Top Five Professional Sports Underdog Towns: No. 1 Buffalo


This is the fifth and final submission in a series of articles about the greatest underdog venues in U.S. pro sports. The criteria is simple: small-market towns, communities that get no respect, that personify the under-rated, that constantly challenge the giants of the world, and/or that have suffered some terrible devastation but are rebuilding.

There is the oft-quoted excerpt from A Chorus Line: “ commit suicide in Buffalo would be redundant.”

If you’re from Buffalo you either love the line and quote it as Gospel, or you hate it and find yourself arguing against it explicitly and implicitly in every conversation you have with people who are not from Buffalo.

As I wrote in my B/R article, Why I’m a BFF (Bills Fan Forever), Being from Buffalo is like being Jewish. It’s not just a place to live or to have moved from, it is the experience of being not only in a place but of a place. It’s more theological and psychological than it is geographical. It’s a strange combination of identity, self-esteem (individual and collective) and culture that are all interwoven into the landscape, architecture, climate, and experience of the place.

If you belong to the professional social networking site, Linked In, you will notice a disproportionate number of groups for Buffalo expats (natives and long-time residents who currently live away from Buffalo). Their comments and discussions– about Buffalo sports, politics, events, and shared  history– resemble what one might expect to find in a chatroom of the Jewish diaspora.

There’s just something different, deeper, intrinsic and unshakable about being from Buffalo that I have not observed in people from other mid-sized or larger cities (with the exception perhaps, to a somewhat lesser degree, of people from other towns on our Top 5 List).

The late, great Tim Russert is a perfect example of a Buffalo expat. He’d been gone for most of his adult life. He’d lived in New York and Washington. He’d become one of the top two or three journalists of his generation. Yet, he owned an apartment in Buffalo, went back there most holidays, wrote a book about growing up there, and always ended his program “Meet the Press” with a cheer for the Bills or the Sabres when they were in season.

The continued fanatical following of the Buffalo Braves, an NBA franchise that lived in Buffalo for eight years and has been the Clippers for 31 years, is another example of what I’m talking about. Far from dying out, this obsession with Buffalo’s NBA team continues to grow. The most recent manifestation of that is the release of a new coffee table book, “Buffalo, Home of the Braves,” featured in my B/R article of the same name.

So what is this about?

Like Cleveland, but even more so, Buffalo as a city, a region, and a people, gets no respect, is constantly being stereotyped by weather, by blight, by various Rust-Belt images, and is often parodied as culturally primitive and crass. And…

It’s sports teams have, like Cleveland’s but even more so, lived lives of extended desperation, frustration, and (like Browns I) abduction.

The Cavaliers have nearly missed the NBA finals numerous times, and lost the final round once. The Bills have nearly missed the Superbowl several times and managed to lose it four consecutive times, two of those times as the favorite.

And that’s only half the story. The Sabres have made the Stanley Cup Finals twice in their history and each time lost gallantly played and heartbreaking series.

The Bills could have won their first superbowl except that Scott Norwood, who up to that point was the most reliable kicker in the NFL, went wide right on a chip shot. Now the term “Wide Right” is considered profanity in Buffalo.

The Sabres went six games against the Dallas Stars in their most recent Stanley Cup Finals and eventually lost game six near the end of the third overtime (thus having played a double-game, on a controversial non-call when the “winning goal” was made from “in the crease” (another localized profanity).

The rule was eliminated the following year, but at the time it should have been called and might have extended Buffalo’s life long enough to play (and win) a seventh game.

And that’s just sports.

Buffalo, unlike sister Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee to a lesser degree, and even Cleveland, has experienced all too little revitalization since its smoke belching factories were shut down.

Yes, there’s been some cosmetic improvement in the inner city. The ugly, smelly factories are mostly gone. Some new building has occured in their stead, and  downtown.

A charming cultural district has emerged. There are world class museums, especially the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, great restaurants, a world class orchestra (Buffalo Philharmonic, once directed by Michael Tilson Thomas and still going strong).

The University at Buffalo (flagship of the State University of New York system) remains a leading center of academic pursuit and scientific research.

A medical research center is emerging that when complete will rival the Cleveland Clinic (a little irony there?).

As a tourist destination Buffalo’s Metro Area includes the entire Niagara Region on both sides of the border. In fifteen minutes from downtown Buffalo you can be standing on the brink of the Horseshoe Falls absolutely mesmerized by one of the natural “Wonders of the World.” There are four and five star hotels, casinos, music and theatrical venues along with tourist traps, wax museums, and the rest.

Not only is Buffalo misunderstood and underappreciated for its current strengths, it is almost completely unknown for its golden era when it was a leading American city.

It’s position on the Erie Canal, Lake Erie, and its access to hydro-electricity (more on that later) made Buffalo a leading port and manufacturing hub as well as a financial and cultural center.

At the turn of the previous century Buffalo was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in the United States. The mansions in which these industrial giants and financiers lived are still well preserved on Delaware Avenue in a neighborhood called “Millionaires Row.”

Proximity to Niagara Falls and hydro electricity made Buffalo the first city in the world to be fully electrified. The Pan American Exposition (e.g. World’s Fair) was held in Buffalo to show off electricity.

One permanent building from the Expo remains as the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (History Museum). Across a reflecting lake in beautiful Delaware Park is the equally classic lines and columns of the Albright-Knox.  

A beautiful system of parks and traffic circles designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (architect of Manhattan’s Central Park) is still well maintained.

But does anyone outside of the Niagara Region know any of this? Of course not. They know snow, blight, chicken wings and underdog sports teams.

That’s why once from Buffalo, always from Buffalo. That’s why Buffalo and Buffalonians have an Avis Complex (from the old Avis commercial, we’re number two so we try harder). That’s why the souls of Buffalonians past and present will languish in a perpetual purgatory in this world and the next until the Bills or the Sabres win a World Championship.

Yes, as much as Buffalo has bragging rights beyond the sports world, there’s this sense in which the religion that is Buffalo-ness (compare to the religion of being Jewish and tied to the land of Israel) is centered on the sacramental exploits of its major league teams. In the Buffalo psyche nothing will be enough to vindicate, redeem, and liberate the city and its souls unless or until one of the teams is on top of the world.     

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