Emotions figure to run high at the Reilly Center Saturday when St. Bonaventure retires the No. 53 that was worn by Greg Sanders.
Sanders, Bona’s all-time leading scorer, will receive the honor during halftime of the Bonnies’ 4 p.m. game against the University at Buffalo. The game was close to a sellout Friday. The event will be part of a 40th anniversary celebration of Bona’s 1977 National Invitation Tournament championship team.
“It’s well deserved and long overdue,” said Jim Satalin, the coach of the ’77 team and Bona Hall-of-Famer. “He had some health problems and kind of got away from us. No one could quite find out where he was. The guy did an awful lot for St. Bonaventure.”
Sanders scored 2,238 points from 1974 to 1978. He will be the 11th Bona great to have his jersey retired.
The Bona community lost touch with Sanders the past two decades, and he suffered a stroke 11 years ago. A feature story about his whereabouts on the Bona fan site The Bona Blog by Vinny Pezzimenti helped him reconnect with university officials.
Sanders scored 40 points in the NIT title-game victory over Houston. He outdueled first-team All-America guard Otis Birdsong, who scored 38 points. Sanders’ 25-foot shot with 1:03 left gave Bona the lead for good, 88-87. The final was 94-91.
“He was a scorer,” Satalin said. “He was a good shooter, too. But he really could score. He could get to the foul line. He was a great free-throw shooter. He was a great offensive rebounder. He was fearless in terms of going up against big people and taking it to the basket. He had great confidence in his ability. All those things made him the scorer and the offensive player he was.”
Sanders played high school ball for the Washington, D.C., power St. Anthony’s. He was coached as a sophomore by Basketball Hall-of-Famer John Thompson before Thompson took over at Georgetown University.
Sanders recruited Bona more than the other way around.
“Greg had a guardian named Melvin Roberts who really was looking after him in the D.C. area,” Satalin said. “He sent information out to different schools at the end of his senior year. Obviously, recruiting was totally different then. We never even knew anything about him until after his senior year.”
Satalin and assistant Billy Kalbaugh scouted Sanders at a D.C. high school all-star game, then invited him to Bona a week later. Sanders signed on the spot.
Why didn’t Thompson recruit his former player? Satalin said Thompson wasn’t hurting for talent.
“When we played Georgetown, I’d say something to him before the game about Greg, but he had a bunch of other guys,” Satalin said. “At that point, Georgetown was getting every top player from the D.C. area. In retrospect, they probably looked back and said it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to get Greg.”
Sanders averaged 17.5 ppg as a freshman, 18.8 as a sophomore, 21.2 as a junior and 22.1 as a senior.
“He could put the ball on the floor and get to the basket a little bit, but that wasn’t really his strength,” Satalin said. “His strength was we ran a lot of stuff for him and he came behind screens, and he had that long push shot really more than a jump shot. And he was physical. He wasn’t 230, but he was stronger than he looked, so he could take some punishment around the basket.”
Sanders helped the Bonnies to an NCAA Tournament berth his senior year, 1977-78. He averaged 22 ppg even though had suffered a leg injury before the start of the season and wasn’t quite as explosive. He was picked in the eighth round of the NBA Draft by the New York Knicks but never played an NBA game.
All of the coaches and players from the NIT title team (except for Barry Atkinson) are returning to Bona for Saturday’s ceremony.
Sanders made 14 of 23 shots in the Houston game and added 12 rebounds and six assists. Jim Baron had the unenviable task of guarding Birdsong, who went on to a 12-year NBA career in which he scored 12,500 points. Birdsong hit 18 of 32 shots vs. the Bonnies.
"Otis Birdsong was a fabulous, fabulous scorer," Satalin said. "I wouldn’t say that Jimmy Baron didn’t do a bad job on him. I thought Jimmy Baron did a good job on him. They had big people, and they ran their whole offense through him. They screened every time, and I can’t tell you how many times Jimmy got hit by their 6-10 guys. But he fought through it all the way. Honestly, at the end Birdsong got tired in the last two or three minutes of that game. I think part of it was because Jimmy dogged him for 40 minutes. Part of it was because he had to carry that whole team."