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Bandits great Tavares will have banner night Friday

John Tavares has received all sorts of tributes and honors since he announced his retirement from indoor lacrosse last summer, and he’ll receive more in the future.

Friday night’s event, however, is the one that matters the most to him.

The Buffalo Bandits will retire Tavares’ familiar uniform No. 11 in a pregame ceremony leading up to their game with the Rochester Knighthawks (7:30 p.m., Radio 1520 AM). It’s a way to focus on the relationship that developed between Tavares, the team and the town over a 24-year playing career – and a chance to say “thank you” to the best player in the sport’s history.

“Not a lot of people get that done,” he said. “When the league adds people to the Hall of Fame, a lot of people can go in at once. But someone’s number doesn’t have to be retired to qualify. So this is special. And it’s my first year of not playing, so to do it that quickly makes it really extra-special.”

Tavares’ number will join those of Rich Kilgour and Darris Kilgour in the rafters of First Niagara Center. It’s something that few people get to consider might happen at some point, and even then the thought only pops up late in a career.

“I never played the game in hopes of getting my number retired,” Tavares said. “Having Richie’s number up there, and Darris’ number up there, and now mine, it’s a nice way to commemorate my career. To have it up there and know that no one will ever wear it, it’s definitely a special feeling.”

When you spend 24 years playing a sport at its highest level, particularly a game with such a tightly knit community as lacrosse, you touch a lot of lives. Tavares has been noticed for many years by teammates and opponents alike.

For example, Rich Kilgour got his first look at Tavares when Kilgour was a junior lacrosse player at St. Catharines.

“We played against Mississauga, John’s team,” Kilgour said. “We had a 17-16 game or so, and John probably had 14 points. You take notice of that, you remember the name.”

A year later in October 1991, Kilgour heard the name again. He was told the Bandits had just acquired Tavares from the Detroit Turbos in a trade that no one apparently bothered to announce to the media at the time.

“I said, ‘I remember that name. That guy is good,’ ” he said. “Did I think he was going to be a 24-year veteran and all that? No, but I knew he was a good player and I looked forward to playing with him.”

No one in Buffalo knew much about indoor lacrosse entering that first season. No one knew any of the Bandits players, and no one had any idea how good the team was in relation to the rest of the league. But Kilgour figured out pretty quickly that Tavares would be an important part of the team.

“Nothing really jumped out about him, except that he scored in every drill that we ever did,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe he’s doing that to me.’ He was a lefty, so I went up against him in practice a lot. Johnny wasn’t the biggest or fastest guy, and didn’t have the hardest shot. All he did was score, and not in a selfish way. He was always alone in front of the net, and finishing. He was incredible.”

Tavares was second in scoring on that initial 1992 team; he led the Bandits in scoring for 15 of the next 16 years. He’s remembered for scoring the overtime goal that won the championship game in Philadelphia in 1992, which started a run of three titles in five years.

“We had a ton of good players, but Johnny was the best of all the good players,” Kilgour said. “We knew it. He might have known it, but he never, ever acted like it. We knew we had something special. If we did our jobs, he would find a way to get a goal in the end. He’d always put up his eight points.”

Tavares quickly joined Paul and Gary Gait on top of the league’s scoring race. From 1992 through 2004, one (or two, including ties) of those three players won every single scoring title. The durable Tavares, who missed a total of four games in his first 18 years, won six of them.

“I got to face them a lot,” said Steve Dietrich, the current Bandits’ general manager who played goal for Rochester from 1995 to 2001. “When Paul and Gary came in, they either shot stickside by my hip or top corner left. They’d say, ‘If you want to take this away, I’ll score there.’ Very rarely would any of them switch hands; even the kids today are trying to switch hands. But the three greatest lacrosse players in history never switched hands. They did what they were good at.

“Paul and Gary were so much bigger than everyone else. John used his brain. He was quick, and I think the game slowed down for him.”

Practically everyone that has played with or against Tavares noticed just how smart a player he was.

“He is the Wayne Gretzky of lacrosse,” said goalie Anthony Cosmo, who broke in to pro indoor lacrosse in 2001 and became Tavares’ teammate in 2012. “You always had to account for how smart he was. That’s how people talk about John. His IQ was far superior to what everyone else had.”

“He’s not a math teacher for no reason,” said veteran Bandit Billy Dee Smith, who broke in as a rookie in 2003 when Tavares was 34. “He’s the smartest player. That’s what kept him going for so many years. My rookie year, he was a year older than I am now (33). I think about the way my body feels now, and he played 12 more years after that. It takes brains to keep it going and figuring out ways to stay relevant.”

Others note Tavares’ modesty and down-to-earth manner.

“Young guys come in thinking, ‘That’s John Tavares!’ And two seconds later, they’ll be talking to him just like anybody else,” Smith said.

“He was always so respectful,” Dietrich said. “He’d get five or six goals, and there was never a word out of his mouth. If he had six goals or none, you couldn’t tell by his demeanor on the floor. He was always on an even keel, whether the team was up 10 or down 10.”

Yet there was one side of Tavares that only a handful of people ever got to see.

“He’s a hilarious little prankster,” Smith said. “He tried to get me a few times, but in our younger days, me and Mark Steenhuis were so crazy, he didn’t mess with us. But he’s a fun-loving guy.”

One member of the Bandits’ organization still remembers a road trip to Toronto some years ago. Goalie Ken Montour had the game of his life, but the team in front of him was terrible and Buffalo lost to the Rock by a goal. Then-coach Darris Kilgour went into the locker room and read the riot act to the team for three minutes, left the room, and returned to deliver 45 more seconds of stern commentary before exiting again.

The locker room was deathly quiet. Then Tavares said in a loud voice, “Yeah, Kenny, if you had just stopped two more shots we would have won this game.” Everyone burst out laughing, as the tension almost magically dissolved.

By the time Tavares was in his 40s, he was still dangerous on the floor. The forward was tied for the league lead in goals in 2009 at the age of 40, and led the Bandits in scoring at the age of 42 and 43.

“Lacrosse has changed since he started,” Cosmo said. “It accounts for how great a player he was and how intelligent a player he was. He started in the early ’90s, when it was run-and-gun, and was at the top. In the 2000s, when things became more organized, he figured out a way to overcome that. Then when he got into his later 30s and early 40s, he found another way to change his game. Again, he succeeded at the highest level. He’s done it all, at every level, every age-group, every century. It proves to me what a great player he actually was.”

After a while, Tavares had run out of contemporaries. The other original Bandit, Rich Kilgour, finally stopped trying to keep up with him.

“We played a lot, 18 years with the Bandits and also in the summer,” he said. “When I was winding down and my hip was going bad,” I told him, ‘I was hoping to get you on longevity, but that’s not going to happen either.’ He just laughed. To see what he did for that long – I had a front-row seat for the greatest career in the history of lacrosse.”

That career finally ended when some nagging physical issues caught up with him. Tavares announced last August that he was moving into a new role as the Bandits’ assistant coach.

Friday night will be a chance for everyone to look back on what Tavares accomplished. Yes, he holds most of the league’s major scoring records, and won three MVP awards and four championships. But more importantly, he was a big reason why the franchise became a viable part of the Western New York sports community for the past 25 years.

“Friday night will be the first time that I really will realize that he’s not still playing with us,” Smith said. “He’s still been here. It’s not like he retired and left. I don’t think I got to miss him on the field in a sense; I showed up at training camp and there he was. It will be a special moment Friday night. I hope everyone can realize what he’s done for the sport of lacrosse.”

“His accolades and accomplishments are through the roof, but that was never at the forefront with him,” Cosmo said. “That was never about who he was. He was team first. People might see him as someone who was serious about the game, but players in our dressing room know how much of a character he is and how much he loves being around the boys.”

“When I see his number go up on Friday night, it will be something really sweet,” Kilgour said. “He deserves it. There aren’t many guys who played that long, that hard, and be the best that ever was. To me, he’s the greatest.”