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Thursday, March 29
Celtics, Braves once made a really big trade

By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com

So I'm driving to the airport Thursday morning, and I hear this song come on the radio, "Walking in Memphis."
Billy Knight
Billy Knight was a Brave and then dealt to the Celtics around the franchise swap.

So I start listening, to try and pick up some tips or ideas for what to do there when either the Charlotte Hornets or Vancouver Grizzlies relocate to that fine Southern city next season.

And I heard something about catfish on the table and gospel and Reverend Green and prayer, and I thought, "Yiee-Haw."

And I tried to picture a whole clan of Canadians working their way down there, along the Mississippi, and wondering if I'd ever hear the phrase, "How long until you get that fried catfish oot of the kitchen, eh? I'm aboot to starve here. And do you have any Kokanee with that catfish, eh?"

By the way, Maple Leafers, the Ol' Miss does not freeze in that portion of the lower 49, so pickup ice hockey games are oot, in case you were wondering.

But it is just that disparate view of Canuckers in Tennessee that made me more fully understand the story possibility that was reported last week that Michael Heisley, the owner of the Grizzlies -- who, by the way, sang the team's opening game national anthem this season and perhaps chose Memphis as his new city to attempt to jump-start his singing career -- may simply switch franchises with Hornets owners Ray Wooldridge and George Shinn, who, it should be said, could use a fresh start in a new city, given his, um, sullied reputation in both North Carolina, where he picks up his cheerleaders, and South Carolina, where he takes them for dates.

Now, simply swapping professional franchises worth $200 million may seem a little absurd. Sort of like the U.S. telling the former Soviet Union, we'll give you a Space Shuttle and a free tunnel under your embassy in D.C. for a Space Station and a nice helping of Glasnost.

But, as ridiculous as it sounds, this would not be unprecedented.

Because in June of Our Year of the Lord 1978 -- that's the way they say things in Memphis -- the owner of the Buffalo Braves, John Y. Brown, and the owner of the Boston Celtics, Irving H. Levin, swapped franchises.

This is the story, somehow lost and forgotten through the annals of NBA history, despite it being a one-time occurrence:

In the mid-70s, John Y. Brown -- and I will call him John Y. Brown throughout his story, because everybody I spoke with about the guy called him John Y. Brown, as if John or Y. or Brown was seemingly too discreet -- was the owner of the ABA's Kentucky Colonels -- though I don't think his arena was named "The Bucket."

John Y. Brown, by all accounts a shrewd man, took a multimillion dollar payout to fold the franchise -- Rudy Martzke, the USA Today columnist who was then the public relations director for the Buffalo Braves, remembers it being about $3 million, though, he said, the details are a little hazy -- then John Y. Brown used that money to buy a stake in the Braves, who were owned then by Paul Snyder.

As an aside, Martzke says he sees John Y. Brown -- the former Governor of Kentucky who was once married to Phyllis George -- every now and again, and every time Martzke sees him, John Y. Brown introduces him to people and says, "Rudy used to work for me in Buffalo."
The league wasn't how it is now. But we were pretty threadbare, even by standards then. I had to do everything. Besides being an assistant coach, I had to do college and pro scouting. I had to miss several games on the bench because I had to do some scouting, so for a few games, Gene Shue was the only coach on the bench.
Former Clipper assistant Bob Weiss

"What's funny," Martzke says, "is that I was gone by the time John Y. came to Buffalo. I had become the PR director for the St. Louis Spirits. So I never worked for him, even though to this day he thinks I did."

In any case, at the time John Y. Brown owned the Braves, Irv Levin owned the Celtics. But Levin was from Los Angeles, and what he really wanted to do was return to the West Coast and own a team there.

He couldn't very well take the storied Boston Celtics, who to that point had won 13 NBA championships. So Levin decided to switch franchises with John Y. Brown, who in 1978 had become sole owner of the Braves.

John Y. Brown, of course, was sly enough to know a good deal when he saw one, and he knew the Celtics were a better draw than the expansion Braves, so he jumped at the chance. As it turned out, John Y. Brown was only two years away from drafting Larry Bird.

Levin took the Braves and moved them out to San Diego, where he called them the Clippers.

As Paul Westphal, a former member of the Celtics remembers it, the franchise swap was not widely reported, and fans of either club were not really privy to what was happening behind the scenes.

Westphal remembers that the move was somewhat masked by a trade between the teams that sent Nate Archibald, Marvin Barnes, Billy Knight and future draft choices from San Diego to Boston in exchange for Kermit Washington, Kevin Kunnert, Sidney Wicks and the draft rights to Freeman Williams.

Bob Weiss, now an assistant coach for the Sonics, was an assistant coach for the Clippers that first year in San Diego. In fact, he was the ONLY assistant to Gene Shue that year.

"The league wasn't how it is now," Weiss remembers. "But we were pretty threadbare, even by standards then. I had to do everything. Besides being an assistant coach, I had to do college and pro scouting. I had to miss several games on the bench because I had to do some scouting, so for a few games, Gene Shue was the only coach on the bench."

Imagine, that was before Irv Levin sold out to Donald Sterling, when things with the Clippers REALLY got threadbare.

But Sterling being thrown into the equation brings up an interesting story. Westphal said when he signed a contract with the Celtics, he had money deferred to him for the first 10 years after he retired from basketball.

Since the owners swapped franchises, that deferred money became the responsibility of the Clippers, and since it was Levin's debt, it eventually became Sterling's debt.

In 1985, when Westphal retired, his accountant was going through his contracts, and he asked Westphal if he ever got paid the deferred money. When they looked into it, they found that they hadn't, so they approached Sterling about the money, something like $50,000 plus interest.

Sterling told Westphal, "Oh, I've been meaning to pay you that. We just didn't know where you were and we couldn't find you."

Never mind that Westphal had come through Sterling's arena at least twice a year to play the Clippers when he was a member of the Phoenix Suns.

Apparently, Sterling didn't know where the visitors locker room was located.

By the way, Sterling never paid the interest on the debt.

So, Shareef, if Mike and George and Ray decide to do a little swaperoo, make sure you get your deferred money up front.

Frank Hughes covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune. He is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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