William J. Roberts, a department store manager who played in one of the most historic college basketball games in Western New York history, died after a brief illness Sunday in the Hospice Center of Cheektowaga. He was 77.
Born into a South Buffalo family with 12 children, Mr. Roberts graduated from Seneca Vocational High School in 1951, where his basketball team won the city championship and he earned All-City honors.
Drafted into the Army at age 19, Mr. Roberts served for two years in Korea, where he was a pole lineman, was selected to be an instructor and never stopped playing basketball.
After leaving the service, Mr. Roberts returned to Buffalo to work at Republic Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Niagara Mohawk and as an ironworker.
At 23, while playing in various city basketball leagues, Mr. Roberts was recruited and offered a scholarship to Niagara University by legendary coach John J. "Taps" Gallagher. Mr. Roberts majored in English and was a teammate of the great Al Butler.
Mr. Roberts was the starting point guard of the "Massacre at Olean" basketball game played Feb. 21, 1961, at the Olean Armory.
The Purple Eagles entered as a huge underdog to the St. Bonaventure Brown Indians, who were ranked second in the country and had won a record 99 straight games at home. At game's end, Mr. Roberts and Niagara's players rejoiced after a 87-77 Niagara victory.
Mr. Roberts also worked in management for Sears & Roebuck for 28 years and BJ's Wholesale Club for eight years. He was an active member of St. Agatha's Catholic Church in South Buffalo and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church after he moved to West Seneca in 1983.
In an effort to help others, Mr. Roberts donated his body to the University at Buffalo's Anatomical Gift Center.
He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Joyce; five daughters, Maureen Connors, Theresa Purtill, Mary Ellen Oare, Kathleen Wilczek and Elizabeth Girolamo; and four sons, William Jr., Timothy, John and Thomas.
A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, 3148 Abbott Road, Orchard Park.