• Sal Maiorana

When Bob Lanier got hurt, St. Bona's national title hopes died

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (March 19, 1970) - What if?

Those two words have haunted St. Bonaventure University for 50 years, and given the likelihood that the Bonnies will never win college basketball’s national championship, they will eternally haunt the tiny Franciscan school in Olean that once dared to dream of hoop heaven.

In Western New York sporting parlance, “What if?” is the basketball equivalent to football’s “Wide right” and hockey’s “No goal.” Dastardly two-word phrases that boil the blood of the region’s championship-starved fans.

What if All-American center Bob Lanier hadn’t torn up his knee in the 1970 NCAA East Regional Final against Villanova, a game the Bonnies won, 97-74, to advance to the Final Four?

What if Lanier - the best college player in the land that year, the first pick of the 1970 NBA Draft a few months later by the Detroit Pistons, a man who would ultimately earn induction into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame - had been able to play when upstart St. Bona met Jacksonville in the national semifinals?

Would the Bonnies have won that game, and would they have then beaten John Wooden’s perennial powerhouse UCLA team in the national championship game at Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland?

Without reservation, Billy Kalbaugh, the co-captain of that St. Bona team along with Lanier, said, “We’d have won. At the time he went down we were playing as well as anybody. On any given night we could have beaten anybody, and that includes UCLA.”

To which then-St. Bona coach Larry Weise agreed. “I have no question we would have won.”

Perhaps they would have. Remember, while that UCLA team was superb, it was a team in transition. Lew Alcindor had graduated, and Bill Walton would not begin playing until the following year. With unheralded Steve Patterson at center, the Bruins lost twice during the regular season, and when the tournament started, they were ranked No. 2 behind Kentucky.

Three starters - Henry Bibby, Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks - went on to decent NBA careers, but Weise will forever be convinced that his gutsy team, with its big-man superstar, would have handled UCLA.

“Bob was unstoppable,” Weise said. “If they’d have doubled up on him, the rest of our team was balanced and could score and he was good at getting the ball out to them if they were open. My guards (Kalbaugh and Paul Hoffman) wouldn’t have been outplayed. Plus, going in, I think we would have had the energy level to carry us.”

But we’ll never know because fate cruelly conspired against the Bonnies during the madness of a March five decades ago. When Villanova’s Chris Ford - who would go on to join Lanier in the NBA - accidentally crashed into big Bob’s right knee, time ran out on this once-in-a-lifetime team, their golden moment ripped just like Lanier’s medial collateral ligament.

It was such a shame. And for the Bonnies of that era, the Bonnies of every era since, and the Bonnies of eras to come, the question will always reverberate throughout the Allegheny mountains that surround the campus: What if?

Although his two-year career at Buffalo’s Bennett High School was largely unspectacular, it was hard for college scouts to ignore Lanier’s 6-foot-10 body, so he did attract attention from various schools around the country. However, he made up his mind that he wanted to remain in Western New York so his parents could watch him play, and he ultimately chose St. Bonaventure over Canisius.

Weise - who had replaced legendary Eddie Donovan as the Bonnies’ coach five years earlier when Donovan left to become coach of the NBA’s New York Knicks - knew Lanier was special the first time he saw him play. “Three things stood out in my mind,” he recalled. “First, of course, was the size and the way he moved so well. Second, the great touch around the basket, the good hands. Finally, the fact that he passed off a lot which indicated to me that he was a team-type player.”

Waiting for Lanier to complete his freshman year of school so he could become eligible for the varsity was certainly the longest 12 months of Weise’s life. But the wait was worth it.

In Lanier’s sophomore year, the Bonnies won their first 23 games before losing to Dean Smith and North Carolina in the NCAA tournament, then losing a meaningless tournament consolation game to Columbia. The next year, Weise was informed by the NCAA just before the start of practice in October that the school was being hit with a minor recruiting violation, rendering it ineligible for post-season play. With nothing but pride to play for, the Bonnies still went 17-7, swept all four games against their Little Three rivals Niagara and Canisius, and set their sights on the big prize in 1969-70.

When the Bonnies convened for their first practice in October 1969, they were greeted by a chalkboard message that read: “College Park, Md.” That was the site of the Final Four, and that’s where the bar was set. Nothing less would do for this team.

“We had been through so much for the two years before that,” Lanier said. “We knew what we wanted to accomplish, but more important, we understood what we had to do to get there and we were willing to do that.”

Lanier was the hub, surrounded by Kalbaugh and Hoffman at guard and Greg Gary and sophomore newcomer Matt Gantt at forward. On the bench there was Mike Kull, Dale Tepas, Gene Fahey, Vic Thomas and Tom Baldwin. This was a solid team, regardless of one pre-season magazine’s assertion that “The Bonnies are very, very ordinary.”

St. Bona won its first 12 games before stumbling at Villanova, 64-62, and then it trailed rival Niagara and Calvin Murphy by 11 in the second half at home in its next outing before rallying for an 89-81 victory that righted the ship.

From there the Bonnies closed the regular season with nine wins, the closest of which was a 10-point defeat of Long Island, and then came NCAA tournament victories over Davidson (85-72) and North Carolina State (80-68) that vaulted them into the East Regional final against their lone conqueror, those pesky Wildcats of Villanova, at Carolina Coliseum in Columbia, S.C.

The day began so well. St. Bona, eager for revenge, pounced on the Wildcats early and led 46-30 at halftime. The rout continued into the second half and with 10 minutes left, the score had ballooned to 71-51. And then disaster struck.

Ford missed a shot from the lane, and when he went to follow it he tripped over someone’s ankle and bowled into the side of Lanier’s right knee, sending him sprawling to the floor in pain and St. Bona’s championship hopes circling down the drain.

After a couple minutes Lanier rose, hobbled around a bit, and he looked as if he might be OK. In fact, he convinced Weise to put him back into the game after a brief rest. But 34 seconds into that shift Lanier could play no longer, the pain too great, and he knew it was over.

“It sure doesn’t feel like a win,” Kull was heard to say amidst the silence in the St. Bona locker room. Another player murmured “We paid an awful price.”

“This is a tough break for Bob and the team," said Weise, "but we’re going to Maryland with a positive attitude. We’ve just got to work harder, everyone, including myself. We can’t get down. We won’t.”

And they didn’t. The Bonnies came out firing against Jacksonville. They raced to a 13-3 lead and a crowd of 14,380, clearly rooting for them, was electric. But then the officials started blowing a symphony with their whistles, and the Dolphins began a relentless parade to the foul line while Bona starters Gary and Gantt went to the bench.

For the final nine minutes of the first half the Bonnies had a lineup on the floor that averaged barely six feet in height, while Jacksonville’s front line averaged seven feet. Not surprisingly the Dolphins took a 42-34 lead into the break, and when they stretched it to 47-35 early in the second half, things looked bleak for the Bonnies.

Gantt fouled out with 10:45 to go, yet the Bonnies kept fighting and with 2:06 to go they were within 79-75 when Hoffman stole the ball and converted a layup. However, on the same play Hoffman was called for charging and while his basket counted, the Dolphins were awarded two free throws, and they made both. That was as close as it would get, and Jacksonville pulled away at the end for a 91-83 victory.

The Bonnies actually made seven more field goals, but in committing 32 personal fouls - which also cost them the services of Gary, Baldwin and Kull - they were outscored 37-15 at the line, and Weise was irate.

“I think (the officiating) was terrible for a tournament like this,” he said. “There was a lot of terrible calls. There’s no excuse for it. Our kids played their hearts out, I’m very proud of them. We out-hustled (Jacksonville). Maybe they’ve played better on other nights, I don’t know, but they made a lot of things happen because of their size.”

Gilmore, a future ABA and NBA star, led the Dolphins with 29 points and 21 rebounds, but Burrows scored only five points. When Jacksonville coach Joe Williams said “We still would have beaten them with Lanier in the lineup” the reporters he was talking with had to bite their lips to keep from laughing.

So, what if?

“There’s no doubt in my mind we would have won if we had Bob in the lineup,” Weise said. “We would have won if Matt Gantt and Bubba Gary hadn’t gotten into foul trouble. How you can foul out four men playing a zone?”

“The officiating stunk,” added Kalbaugh. “The refs read that we weren’t supposed to win and the refs made sure we didn’t. We wanted to win so much for Bob. We knew missing this was hurting him so much. I know he feels as badly as we do. But we can walk with our heads up.”

Today is the 50th anniversary of the ultimate heartbreak and the pain still lingers, the hearts have not mended, the tears have not dried. Time has not healed this wound.

“What we had was unique,” Lanier said. “We shared so much together. We had no egos. A little clip on the side (of his knee) ruined a beautiful dream.”

#StBonaventure #1970NCAATournament #1970FinalFour #BobLanier #LarryWeise