Coming back to Bennett High School for its 75th anniversary celebration was bittersweet for Bob Lanier, Class of '66.
Of course, he acted the part of proud alumnus and Basketball Hall of Famer in front of the kids at Thursday's assembly kicking off the anniversary weekend.
In a booming voice, the greatest Bennett Tiger of them all preached the same gospel drummed into him when he was a teenager by his dad, Robert Lanier Sr., and his mentor at the Masten Avenue Boys Club, Lorrie Alexander.
The message, he told the youngsters, still resonates. One word sums it up -- PRIDE, an acronym for positive thinking, respect for oneself and others, making intelligent choices, dreaming the big dream and putting forth the effort to achieve it.
But in a private conversation before going onstage, Lanier was transported back to 1963, when he arrived at the Main Street high school as an insecure, awkward kid from one of Buffalo's poorest neighborhoods.
It was a time when the student body of what was considered the city's best public high school was whiter and more affluent than it is today. His height -- he was well on the way to 6 feet, 11 inches -- ragged clothing, well-worn size-19 shoes and shyness made him a target for taunts.
"When you're trying to figure out where you fit, kids can be very cruel," remembered Lanier, who recently turned 52.
Most humiliating of all, he was cut from the basketball team in his sophomore year -- told he was too clumsy for varsity competition. He watched from the sidelines as his friends, "my homeboys," took the court.
As these searing memories returned, tears fell.
"I don't mean to be emotional, but I haven't thought about any of this. I've kept it inside all these years," he said.
Of course, the story had a happy ending.
"I was down and out, but I turned the situation into a positive," he said. Under Alexander's tutelage, Lanier untangled those huge feet and whipped his game into shape. He led Bennett to the city championship in his junior and senior years.
"My self-esteem went up. I started feeling I was someone who could do things. By my senior year, I felt good about who Bob Lanier was."
He became an All-American at St. Bonaventure University and had a Hall of Fame career in the National Basketball Association with the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks.
A disciple of PRIDE, the once-poor kid from Buffalo found himself hobnobbing with presidents and entertainment celebrities.
Lanier now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., where as special assistant to NBA Commissioner David Stern he counsels first-year players on the profit and peril of stardom. He still sponsors the Bob Lanier Center for Education, Physical and Cultural Development on Hempstead Avenue.
"The education and support I received here helped prepare me for St. Bonaventure and the rest of my life's journey," he said.
His legend serves as a lesson for subsequent generations of students, said a faculty veteran, who called the Lanier story "the best thing that has happened to Bennett in all the years I've been here."
The anniversary celebration includes Saturday's football game against archrival Kensington High at All-High Stadium and a dinner Saturday night that is expected to draw 1,000 alumni to the Buffalo Convention Center.