And now, out of nowhere, here come the Brown Indians of St. Bonaventure riding forth from the southern tier of western New York to plunder and defeat the Duquesnes, the Xaviers, the DePauls and all of the other paladins of Catholic basketball in America.
The Brown Indians' home is in the town of Allegany, which is nestled in the foothills of the mountains of similar name, 10 miles above the Pennsylvania state line and, on some maps, just to the left of Olean, where everybody thinks the Brown Indians' home is. The identity problem is due, mostly, to the Olean Armory, an aging stone fortress that used to accommodate all St. Bonaventure home games on a floor of planks and in an atmosphere of fury. Such specialties of the house did not exactly make for bonhomie with the visiting teams, and St. Bonaventure once won 99 straight there before the building was taken over by Company C, 127th Armored Company. This came about when the school at last built its own 5,600-seat, all-purpose University Center on campus, in Allegany.
The memory of the old armory has been revived, however, and this year, wherever the Bonnies play, they carry their heads in the clouds and the winning spirit of Olean like a cudgel. In the University Center and every other arena in which they have appeared so far, the team is undefeated, untied and practically unmoved by it all.
In the arenas where they have not played, the Bonnies remain dangerously underrated. They still are often written off as a team that, like another Bonnie (and Clyde), must manage with strictly a five-man gang. After their 17th straight victory Saturday, an easy 70-56 win over Providence, it was obvious that the five Bonnies create sufficient devastation by themselves to be accorded gold stars.
In the Bonaventure backcourt are the slender upstate Irishmen, red-haired Jim Satalin from Syracuse and blond Billy (The Kid) Kalbaugh from Troy. The forwards are 6'5" John Hayes of nearby Niagara Falls and 6'3" Bill Butler, the outlander from Washington. And then, at center, stands 6'11" sophomore Bob Lanier—Buffalo Bob Lanier, Bob (The Boat) Lanier—a virtual man-child in the promised land, down from the big city 70 miles away, with his 265 pounds and his size 19 sneakers, to give the Bonnies strength and life and lead them against all the world, Catholic and otherwise. Remember these five because, unless the sky falls or the river runs dry, it is likely that St. Bonaventure will finish the regular season at 22-0, surprise the NCAA Eastern Regional Tournament and go on from there to walk with giants.
For a school with 1,800 undergraduates to manage such a record would normally be considered phenomenal, but St. Bonaventure has been down this road before. In the 1960-61 season Tom Stith and Fred Crawford led the Sonnies to a magnificent 24-4 record. That included a two-point loss in Madison Square Garden to the fine Ohio State team of Lucas-Havlicek-Siegfried, et al., and an NCAA Tournament loss to Wake Forest in Charlotte, N.C. in a game still remembered for its odd officiating and for a Wake Forest fast break started by the coach from his bench.
Since the Stith years, however, St. Bonaventure has been up, down and around with little flair or fanfare, and Olean, a sleepy town of small industry and old faces, has had to content itself with reminiscence and dreams. It was only this year that St. Bonaventure again began to win basketball games with regularity and that stuffed dummies, signifying the team's beaten opponents, again appeared on the 30-foot maple tree in the middle of the campus.
"We wanted to get the hanging tree going once more," says Lou Ciullo, the organizer of a campus booster group, the Brown Berets. "They started it in '61 about midseason, but then nobody cared after that year. We all figured this team would be good. Maybe not this good, but good. And we wanted to get up some spirit."
Ciullo and the Berets carry the act one step farther this time. They encase a dummy in a real coffin before each home game, then proceed to the tree for hanging ceremonies that are well attended by students and the brown-robed friars.
The team's success has not hurt the ecumenical spirit either. The week following St. Bonaventure's biggest win, a 66-62 decision over Villanova in the Palestra, the Reverend Richard Duncan, rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, was inspired to advertise in his schedule of services, "Keep going. Brown Indians," right in there below "10:00 a.m.—Holy Communion."
The current enthusiasm notwithstanding, it must be recorded that the basketball-wise community of Olean was, surprisingly, unprepared for Bona's record this year.
Lanier had performed well on the freshman team, but he was slow and plodding and, many times when unchallenged, could not bring himself to perform up to his capabilities. Then, over the summer, he lost 20 pounds and gained so much speed and agility that rival coaches have been comparing him with Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes. Though he lacks their experience and still is not as quick, Lanier is probably stronger than either of his rivals. He has an exceptionally soft touch around the basket and is not unwilling to wander the baseline or go 12 feet out for his left-handed bank shots. On defense, he is equally skilled. Although he is averaging 28 points and 16 rebounds and has been up among the national leaders in shooting percentage, his willingness to feed may be his biggest asset.
With Butler and Bonaventure's own Hayes to go with Lanier, the team has tremendous inside scoring strength. Butler, also left-handed and a fine jumper, and Hayes, whose hands are of astounding, bread-loaf size, are at their best in one-on-one moves with their backs to the basket. The Bonnies strive to isolate these men in close on offense.
Defensively, to protect his starting five, Coach Larry Weise favors a 1-2-2 zone at all times. With Lanier guarding the basket, the smaller Bonnies—especially Kalbaugh at the point—are able to gamble and take healthy risks at the perimeter. A team well fortified with outside shooters could conceivably hurt St. Bonaventure. Still, with the zone, the Bonnies held Niagara's Calvin Murphy, one of the best shooters anywhere, to four baskets until the final two minutes of a 101-72 victory.
"We can be beaten," says Weise, who carries the pressures of his winning streak with no visible tension. "I mean, this isn't any infallible team. We've had a few games that could have gone either way. But anybody who says we're just Lanier and nothing else better look again."
To take the Bonnies as a one-man operation would indeed be folly. In the game that all of them consider their key victory, a road contest at Toledo, Lanier fouled out with 1:27 left in regulation time. St. Bonaventure was down by six points with 45 seconds to go but came on to tie with a basket by Satalin at the buzzer and to win with Butler and Satalin leading the charge in overtime. Against Auburn in the Tampa Invitational, Lanier and Butler both fouled out with more than three minutes left, but St. Bonaventure held on to win again.
"They could go all the way to the NCAA semifinals," says DePaul's Ray Meyer, whose team was beaten by the Bonnies 77-67. "Lanier is obviously a superplayer, but Butler roams around inside, looking for shots, and he may be even more dangerous. The whole team is so unselfish. If you go tight underneath, they just throw it out to the guards, and they kill you."
Similar recognition from other teams is just now beginning to greet the Bonnies, whose dispositions were evidently strained by early-season disdain of their capabilities. "At the start I looked at the schedule and didn't see anybody we should really lose to," says Satalin. "But then nobody rated us. Now everyone says, 'Who's St. Bonaventure? Whom have they played?' It starts to get to you. We're all anticipating a bid from the NCAA. Then, if we mess it up, it's our own fault. But I don't think we will."
For now the Irish guards in backcourt and the smooth left-handers up front and the "other" Hayes can all take comfort for their future in the very name of the school they represent. Old Bonaventure certainly didn't take a name meaning "good things to come" for nothing. He made saint with it himself.
Slipping in close, graceful giant Bob Lanier flips up a soft hook shot against Providence.
Before the game Brown Berets carry a coffin with Providence dummy. Hanging comes later.