Washington, D.C., going to the White House on Dec. 7, 1941."

Kunnert and Washington went to San Diego along with Sidney Wicks and the draft rights to Freeman Williams, whom the Celtics had picked No. 8 in the 1978 draft. The Celtics received Archibald, Marvin Barnes and former Pitt star Billy Knight.

In a still-amazing what-if, the name of Larry Bird surfaced in the talks when Brown and Levin were going over their rosters.

Bird had been drafted by the Celtics in June 1978 as what was known as a "junior eligible," but had decided to return to Indiana State for his senior year. Under NBA rules at the time, Boston had until the 1979 draft to sign Bird or he would re-enter the draft. That was why several teams shied away from drafting Bird in the first place.

Levin died in 1996, but a few years before, he said he easily could have included Bird in the player exchange and would have done so had he been convinced that Bird would have signed with the Clippers.

"I absolutely could have had Larry Bird if I wanted. No question about it," Levin said. "But I knew Red was very high on the kid and I felt if I took Bird to San Diego, Red would in some way make sure that he never signed with me. It was too risky. We were starting a new franchise. Of course, had I known then what I know now, I would have taken that risk."

Granik said that the teams swapped rosters immediately after the franchise deal. So, for one brief shining moment, the Clippers did indeed own the rights to Bird before they were sent back to Boston. The same applies to Dave Cowens and Cedric Maxwell -- Maxwell actually became a Clipper in 1985 when he was traded for Bill Walton.

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