Bob Lanier remembers his senior season at St. Bonaventure University, in which he led a team to college basketball’s Final Four, as a special one because he never reached championship heights again.
Lanier, who just finished his first year of retirement after 14 hard, but fruitful years in the National Basketball Assn., remembers that 1970 season particularly clearly.
“I think I appreciate it even more than my (college) teammates,” he said, “because I had a basis for comparison. It wasn’t the money, or who got the ‘numbers’ like in the NBA.”
“We weren’t any big stars,” he continued. “It was a couple of guys from Buffalo and a guy from Troy all blending together.”
Just about everyone connected with that team now say that, had Lanier not suffered a knee injury, the Bonnies would have taken the title.
But Lanier still is held in high regard by his professional peers.
“He will go down in basketball history as a great, great player,” said former NBA forward Paul Silas, the man who preceded Lanier as NBA Players Assn. president. “But there will always be that asterisk next to his name--he didn’t win a championship.”
The honors for Lanier came early in his native Buffalo. Winner of the city’s novice table tennis championship as a child, he went on to star at Bennett High before enrolling at St. Bonaventure, the small school here that honored its most famous athlete this week with a testimonial dinner.
The first pick in the NBA draft in 1970, Lanier went on to play nine years with the Detroit Pistons and five more with the Milwaukee Bucks, who then recognized his achievements by retiring his number.
During those years, the 6-foot-11, 265-pound center went up against some of the league’s greatest names--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bill Walton, Dave Cowens--and left the league with a 20.1 scoring average, 10.1 rebounding average, and eight All-Star game appearances, including his Most Valuable Player performance in the 1974 game.
But he wears no championship ring even though his size 22 shoes are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“My lingering dream was an NBA championship and I thought we had a real good shot at it in Milwaukee,” said Lanier, who now runs a Wisconsin promotional properties company. “But I got to the point that I needed to get to--that I could walk away from it. It’s been a difficult year even knowing that that’s what you want to do--that you’ve got to walk away from it.”
The Bucks with Lanier advanced to the NBA Eastern Conference final twice, but the closest Lanier ever got to a championship was in his senior year at St. Bonaventure, when the Bonnies became the smallest school to play in the NCAA’s Final Four.
The exploits of that 1970 team are justifiably legendary at this rural campus tucked into the hills of southwest New York. They went 22-1 in the regular season and then captured the East Regional championship behind a group of role players and Coach Larry Weise’s intelligent game plan: Get the ball to Lanier.
The victory over Villanova that propelled them into the Final Four, however, cost the Bonnies Lanier.
Lanier collided with the Wildcats’ Chris Ford, necessitating the first of eight knee operations that eventually made pain and Lanier constant companions.
“Bob probably wasn’t as good a total player as he could have been because of the knee injury,” said former New York Knick great and former Creighton Coach Willis Reed, who still acknowledged, “He probably was one of the best all-around big men ever to play the game of baskeball.”