by Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist

It had been about 35 years since I had seen a college basketball game at the Reilly Center on St. Bonaventure’s campus.

My bad.

I went back on Wednesday to see the Bonnies play Saint Joseph’s, and I saw what I was missing. There’s good basketball on display, played before enthusiastic fans in a gloriously noisy environment. The athletic department should come up with a slogan like “College basketball the way it ought to be.” It’s clearly the best atmosphere for the sport in Western New York.

The Reilly Center and I go way back. I know I attended a student journalism seminar at St. Bonaventure when I was a senior in high school in 1973, and – knowing my mindset then and now – I must have figured out a way to check out the place.

But the first game I ever covered there as a reporter is much fresher in my memory. Syracuse played Bona there in 1977, and the two teams were good-sized rivals at that point in history. Essie Hollis had the game of his life (37 points), raining jumpers on anything Orange as the Bonnies earned a big 91-84 win. Hollis’ number wasn’t retired by the school just for that performance … I think.

Hollis wasn’t the only memorable part of the night for me. In those days the media sat in bleachers just in front of the student section at center court. One row behind my seat was a rather overserved Bona supporter, who upon discovering I was from the Syracuse school newspaper, was more than happy to taunt me with each Hollis basket. Said fan departed the building at the half to either sleep or rehydrate, but he left a very personal gift on my seat before departing. I spent the second half jammed in a small space next to the announcers from the Syracuse school radio station.

My next visit was eventful in a much different way. I had seen Bruce Springsteen once before, but he visited the Reilly Center on the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour – which really was when a superstar was born. Bruce was still at it when midnight came along. His fans are used to that now, but it was overwhelming back then.

A TURNING POINT

The Reilly Center went past its 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, and the historical significance of the place should be noted. Anyone who has casually asked about the history of college basketball in Western New York knows all about the famous double-headers of the 1940s and 1950s involving Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure at Memorial Auditorium. Top teams would take the train to play in Madison Square Garden in New York in other to get some exposure in the nation’s largest city. They’d often stop in Buffalo going to or coming from the Garden for an extra paycheck along the way.

The Bonnies made the 75-mile trek up to the Aud to serve as the host of those games as well as to take on the other members of the “Little Three.” St. Bonaventure didn’t play Canisius or Niagara every weekend, although thanks to home-and-home scheduling it sometimes seemed that way. Bona played other home games at Olean’s Armory, which might have held 2,200 on a crowded night and reportedly was called “The Cheesebox.” Supposedly, fans in the first row there couldn’t stretch their legs because they might trip one of the players.

The Reilly Center changed all that. The Little Three teams still played home-and-home dates each season, but the Bonnies hosted Canisius and Niagara in Olean instead of Buffalo. By the 1980s, college basketball started the restructuring of its conferences. That eventually led the Bonnies becoming part of what became the Atlantic 10 while Canisius and Niagara joined the Metro Atlantic. Bona has been playing Canisius and Niagara once a year since then, and the rivalries aren’t quite as heated.

The “new” building, which seats about 5,500, has gone through a few changes over the years. None of them are major. The students still sit on the floor level, although they have moved down to one end and behind one of the baskets. The media seats are on the floor at that end as well, as someone wisely figured out that those center-court areas could be sold at premium rates to customers rather than to give them to journalistic freeloaders.

After watching Wednesday’s game, I can report that the still-loud students still don’t think a Bonnies’ player has ever committed a foul, and they are happy to point that out in phrases that must give the religious figures who lead the university some pause. Even so, their enthusiasm does wonders for the general atmosphere. UB, Canisius and Niagara would all love to have that sort of base of support.

Sitting at that end also meant I was probably about 10 feet from the baseline of the game. It’s a fascinating place to watch a contest, even if photographers block the view once in a great while. Division I basketball is quite a physical game at times, and it was very apparent when the players are so close. Even three officials can’t see or call everything, so the game is not for the faint of heart.

NON-STOP FLAPPING

The game itself was a good one, and it was watched by one of college basketball’s great traditions – the Saint Joseph’s Hawk. The mascot flaps a wing whenever it is in public view in a game, sometimes switching from the left side to the right side and back. The tradition started in 1956. The Hawk has been at every game, home and away, for the past 62 years.

The mascot saw a first half that saw neither team own more than a four-point lead. The Bonnies took control in the first six minutes of the second half, jumping ahead by a 52-40 count. But the Hawks used a 19-4 burst to lead with a little less than eight minutes left. It was easy to guess that the game would come down to the final seconds, and it did. St. Bonaventure held Saint Joseph’s without a field goal in the final four minutes, and a Jaylen Adams drive with 18 seconds left turned out to be the game-winning basket for the Bonnies. But the lead wasn’t safe until the Hawks’ three-point attempt fell short at the buzzer.

The season has been a little disappointing so far for the Bonnies, who have three seniors and two juniors in their lineup. Bona had lost four of five games – with all of the losses coming on the road – entering the contest. There’s still time for the Bonnies (13-6 after the game) to get going and be a contender for conference honors, which was generally expected considering that the standout Adams was leading an athletic, veteran team.

Interestingly, the two coaches both mentioned the fans in glowing terms after the game. It must have been a good night to be in the building.

“Much credit to the fans staying with their team,” said Saint Joseph’s Phil Martelli at the start of his postgame news conference, showing why he’s one of the most interesting personalities in the game. “In a lot of places, you lose four out of five and people run away, pretend like they don’t know you. Here, they were very engaged in the game. I salute them. I think it’s a wonderful thing.”

“This is a basketball school,” St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said. “The students have been terrific since I’ve been here. The Reilly Center is the Reilly Center for a reason. We play better at home. They are always behind us. They’re supportive and we appreciate it. When I first got here, we weren’t very good and they came out. … People spent a lot of money to get tickets and support. We owe it to them to play hard. There’s a sacrifice there. We understand that. When they leave their seats and go to the car, I want to know they got their money’s worth. There’s a passion here for St. Bonaventure basketball.”

For more from Budd Bailey, read his thoughts on why the Bills were lucky to get into the playoffs.

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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