On the surface, at least, everything might look like business as usual at little St. Bonaventure University, way up there in the cold, snowy Allegheny foothills. The basketball team, the Bonnies, still warms up to the soulful sounds of Ramsey Lewis' Wade in the Water, and that giant Indian statue still glowers at everybody from the doorway of the campus beer hall, the Rathskeller. But then along comes Buffalo Bob Lanier in his king-sized sneakers, looking for a neat $1 million or so to play pro ball, and all of a sudden the Bonnies are landing hard on the toes of basketball teams all over the East. Not only were they unbeaten after their 10th game last weekend and ranked No. 4 nationally, their potential seemed almost limitless, mostly because of Lanier. Nobody in America, and that includes a lot of the pro teams, has a more talented or intimidating center than this fun-loving, friendly man-child whose most memorable dimension is neither his height (6'11") nor his weight (265 pounds) but his feet.
"They're really size 19," says Lanier, "but sometimes I tell people they're size 30, just to get them off my back. Some of them believe me."
The Bonnies took their act on the road to play Kent State University last Saturday night, and nobody could remember when so many people in Kent, Ohio had wanted to see a basketball game. Those who got in thought it was some great show, even though the home team lost to Bonaventure 94-65 after a game try. The final statistics showed Lanier with 15 of 26 shots from the floor, 42 points and 13 rebounds. Nobody kept track of his blocked shots, but they were sufficient to reduce the Kent offense to one hopelessly long jump shot after another. As a team the Bonnies shot 57.5%, and that was some club out there, right?
"Naw, we were terrible." groused Lanier afterward in the dressing room. "I mean, I don't care what they say, we just can't get up for a Kent State, especially with final exams coming up next week. We were lackadaisical. All we did was score enough to keep ahead."
January 19, 1970
Lanier was so bad that he even came in for a friendly tongue-lashing from Guard Billy Kalbaugh, his roommate and best friend for the last four years. Kalbaugh, at 5'10" and maybe 150 pounds right out of the shower, could probably fit nicely into one of Lanier's shoes.
"That's the worst game I've seen you play in three years," said Kalbaugh. "I've never seen anybody block your shot, much less that guy out there. I almost kicked you in the butt."
The Bonnies work around Lanier, of course, but this is not to say that their fidgety young coach, Larry Weise, has put together a one-man team. There is, for instance, Paul Hoffman, a sophomore who wears glasses and looks studious just to fool people. He would hit you with a blackjack, if necessary, to get a basket.
And there is another sophomore, 6'5" Matt Gantt, a good enough leaper that he sometimes jumps center in place of Lanier. He is surpassed in moves and quickness only by his buddy at the other forward, 6'3" junior Bubba Gary, a whippet with fast hands and a faster mouth.
Then, of course, there is Kalbaugh, who puts it together. He sets up the offense, runs the fast break, likes to fire an occasional one-hander from outside and will pass a few between his legs or behind his back if he isn't watched carefully. Mainly, though, his job is to get the ball to Lanier.
"I've never seen two kids whose talents complement each other like those two," says Weise. "Billy is a great passer and he looks for Bob all the time."
"I've made him," says Kalbaugh, smiling, "and he won't split his money with me. How's that for gratitude?"
Within the larger drama of St. Bonaventure's quest for a perfect season and an NCAA tournament bid is a smaller drama between Lanier and the warring pro leagues. After the Bonnies came home from their impressive sweep through the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden, Lanier got so many phone calls that he finally asked the St. Bonaventure switchboard not to give out the extension number in his dormitory, Devereux Hall. Most of the calls were either from people connected with the pros—scouts or agents—or from people wanting to ask about the pros. Which league did Lanier prefer, and how much money did he think he would get?
"We thought it was funny at first," said Kalbaugh. "We would wake up laughing every morning because there were always about 15 phone calls waiting for Bob. But then it got on our nerves."
Unless they can agree on some sort of merger or common draft before this college season ends, the NBA and ABA will go foolish head against foolish head after the top college players, and the bidding in Lanier's case—he is this year's only classic center prospect in the mold of a Chamberlain, Alcindor, Russell, Thurmond or Reed—could be the most insane of all. The deal most often mentioned is a round $1 million, but Lanier still does not believe he will get that much, which makes Kalbaugh laugh.
"Bob's got no conception of money," said Kalbaugh. "Why, the other day he found an old pair of pants in our room, ones that he hadn't worn for months, and he pulled $81 out of the pocket."
"I really haven't thought that much about it," says Lanier, adding: "When the time comes, I'll get me a lawyer."
If Lanier had his druthers, he would like to sign with his boyhood heroes, the Boston Celtics, who have sorely needed a big man ever since Russell retired last year. For that to happen, however, the Celtics would have to finish last in the NBA's Eastern Division, then win a coin flip against the West cellar-dweller to decide the No. 1 pick. More likely, the last-place teams will be Detroit and Seattle, and Lanier—if he is picked No. 1 or No. 2, as everyone thinks he will be—may not feel as hot about either of them as he does about the ABA team that probably will have his negotiating rights, the New York Nets. The Nets have some strong selling points: instant stardom, proximity to Lanier's home (Buffalo), a new fieldhouse, a bright new coach in Lou Carnesecca of St. John's and the lucrative benefits available in New York.
At lunch one day last week at The Castle, their favorite eating place near the Bonaventure campus, Lanier and Kalbaugh mulled over the options, as they often do. "I would like to stay in the East," said Lanier, "although I would like to see the West, too."
"We had a good time in New York during the tournament," said Kalbaugh.
"Yeah, it would be nice playing in New York," said Lanier. "That's pretty close to home, too."
"Where are the Celtics now?"
"Oh, man, that's been bothering me." said Lanier. "I see where the Celtics have slipped out of last place. Man, I hope Seattle doesn't need a big man."
As intriguing as this sort of speculation is, Lanier says his main concern these days is doing his best by the Bonnies. The school's record over his career is a marvelous 50-9, but the age of Lanier has been only bittersweet. Two years ago, when Buffalo Bob was an All-America sophomore, the Bonnies went 22-0 during the regular season and all the fans in Olean and Allegany were even more excited than they had been during the school's 99-game home-court winning streak earlier in the decade. But when they went up against North Carolina in the NCAA East Regional, the Bonnies were thrashed 91-72, a defeat of such demoralizing proportions that they were bombed again by Columbia in the consolation game.
"That team was slow, oh, man, were we slow," says Kalbaugh. "It's amazing that nobody found out until the end of the season how slow we were. But I said then that we would be back."
Not during Lanier's junior year, though. Right before the start of the season, the NCAA charged Coach Weise with a minor recruiting violation and barred the team from tournaments for one year. Early on, the Bonnies were playing so purposelessly that they once lost four straight, and there was criticism, mostly about how fat and lazy Lanier looked. "I must admit, that made me mad." said Lanier. The Bonnies won 11 of their last 13 games.
Even with Lanier a lot trimmer and smarter after a summer at camp with his pal Willis Reed, the Bonnies were grossly overlooked before this season—but that lasted only until they met Duquesne at home in early December. With Lanier getting 29 points, Bonaventure almost ran the Dukes into the Allegheny River.
That was their most impressive game until the final of New York's Holiday Festival, when they unlit Rick's Rocket and pounded Purdue 91-75. While Mount was struggling for 19 points, Lanier hit 18 of 22 shots from the floor and scored 50 points.
Afterward, the old Celtic, Frank Ramsey, interviewed Lanier for TV.
"Are you going all the way?"
"Damn right," said Lanier.
Folks at home knew for sure the Bonnies were bittersweet no more.