The Buffalo News polled sports staffers as to the top 10 male and female athletes from Western New York. Here’s No. 2 among men:
Name: Bob Lanier.
High school: Bennett.
College: St. Bonaventure.
Career overview: One of only two Buffalo athletes enshrined in a major sports Hall of Fame as an individual. An eight-time NBA All-Star. Patrick Kane in hockey is the only other Buffalo native selected first in a sports rookie draft. … Lanier played 959 regular-season games over 14 seasons in the NBA after he was picked first in one of the most talented drafts in league history. Pete Maravich, Dave Cowens, Tiny Archibald, Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy were some of the other players selected in 1970. Lanier averaged 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds for his career with the Detroit Pistons (1970-1980) and Milwaukee Bucks (1980-1984). When he left the Pistons he was the franchise record holder with 15,488 points and 8,063 rebounds. He added another 3,760 points and 1,635 rebounds in four seasons with Milwaukee. Through it all, the 6-foot-11, 265-pound pivot man labored on a bad knee, the result of perhaps the most famous injury in Western New York sports history.
The injury: Lanier’s college career ended when Chris Ford of Villanova went crashing into Lanier’s right knee in an NCAA regional championship game in Columbia, S.C. The Bonnies were well on their way to a 97-74 victory over the Wildcats at the time and perhaps Lanier should have been on the bench, looking ahead to a possible matchup with UCLA in the Final Four. Ironically, Lanier and Ford ended up as teammates with the Pistons in the NBA. Lanier underwent knee surgery and was in the hospital recovering from the reconstructive surgery when Detroit made him the No. 1 pick in the draft.
King of the Bonnies: There have been many great basketball players in St. Bonaventure basketball history, but Lanier towers over them all. His career scoring avenge (27.6) and field goal percentage (57.6) are the best in Bona history. He also has the two highest-scoring individual games in school history, 51 against Seton Hall in February of 1969 and 50 against Purdue in the championship game of the 1969 Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. He stands fourth on the career scoring list with 2,067 points, but the three above him played four varsity seasons. Freshmen were ineligible for varsity play when Lanier was a first-year student at Bona. During his three varsity seasons, the Bonnies were 65-12. Two of the losses came without Lanier, in the 1970 NCAA Final Four games against Jacksonville and New Mexico State at Cole Field House in College Park, Md. His sophomore season, the Bonnies were 23-0 in the regular season before losing to North Carolina in the NCAA regionals and falling to Columbia in a consolation game. A 64-62 loss on the road to Villanova was the only blemish on the record his senior season before the two losses in the Final Four. Bonnies teams now play on the Bob Lanier Court at the Reilly Center and no Bona player has worn Lanier’s uniform No. 31 since his career ended.
At Bennett: The Tigers won two Yale Cup playoff championships, one regular-season title and shared another with Hutch-Tech in Lanier’s two varsity seasons. A 44-43 loss to Emerson on two last-second free throws by Paul Tolbert was the only game Bennett and Lanier lost in the 1964-65 and 1965-66 seasons.
Success after basketball: Lanier was more than a giant man who could stuff a basketball. He was a leader and entrepreneur. He was so well respected by NBA peers that he was elected president of the players union and participated in key negotiations between the players and the NBA in the early 1980s that resulted in agreements that paved the way for the future enrichment of the league and the players. He also was an interim head coach of the Golden State Warriors in 1994 after Don Nelson stepped down. After his playing career ended, Lanier’s biggest contribution to the NBA came in administrative capacities, first as chairman of the league’s Stay in School program and later as special assistant to Commissioner David Stern.
The pitfalls: Lanier overcame disappointment during his career. First he was cut from the Bennett High junior varsity team his sophomore year. He was an awkward 6-foot-8 at age 15. Instead of giving up, Lanier spent hours developing his agility and his patented soft, left-handed shots at the Masten Boys Club and came back to high school ball with a vengeance, making All-High the next year. Nearby Canisius College would have been his first choice for college, but he was turned down for admission and ended up at St. Bonaventure.
Having his chances for an NCAA championship ruined by injury was another disappointment. So was the loss of his father, Bob Sr., in a tragic accident in 1980 in Detroit. Finally, Lanier never got to play in an NBA championship series, let alone win one. Playing under eight head coaches in Detroit was part of the problem. Playing in an era of outstanding centers such Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton and Wes Unseld, who all won NBA championship, was another.
“I accomplished most of the individual goals I ever dreamed of in this game,” he told the Milwaukee Sentinel after he retired as a player. “But the ultimate record is to be crowned champions. And, if you don’t know what that feeling is, I think it leaves a void.”
Update: Lanier makes his home in Phoenix, where he still operates Bob Lanier Enterprises, a company he founded in 1985 in Milwaukee. It’s an advertising/promotions business that markets special items for sales promotions and employee incentives. He started the business with a $50,000 stake and expanded to a multimillion-dollar operation. Married twice, he has four children by each marriage. One daughter, Khalia, 17, recently competed for the U.S. National Team in the U18 World Volleyball Championships in Lima, Peru, and has committed to the University of Southern California and is the 2015 Gatorade National Player of the Year at the high school level.