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Remembering Bob Lanier: His trademark soft touch made him an all-time great

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Bob Lanier, the Buffalo and St. Bonaventure basketball legend, has died at age 73.

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I was at the refrigerator getting a can of pop. The game was such a blowout there was no need to be glued to the television anymore. I had a friend, Bobby Pesant, over to watch. He was in the living room and let out a terrorized shriek.

Bob Lanier had crashed to the court with a knee injury.

Like me, every big basketball fan age 60 and over probably can remember exactly where they were and who they were with when the greatest basketball player Western New York ever produced went down late in St. Bonaventure’s victory over Villanova on March 14, 1970.

I feel a little guilty leading off a remembrance of Lanier with his injury. He accomplished so much at Bona, in the NBA and after his playing career ended it seems out of perspective.

Yet, that’s the first thing I recalled upon learning of his death at age 73. The reason his injury is one of the most iconic moments in Western New York sports history is precisely because Lanier was so great. Just about everyone in Buffalo who was paying attention in 1970 is convinced Bona would have beaten UCLA for the NCAA title.

As it is, Lanier led the Bonnies to the Final Four, which never happened before in Little 3 history and likely never will happen again for any Big 4 team. He was an eight-time NBA All-Star. At the time of his retirement in 1984, he was 11th in NBA history in scoring and 16th in rebounding. He was one of only four players in history at the time with 19,000 points, 9,000 rebounds and 3,000 assists, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. Here's the list of players who averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 blocks and shot 50% in 500-plus games: Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Lanier.

His trademark – the biggest thing that put him in the Basketball Hall of Fame and set him apart from every other great center of his generation – was his soft touch.

Bob Lanier, St. Bonaventure and NBA legend, dies at 73

“He could shoot the 18-, 20-footer as well as any guard,” said Detroit Pistons great and fellow Basketball Hall of Famer Dave Bing. “He had the hook shot, and nobody but Kareem had a hook shot like him. He could do anything he wanted to do.”

“He was unstoppable with his back to the basket,” Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood said when Lanier was inducted to the hall. “Not many guys could stop him from getting his shot off. His hook was as unstoppable and as dangerous as Jabbar’s.”

That’s a little bit of hyperbole, because Abdul-Jabbar was 7-foot-2, 3 inches taller than Lanier, and had the greatest hook shot ever. But Lanier’s was right behind his. The way the ball rolled off Lanier’s huge hands and fingertips was a thing of beauty.

Basketball is so different today, spread out in the open court. In the 1970s, everything ran through the big man getting the ball in the low post almost every possession. It’s hard to draw a current comparison with Lanier. Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers comes to mind. Embiid is more dominant this year than Lanier ever was, and Embiid is 20 to 30 pounds heavier and more powerful than Big Bob. Lanier is like a slightly smaller Embiid but with a better shooting touch.

Lanier’s touch would have made him great in any era. He had a better bank shot, with the hook or on mid-range shots, than any big man today. He definitely could have hit a couple of 3-pointers a game, although no big man took those shots back in the day. Lanier could handle the ball and drive to the basket. He was a superb passer out of the low or high post, as his assist totals prove.

It was a treat watching Lanier come back to Memorial Auditorium to play the Buffalo Braves. His father, Bob Sr., would stroll onto floor level just before tipoff wearing a long, fancy coat and looking like the proudest dad in town, which he probably was.

It’s a shame Lanier didn’t play on a championship team. A few of his Pistons teams were good, but they kept running up against powerhouse teams. Before the era of unrestricted free agency – which really didn’t hit the NBA until the late 1980s – the power teams were hard to knock off. Lanier’s 1973-74 Pistons went 52-30 (better than any team in Braves history), but they were in a division with Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks. Lanier and Detroit lost in the first round of the playoffs that year on the last play of a Game 7 against a good Chicago team. Late in his career, Lanier helped the Bucks get to the Eastern Conference final, but they lost to Julius Erving and the 76ers, who went on to win the title.

Because of that lack of team success, Lanier was left off the NBA’s 75-year all-time team. It was an injustice. I think Lanier was better than Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, Jerry Lucas and Nate Thurmond. Those first three have titles and were on all-time great teams. Lanier had better production than all of them.

Would Lanier have led the Bonnies over UCLA in the 1970 NCAA final? I’m not as certain as a lot of Bona alumni. Lanier would have been the best player on the court. But UCLA was better than Bona at the other four positions and, let’s be honest, at head coach. We’ll never know. We all can agree on this: Lanier was the greatest basketball player Western New York ever produced and we’ll never see another quite like him.

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Bills/NFL writer

Gaughan's insight is featured in the "PlayAction" video series, providing analysis to get Bills fans ready for the next game. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 12 years.

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