Hello everybody and welcome to Western New York. We don't have a team in this year's NCAA Tournament. We rarely do. We don't have an NBA team. But once we did. Since Buffalo has a meager basketball presence on the national scene you might wonder what we're doing hosting the first round of The Dance. But those of you who appreciate hoops history will come to understand why we're worthy and then some.
Western New York never has been the hub of the college basketball solar system but in 1970 we were first planet from the sun. We've never won an NCAA title but we darned well would have if not for that agonizing incident in the 1970 East Regional final. Who knows? An NBA championship might have been ours to cherish if not for that foul call against Bob McAdoo in the 1973-74 Eastern Conference semis. Probably not, but indulge us while we fantasize.
Did you know it was a Buffalo school that helped put the initial Madness into March? The year was 1956 and the anticipation was that heavily favored North Carolina State would walk over Canisius in the first round of the NCAA East Regional. The game went into a first overtime, then a second. A third OT, then a fourth. The Golden Griffins from Buffalo persevered, 79-78, as the two teams set a record for longest NCAA Tournament game that's been once tied (1961) but never broken. Remember who won the title that year? The San Francisco Dons, led by Bill Russell.
We could take you on a walking tour of Western New York's basketball sites of note but that would constitute a traveling violation and we cherish our possessions. Instead, here are some stops on the Hoop Junkies Tour that you might choose to make while you're tooling around the region on the off days.
*Taps Gallagher Center, Niagara University: Located on Monteagle Ridge on the escarpment in Lewiston, this was 5-foot-9 NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy's home court when he thrilled the locals by averaging 33.1 points over his 77-game career with the Purple Eagles. And that was before the advent of the three-point line. Niagara's coach that year was the loquacious and ceaselessly quotable Frank Layden, who would later become the NBA's Coach of the Year with the Utah Jazz. Layden's most famous quip concerned a sluggish player: "I told him,'Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?' He said, 'Coach, I don't know and I don't care.' "
*Bennett High School, Main Street, Buffalo: The high school home of NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1970 NBA draft. The 6-foot-11 Lanier, he of the size 22 sneakers, surely would have led St. Bonaventure to the '70 NCAA title had not Villanova's Chris Ford stumbled into his knee in the waning minutes of the East Regional final, inflicting ligament damage that required season-ending surgery. Lanier recently told me that he and Ford, NBA teammates in Detroit, needed a couple of years to work up to speaking terms.
*Buffalo State College, Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo: Randy Smith was a sublime athlete, a three-sport All-American in soccer, basketball and track, and powered the Bengals to the 1970 College Division Final Four. Perhaps it was only because of Smith's local ties that the Buffalo Braves selected him in the seventh round of the 1970 NBA draft. He would go on to set an NBA record for consecutive games played (906) and came off the bench to seize the MVP Award in the 1978 All-Star Game.
*The Nichols School, Colvin Boulevard and Amherst Street, Buffalo: This is where Christian Laettner won state championships before taking his game to Duke, where he would become one of the singular players in the history of the college game. Has it really been 18 years since Laettner caught that 75-foot pass from Grant Hill and hit The Shot, that turnaround 17-footer as time expired in OT to beat Kentucky in the East Regional final? And do you remember that he was 10 for 10 from both the field and the line that day?
*Clark Gym, University at Buffalo South Campus: The stomping grounds of 6-9 Sam Pellom, who averaged a national-best 16.2 rebounds as a UB sophomore in 1975-76. He would go on to play parts of four seasons in the NBA, averaging a career-best 4.6 rebounds for the '80-81 Atlanta Hawks. UB now plays its games at Alumni Arena on the Amherst campus.
*Memorial Auditorium, Extinct, Main and Lower Terrace, Buffalo: Perhaps it's because the NBA's time here was short that we cling to the haunting memory of that 1974 Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Braves and the Celtics. Game Six. Tied. Bob McAdoo blocks a shot and then is called for a foul against JoJo White by Darrell Garretson with, the officials ruled despite objection, no time remaining. White makes two, the Celtics take the series and the Braves leave town after the 1977-78 season, right before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird breathe new life into the league.
The Aud also served as the showcase arena for the Little Three — Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure. Murphy scored an Aud record 48 there against the Golden Griffins in his Little Three debut in '68. In 1974, Larry Fogle of Canisius, the national scoring leader that season, threw down 55 against St. Peter's.
*Delaware Park Courts, Parkside Avenue: The city's legends showcased their abilities on these courts during the area's hoops heyday of the 1970s. This is where reputations were made and rims bent under the force of vicious dunks. Pull up a chair and you had yourself a day's worth of compelling entertainment. Bonus attraction: The courts are adjacent to the parking lot for the Buffalo Zoo.