The Milwaukee Bucks can win the NBA championship tonight at home against the Phoenix Suns. The last time the Bucks won the title, 50 years ago, their coach was Niagara University’s Larry Costello.
We told you about him in this space last week. But there is more to tell, and it comes to mind now because of Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. He mysteriously left the court twice in this NBA Finals, leaving reporters to wonder if he were nursing some sort of secret injury.
Antetokounmpo, the Athens-born 7-footer known as “The Greek Freak,” disappeared briefly in Game Three, and then again in Game Four. One reporter asked him about this at a news conference: “This is the second game in a row you’ve gone out in the first quarter. I’m just curious what was going on there.”
Antetokounmpo offered an explanation notable for its simplicity and affability.
“I went to do, uh, how do you guys say politely? I went to take a tinkle. A tinkle? Yeah. I went to take a tinkle and came back.”
Laughter washed the room. Hey, we’ve all been there.
Comedian Anthony Anderson, in his monologue before Game 5 on “Jimmy Kimmel Live: NBA Finals Game Night,” put it this way: “The Greek Freak took a leak.”
Here is the thing, though. Costello would have known just what to do so that Antetokounmpo didn’t miss a moment.
The tactic came into play in one of Niagara’s most astonishing games. Ed Fleming played every blessed second of what was then the longest game in NCAA basketball history. Here is how it happened.
John J. “Taps” Gallagher was a genius coach. He led Niagara men’s basketball for 31 seasons and had a winning record in 26 of them. His teams went to the National Invitation Tournament seven times in an era when that was a big deal. And he was known for his improvisational skills, often coming up with quick strategies on the fly.
His teams in the mid-1950s sported three future NBA coaches: Costello, of course, plus Hubie Brown and Frank Layden. They all played in Niagara’s six-overtime thriller against Siena on Feb. 21, 1953. Costello led all scorers with 21 points in Niagara’s 88-81 win. Fleming, who came next with 18 points, would wind up as Niagara’s all-time scoring leader at the time of his graduation. Even now he is No. 9.
The Purple Eagles would finish the 1952-53 season 22-6 and be ranked as high as No. 17 in the Associated Press poll. They went 4-0 against Little Three rivals Canisius and St. Bonaventure and 1-0 against Syracuse. They beat Brigham Young in the NIT, then lost 79-74 to eventual champ Seton Hall, which finished No. 2 in the final AP rankings, behind only the NCAA tournament champ, Indiana.
But more memorable than all of that is the Siena game, at the Albany Armory, an old barn of a building with an unusual setup. The locker rooms (and therefore the teams’ men’s rooms) were two floors below the court. And therein lies the tale.
Siena was up by two points in the fifth overtime. Fleming had played every minute but now had to take leave in order to relieve. Legend has it that he explained his predicament this way: “Coach, I can’t go another second. My kidneys are about to explode.”
Gallagher felt he simply could not be without Fleming, his best scoring threat, so Gallagher pleaded with officials for an extended timeout. No, they said; nothing in the rules allowed for a bathroom break – even when said bathroom is two floors away.
This called for quick thinking. Gallagher ordered assistant coach Harry Condara to sneak over to the Siena bench and swipe the waste basket there. Condara dumped the Dixie cups and brought the empty basket back to the Niagara bench. Then Gallagher asked his players to form a tight circle around Fleming, shielding their distressed teammate from view.
What happened next? Suffice to say that Fleming missed not one second of game time. His full 70 minutes were more than any player had ever logged in a college basketball game. And thereafter, he always wore No. 70. Today, if you look in the rafters at the Gallagher Center – the campus arena named for Taps – there is Ed Fleming’s name hanging with the other Niagara greats.
His 70 is among the program’s retired numbers – easy to do in his case, because uniform numbers in college hoops can no longer include 6s, 7s, 8s, or 9s. So maybe Fleming’s number is not so much retired as, um, relieved.
Anderson, the comedian, riffed on Antetokounmpo on the pregame show the other night: “How does the biggest guy on the court have the smallest bladder? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were in the crowd. Now those dudes are over 70 years old – and they didn’t even take a tinkle until halftime.”
Abdul-Jabbar was known as Lew Alcindor 50 years ago, when he was the star center on the Bucks’ only NBA champions. They were coached by Costello, who in turn was coached by Gallagher, who always knew just what to do when no one else did.