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UCLA win gives St. Bonaventure redemption 48 years later

DAYTON , Ohio — The bus was taking Mark Schmidt from the UD Arena to the airport, where a 2 a.m. charter awaited his St. Bonaventure basketball team. This was maybe two hours after the Bonnies had beaten UCLA, 65-58, in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four, and now they had to figure a way to be in Dallas by morning.

“I’ve never in my life looked more forward to a 2 o’clock in the morning flight,” said Schmidt, who has coached the Bonnies for 11 years. “But then I don’t think or any of the guys even need the plane. We’ll float there.”

There will be other upsets beginning Thursday, when the NCAA Tournament’s main draw of 64 begins in earnest. There will undoubtedly be one or two 12-seeds that knock off 5s. Hell, the Bonnies themselves, an 11-seed, are already the darlings of some brackets for their 9:50 p.m. game with Florida, a No. 6 seed.

But it will be hard to believe that another outcome will be half as meaningful to a segment of fans as this game was. For in 2018, the Bonnies are the very definition of a mid-major, trying to get noticed by the Selection Committee, needing to settle for scraps. Most of the Bonnies’ metrics insisted they shouldn’t have been anywhere near the play-in game.

Yet when the pairing was announced, there was something almost poetic about who they would be playing: The Bruins and their 49 NCAA appearances (and 11 titles). And for those with a sense of where the Bonnies’ program used to be, it was a chance at redemption 48 years in the making.

In 1970, the Bonnies were still a powerhouse, led by future Hall of Famer Bob Lanier. They won 22 of their 23 regular-season games, then blitzed Davidson, North Carolina State and Villanova in the regionals. But it was late in that 97-79 rout of Villanova that Bob Lanier’s knee collided with future teammate Chris Ford’s. He tore a ligament. He’d miss the Final Four. His teammates would lose to New Mexico State and never get the crack at UCLA they’d been dreaming of for months.

A few years ago, I was interviewing John Wooden for something else and couldn’t help myself: For generations of residents of Olean, N.Y., and generations of students at the tiny 2,000-enrollment school, this has been a torturous “What-if?” So I asked Wooden what the Bonnies would have done against his ’69-’70 Bruins, who were between Alcindor and Walton at the time.

“If we played 10 times, I think they’d have beaten us twice,” Wooden said. “But you never know when those two times would be, right?”

Those words echoed in Bill Kalbaugh’s memory late Tuesday night as he watched the game at his home in North Carolina. In 1970, Kalbaugh was the Bonnies’ do-everything point guard, Lanier’s running mate, roommate and best friend, the other cornerstone of that team that never got the title shot it craved.

St. Bonaventure and NBA legend Bob Lanier, getting hugged by LeBron James after winning an award from the NBA for his charitable works, never got a chance to face John Wooden’s UCLA team in the championship because he injured his knee before the Final Four.NBAE/Getty Images

“I know what Coach Wooden said about that,” Kalbaugh said with a laugh. “But I also know this: I’ve played that game a thousand times in my mind. And we win it every time.”

Kalbaugh admitted that seeing those two uniforms on the court — Bona in its road brown, UCLA in its traditional white, blue and gold — made him smile as he was watching the game, and as it was being played he simply enjoyed the game itself.

But then the game ended.

And the score — St. Bonaventure 65, UCLA 58 — was frozen on the screen.

“And I couldn’t help myself,” Kalbaugh said. “I said to myself, ‘Gosh I would’ve liked to have played that game 48 years ago.”

Schmidt understands the unique history of the campus he’s called home since 2007, and he knows how much this UCLA game meant to the guys who, 48 years ago, had pushed the Bonnies to the brink of a most improbable title. On TV afterward he dedicated the win to Lanier, and kept going after.

“This victory,” he said, “is for those guys. They didn’t get an opportunity to show their talent.”

Kalbaugh heard those words.

“I was touched,” he said. “I think all the guys from that team were.”

Does that maybe sound too hokey, like Merle’s “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here” line in “Hoosiers?” Maybe it does. Forty-eight years later, in the hearts of 12 old basketball players, an old wrong was righted.