Reggie Witherspoon loves to tell a story about growing up in Buffalo in the late 1960s and early '70s and being like many kids who dreaded going to church. His parents had a means of sparking his enthusiasm, telling him Calvin Murphy could be attending Sunday services that day.
"They got me every time," Witherspoon said with a laugh Sunday morning. "I would be like, 'All right, let's go! If he might be there, we should get going right now. He's scoring 35 points a game. He's making prayers all the time, so I've got to see this.' It was exciting."
Witherspoon just wanted a glimpse of Murphy, a legend in college basketball while playing for Niagara. Of course, there also was Bob Lanier at St. Bonaventure. He led Bona to the Final Four in 1970 before tearing a ligament in his knee against Villanove in the NCAA East Regional final in Columbia, S.C. Forty-eight years later, it remains a dark moment in our sports history.
Long before Lanier and Murphy had terrific NBA careers and were inducted into the Hall of Fame, they carried the Little Three. Both were major figures in a local hoops culture that meant as much to Buffalo sports as the Bills and Sabres did. Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure had great teams back in the day.
But for all their success, the three schools never had records at the same time that would match what they've done so far this season. The three teams were a combined 52-25 after winning Saturday. Bona improved to 18-6, Canisius was 17-9 and Niagara moved to 17-10. Who needs the glory days when today works just fine?
And to think the best team in the area could be UB, which was 18-7 overall after losing Saturday in overtime to Northern Illinois. The Bulls are running away with the East Division in the Mid-American Conference. Buffalo is tied with Toledo, which it beat earlier in the season, for the best record in the conference at 10-2.
Every team in the Big 4 already is assured of finishing over .500 this season, a first since UB ascended to Division I in 1991-92. Twenty wins for each of the four teams also is well within reach. The last time Canisius, Niagara and Bona finished seven games over .500 in the same year? Try 1949-50.
"Not in my lifetime," said Witherspoon, the 56-year-old coach at Canisius and a leading authority on the history of college basketball in Buffalo.
Granted, the local teams aren’t playing national heavyweights as they did 50 years ago. Marist isn't going to be confused with Michigan State, after all, but we're watching history unfold with the resurgence of local college basketball. It beats the daylights out of seeing the Sabres go through the motions.
Western New York wants to believe it has the best sports fans in the country based on their passion and undying loyalty to the Bills and Sabres. All that means to me is that they're great Bills and Sabres fans. Too many in town are so obsessed with professional sports that they refuse to make room for anything else.
The attitude falls into line with Buffalo's deep desire for relevance, as pro sports is their only connection to the big time. Fans with their small-time thinking continue blowing their money on the hockey team downtown when they could be watching good teams win consistently for a fraction of the price.
They're missing many a good show, and not just in Big 4 men's basketball. Daemen is 17-7 at the Division II level. Villa Maria is ranked second in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, which has 81 members of mostly small private schools. If you really want to watch a great team, check out UB women. They're 19-4.
Finally, more fans are getting with the program.
Witherspoon noticed a difference in excitement at Canisius. Attendance has been strong at UB all year. The Bulls drew 6,670 fans to Alumni Arena, their biggest crowd in 13 seasons, for a 92-86 win over Western Michigan in their last home game. Bona sold out the Reilly Center on Saturday. Fans are back on board at Niagara.
"Oh, I definitely feel it," Witherspoon said. "They're coming more, and they’re talking about it more. It's part of the fabric now. There have been times we were doing well, and fans just didn't know. When the rest of the country starts paying attention, it's like, 'Whoa, there's something happening here.' "
St. Bonaventure knocked off Maryland and gained more exposure when taking down Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The Bonnies have won six straight conference games for the first time since 1982-83. Last week, guard Jaylen Adams became the third player in school history with back-to-back 40-point games. He was electric.
Niagara has the second-highest scoring backcourt in the nation in Kahlil Dukes and Matt Scott, who have combined to average 40.9 points per game. Adams and Matt Mobley together are averaging 38.2 points per game at Bonaventure. Buffalo has four players averaging in double figures on a team that scores 83 points a night.
Canisius was picked for ninth in the preseason poll but was in second place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, one spot ahead of Niagara. Canisius has won eight of nine games. Niagara had a five-game losing streak in January and had won five of its past six games, including three straight.
UB was ranked 33rd in Ratings Percentage Index while St. Bonaventure was 46th in the country. Both have a very good chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Canisius or Niagara would earn a berth by winning the conference tourney. If enough falls into place, three teams in the Big 4 will be invited to the Big Dance.
Imagine, Western New York being on the national radar for winning basketball teams, not losing football and hockey teams. It would be just like the good old days.
"It would be really interesting to see how the city would swell with enthusiasm," Witherspoon said. "I remember when Murph and Lanier were playing, and it was so much fun. Those guys were getting the attention of everybody in Western New York. I'm happy for the little kids, having been one."