When St. Bonaventure, the second-best basketball team in the country, took the floor in its familiar—though hideous—Olean, N.Y. Armory last Saturday night, there was a deafening clamor from the breathing-room-only crowd of 2,200 students, their faculty of Franciscan friars and the local townspeople. They had all come to see the Bonnies extend basketball's longest home-game winning streak to a round 100 games. A hundred minutes later they sat in shocked silence as the same team walked off the floor, soundly beaten 87-77 by Niagara University in the most improbable upset of the season.
In winning, Niagara paid no attention to the partisan tumult and shouting, was unaffected by the crowd that sits exactly two inches from the playing area on one side of the court, and ignored the balcony which projects to the edge of the other side of the playing area. The visitors seemed to revel in the way the dim light reflected off the bilious-green walls. They behaved as if this architectural monstrosity in western New York state was their own home instead of St. Bonaventure's.
Even more important, Niagara's Purple Eagles broke through the unusual galloping-Gertie style of defense with which the Bonnies had won 21 games this year (they had lost only one, to Ohio State, before Saturday). It was enough to tax the equanimity of even a Franciscan, and the members of the order which founded St. Bonaventure University 103 years ago left the Olean Armory sorely taxed indeed. The friars take their basketball seriously.
The day before the game Rev. Brian G. Lhota, president of the university and a doctor of philosophy, explained: "I have a special place to stand at the armory. I do this because, frankly, I am too nervous to sit down. But I am not the worst. There are some who feel the excitement of a game is too much of a strain. They stay on campus and listen on the radio. One friar refuses to do even that. He leaves the radio off but dashes out of his room every five minutes to ask the score.
"You must understand that the Franciscans are a rather good-natured lot," he continued. "We like to say St. Francis put the smile into Christianity. We enjoy life." That obviously includes basketball.
In the neighboring library building, meanwhile, the school's slight and scholarly librarian, Rev. Irenaeus Herscher, was showing around the oldest Bible in America as casually as if it were a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, pointing out the two Rembrandts which hang in the reading room and volunteering some tidbits of Franciscan lore. Why, for instance, is a plain rope used to cinch up the middle of the ankle-length brown robes worn by the friars? "Because as a man grows, he becomes more outstanding," explained the friar. "The cord allows for expansion." Father Irenaeus does not attend the basketball games. He is one of the radio listeners.
While the friars were sedately fitful about the game (not a little because Niagara is an archrival run by another Catholic order), the 1,400 students at St. Bonaventure were more vigorously excited. At one end of the main cross-campus walk, a 30-foot maple had been transformed into a hanging tree, with the effigies of 13 Bonnie opponents swinging in the wind. "They aren't too difficult to make," said the sophomore in charge. "Stuff one dummy, and you've stuffed them all." The archway of the gymnasium was decorated with a sign reading "Purple Eagle Eaters," and across the main entrance to the campus was stretched a couplet on canvas: "100 wins on the armory slate, NCAA and Ohio State." On Friday night the student senate threw a pep rally, complete with 200 cases of beer. "We may be a small college," summed up one enthused student, "but we have a big winner."
St. Bonaventure is a big winner. Coached by Eddie Donovan, a smiling 38-year-old who doubles as athletic director, the team has been ranked second in the country for weeks and never worse than third. The Bonnies average 90 points a game, tops among major colleges, but it is their defense which is intriguing and the defense which would give them at least an outside chance of victory if they meet Ohio State in the coming NCAA championships.
The defense works around Whitey Martin and Orris Jirele, two guards who begin pressing an opposing ball handler as soon as he nears the center line. Martin is a 6-foot-2 sandy-haired senior with hands as quick as a nervous pickpocket. Unlike most players on defense, he keeps his hands low and tries always to have them near the ball. He gets more fun out of stealing a pass than making a basket. Jirele, 5 feet 11 inches, jiggles and jerks around the court like a mechanical toy. Somebody wound him up tight and threw the key away. Of Bohemian ancestry, he is a violinist at heart. When a nun from his home town of Austin, Minn. learned Jirele was playing basketball she wrote Coach Donovan and demanded to know how he could permit such talented hands to be used in a mere game. But then, she never saw Jirele and Martin jitterbugging around a confused opponent.
"Our defense is neither zone nor man-to-man," says Donovan. "We play the ball. That's what counts two points when it goes into the basket." The Bonaventure team obviously enjoys this bustling defense. It plays it with vigor and élan. When an opponent broke away from a Bonnie guard recently he called cheerfully up the court to his teammates, "Cut him off at the pass."
The offense is led by an All-America, Tom Stith, who gets 30 of Bona-venture's 90 points a game. He scores primarily through effortless fakes beneath the basket. He doesn't charge toward the basket, he just leans toward it and floats the ball up. "He makes it look so easy you think you could do it," says Donovan.
And, finally, the Bonnies harass their opponents by calling plays in "eeze," a sort of jet-age pig Latin. "We use it to set up plays right on the floor," says Martin. "Each player has a name: Wheeze (Martin), Teeze (Stith), Freeze (Fred Crawford), Ooze (Jirele) and Tiger (Bob Martin). I come downcourt and holler 'Leeze Teeze, Wheeze.' That means 'Let's try the weak side.' At a jump ball I might say 'Breeze Teeze to Freeze, Teeze.' That means, 'Back-tip the ball to Crawford, Tom.' It sounds silly, but it's valuable." It looked like a combination of talents sufficient to beat Niagara.
Not that Niagara is a weak team. It came to Olean with a 14-4 record and a reputation for rugged rebounding. But Bonaventure had won an earlier meeting at Niagara by 20 points and could expect to do better at home. In the 13 years since it last lost a home game (that one was to Niagara, too) the Bonnies had played many games against the likes of Villa Madonna, Belmont Abbey and Western Ontario at Olean. It would have won these if the game had been played in a bowl of custard. But Bonaventure also beat some other opponents at Olean which it couldn't have licked anywhere else. The coaches of top teams refused to risk their records in what they called Bonaventure's snake pit. The school issued orders that its students must be quiet during all foul shots, an edict remarkably well obeyed. But the armory remained no place to visit and a great place to live. Donovan himself estimated the home-court advantage at from seven to 10 points.
Ten errors and a smile
Thus what happened Saturday night is all the more remarkable. The cheering lasted for a full 60 seconds when Co-Captains Martin and Stith were introduced for their last game at home. But the local crowd found little else to cheer about. Bonaventure played as if it were tensely aware that 100 is a much nicer number than 99. Ten times in the first half it gave the ball away on errors. Outrebounded from the start, it was missing first shots and not getting second ones. Niagara curbed the defensive antics of Jirele and Martin by using quick passes and a big man in the center of the court to help bring up the ball. Niagara led 41-36 at half time and quickly moved out to 55-42. When St. Bonaventure put on its lone burst to tie at 61-61 Niagara's fine jump shot, Al Butler, poured through four long shots in three minutes to settle the game. Stith bobbed and rolled superbly around the basket for 33 points, but that fine offensive effort wasn't good enough.
The Niagara coach, Taps Gallagher, kissed his players, patted his balding head and was carried off the floor proclaiming he hadn't won a bigger game in 27 years of coaching. In the Bonaventure dressing room Ed Donovan didn't look like a man who had just been bit in his own snake pit. He said, "The first 100 are the hardest, and I didn't make it." He hinted that his team was tired, which it obviously was. He confessed that Stith had lost 15 pounds since the season started. Then he smiled a jolly Franciscan kind of smile and said St. Bonaventure will be ready when the NCAA begins. Had the cheering section of friars been there they could have added "Amen."