Deep runs in the NCAA Tournament are the measuring stick of the elite. For the blue bloods with the most talent and tradition, success is calculated in Final Four appearances. But the reality in college basketball is that the majority of the 351 Division I schools are not power conference members and are therefore judged by a different standard.
For these programs, the lesser-in-stature, three-letter tournaments – first the NIT, and now also the CBI and CIT – hold a great deal of meaning, as any postseason berth is an achievement.
At St. Bonaventure, the Bob Lanier-propelled journey to the 1970 Final Four may forever be the biggest feather in the tiny Franciscan university’s athletic cap. However, Bona’s 1977 National Invitation Tournament championship is no less pale in comparison.
In the 38 long years since the Brown Indians – they didn’t become the Bonnies until 1992 – cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden, St. Bonaventure has been more tortoise than hare, more Buster Douglas than Mike Tyson. That NIT title (and NCAA Tournament berth the next winter) marked the end of the most successful era for a program that has become the living, breathing definition of a mid-major.
Which is why Bona’s One Shining Moment in ’77 is as feted in Fort Lauderdale and Washington, D.C. as it is in Western New York.
Essie Hollis’s answering machine in his South Florida home instructs callers in both English and Spanish to leave a message. Bona’s leading scorer and rebounder that season became fluent in the latter, courtesy of a lengthy pro career in Spain, and he now teaches the language to elementary students in Broward County.
As a teenager in Erie, Pa., the 6-6 swingman once scored 51 points in a state playoff game and spurned scholarship offers from John Wooden and Bobby Knight to attend St. Bonaventure.
“I was the oldest of 10 children in my family,” Hollis told Today’s U during an exclusive interview. “And even though I helped raise my siblings, I was still a mama’s boy who wanted to stay close to home. It was a great move because I ended up making one of the best friendships of my life.”
That friendship was with a Brooklyn-bred point guard whom Bonnies fans would get to know even better after his playing days ended. Hollis and his roommate Jimmy Baron were inseparable, and as senior co-captains in 1976-77, their chemistry was contagious on the court.
“Essie and I hit it off right away,” said Baron. “He met me in front of our dorm when we were freshmen and carried my bags inside. It was the start of a lifelong friendship. With me being white and him being black, it was like Brian’s Song all over again. You don’t see those types of relationships anymore.”
The cerebral nature of Baron’s game foretold the career he would have as a head coach at his alma mater and at St. Francis (Pa.), Rhode Island, and now Canisius. Back then, he orchestrated an offense that shot 52 percent from the floor and nourished the one-two scoring punch of Hollis and junior Greg Sanders, who combined to score 43 points per game that year. (Sanders, a D.C. product, played scholastically under future Georgetown coach John Thompson.)
In the first round, Bona met Rutgers, a Final Four team the year before, at Princeton, supposedly a neutral site. Senior guard Glenn Hagan’s buzzer-beater in overtime sent the Indians to the Garden, where the tourney’s next three rounds were contested.
St. Bonaventure then dispatched of Oregon and Villanova to advance to the final, where Houston and its All-American sniper, Otis Birdsong, awaited. Each Bona victory further roused an already galvanized fan base that kept descending in droves upon the Big Apple.
On the other side of the bracket, the Cougars had won their first three games by a combined eight points, having survived a 44-point bomb that an Indiana State sophomore named Bird had detonated on them in the opener.
“I was the only guy on our team from New York City,” said Baron. “For a kid from the projects, it was a dream come true to play at the Garden, knowing that Marv Albert and Bucky Waters were calling the game.”
Birdsong, who averaged 30.3 points per outing, quickly proved why he was the second pick in the NBA draft three months later. He pumped in 36 of his team-high 38 points midway through the second half, but the Cougars ran out of gas and squandered their double-digit lead. Bona prevailed, 94-91, and the headline the next day in the New York Daily News read, “Birdsong Tires … Houston Expires.”
“I know this sounds strange,” said Bona coach Jim Satalin, “but Jimmy dogged Otis the whole time. He made him earn every one of his points, and I think Otis was worn out by the end.”
It helped Bona that Sanders was also in an Empire State of Mind, as he packaged 40 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 40 seconds left, with 12 boards. Hollis added 24 points.
When the Indians flew back to Buffalo, police escorted their bus back to campus, where a few thousand fans cheered their arrival.
“It was about 4 a.m. by the time we finally got to sleep that night,” said Baron. “But we were in class the next morning.”
In the end, the 16-team field had produced some memorable moments. Ten of the tournament’s 15 games were decided by four points or less. And three first-round games had one-point margins, including Oral Roberts’ loss to Oregon in which Anthony Roberts scored a record 65 in defeat.
“It’s been hard for St. Bonaventure to replicate the kind of success that the ’77 team had,” said Satalin. “Every coach who’s been there since has done a good job, especially Mark Schmidt, but college basketball has changed so much.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, we were getting the black kids that the Southern schools weren’t taking. Then, the Big East formed [in 1979], and the teams that were left out scrambled to figure things out. St. Bonaventure was fortunate to find a home in the Eastern 8 [now the Atlantic 10], but Syracuse started to win every recruiting battle in Rochester and Buffalo.”
Indeed, title hardware remains in short supply for Bona, and so the NIT crown it captured during the Carter administration still resonates in Olean and beyond.
“That championship was special,” Hollis said. “When I got to the [Detroit] Pistons, Bob Lanier was one of my teammates, and I asked him how many he ever won at St. Bonaventure.
“The answer, of course, was none.”