Unique Places: The World Champion Basketball Team From Buffalo

11:29 AM, Oct 28, 2013   |    comments
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A long time ago, back in the good 'ole days when basketball players used peach baskets, couldn't dunk and scored about as frequently as a Big Ten game, the best team in the world resided in Buffalo.

In the heart of the city's East Side -- situated near the intersection of Genesee and Davis streets -- a tattered, grayish building represents the origin of a Hall of Fame basketball squad, one of only five teams in history to ever earn that distinction.

They started as a bunch of pickup basketball players in 1895, but within a decade, they'd won two international championships. That was the beginning of the Reign of Terror. From 1908 to 1911, they'd win 111 games in a row, a streak that puts John Wooden and UCLA to shame.

They had a name for their dynasty, too, and it probably didn't take long for them to figure out what to call themselves. They played on the German side of town, and most of them were German, so they cut their losses and took the easy way out.

They named their team the Buffalo Germans.

And they were perhaps the first powerhouse basketball team this sport ever saw.

Of course, as is often the case with history, the lore of the Germans has long since faded in this city. It doesn't help that the team's former home is now basically unrecognizable. The Germans played their games at the "German YMCA", which looked like a state-of-the-art facility when it opened in that spot near Genesee and Davis. But the Germans folded in 1925, and now the plot of land is the proud home of the Ukrainian Cultural Center.

A lot has changed in 100 years. So thank goodness for Melissa Dunlap, one of the few people in Western New York willing to preserve the memories of the Buffalo Germans.

"They were such an impressive team," said Dunlap, the executive director of the Niagara County Historical Society. "But they played before the NBA was formed, so when you look at the history of basketball, it doesn't bring up the Buffalo Germans."

That's a shame, and especially so for Dunlap, whose husband was the grandson of team captain and manager Allie Heerdt. Their first coach was Fred Burkhardt, who established the team in 1895-- only four years after his mentor, James Naismith, invented the sport. The Germans were a YMCA team, but they often played -- and beat -- college teams on the East Coast, as well as other club teams. In 1901, they put the world on notice by capturing the Pan-American Exposition championship in Buffalo, even though a few of their key players had to miss part of the tournament to finish a Latin exam for school. Three years later, they marched to St. Louis, Mo., and won a tournament during that exposition and the World's Fair. Although their dominance spanned several decades, Dunlap estimates that only 27 players suited up for the Germans during the course of their existence, including Heerdt, Henry Faust and Ed Miller. They were the mainstays in the first decade of the franchise, according to the "Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States."  

Still not sold? Then consider when the team became enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1961, its biography described it as the "most-feared team in the country." In radio excerpts from the 1950s, Buffalo broadcasting legend Van Miller described the Germans as "probably the greatest team in basketball history." According to Miller, the Germans defeated Princeton, Yale and Dartmouth at one point, catching the eye of a powerhouse school named Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y. The Hobart players challenged the Buffalo boys to a game, assuming they'd put them in their place, and then they promptly lost 134-0.

"The game was a massacre," Miller said on the airwaves, recalling the record books.

They were so good that Chuck Taylor, one of the most iconic figures in basketball history and the face of the most popular shoe in American history, claimed he played for the Buffalo Germans. Except he didn't. Taylor actually played for a team in Indiana.

"But he wanted his name associated with the Germans," Dunlap said.

According to John Grasso's "Historical Dictionary of Basketball," the Buffalo Germans joined the American Basketball League (under the name "Buffalo Bisons") in 1925 but immediately became overmatched, losing 20 of their first 30 games before folding. They would later compete as the Buffalo Orioles as well -- once World War I began and anti-German sentiment began to spread, the name became a bit less politically correct -- but Dunlap said they were always known colloquially as the Germans.

And they always embodied the Buffalo spirit.

"There were other games where it got kind of heated, because they were really good. Other teams just thought they were this rural team from Buffalo, and they were just going to wipe the floor with them," Dunlap said. "And then they'd find out they weren't going to, so there was a lot of pushing and shoving."

"It's another one of the great things to be proud about in Buffalo."

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