The irony never dawned on me until a TV cameraman poked his head inside the opening and spotted the giant scoreboard. "Wow, is this where the Bonnies play?" he wondered. "Yep," I said, "and you should have been here Wednesday. The crowd was just electric."
On March 1, the Bonnies tantalized their frenzied fans, nearly pulling off the upset of the college basketball season. They led sixth-ranked George Washington late in the game before reality finally slipped back in the arena.
Yes, sir, this is the Reilly Center, the building at Bonaventure most identified with the university, the place where legends like Bob Lanier laid waste to opponents and where teams still dread coming 40 years after it opened. We headed back down the hallway, toward the mass of humanity and baggage. Suddenly, it struck me.
Maybe the most exciting moments in school history took place on that arena floor, but perhaps the most important thing St. Bonaventure ever will do was staring me in the face. More than 280 members of the Bonaventure community -- more than 200 of them students -- had come to the Reilly Center this frigid day to sign up for spring break. In Biloxi and Bay St. Louis. In Long Beach, New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. And they didn't pack flip-flops and swimsuits. They packed work boots and hammers.
For better or worse, the majority of colleges and universities that play Division I basketball or football are most readily identified with sports. The danger is that some people define a school only by its athletic success.
I'm partially to blame. As a former sports writer, I recognize that the amount of space dedicated to games people play is probably inversely proportional to the amount it truly deserves. I also realize that news organizations don't produce tons of sports coverage just because they can, but because people want it and will pay for it.
I covered the Bonnies for four years, and could not have cared less if Bonaventure students did relief work in hurricane zones. Or helped the poor and elderly with their tax returns. Or fed the hungry of Olean. I should have cared. I'm ashamed that I didn't.
Perhaps being out of the news business for five years has softened my cynical edges. More likely, five years of working at St. Bonaventure has finally opened my eyes. The 2003 basketball scandal might have emotionally drained the campus community for a short time, but it never made folks here waver from their mission: to teach students how they can best serve the world with a perfect blend of intelligence and compassion. (The full-blown mission statement is a tad wordier, but that pretty much sums it up.)
What this remarkable trip revealed to me was a hidden truth about Bona students. They might have cell phones glued to their ears and might not own any pants without holes. But they also have hearts bigger than the Grinch's that Christmas Day, bursting with a passion to help others I didn't believe possible on such a grand scale -- more than 200 students on a campus of just over 2,000.
I don't know if they came here with hearts that big, or if their experiences here -- the people they met, the things they learned -- changed them in some way. I do know this: St. Bonaventure is a far better place because of those students who spent 25 hours on a bus to help people ravaged by disaster. When they flip their tassels on graduation day, the world will be a better place, too.