13,479 Days Later Dem Bonnies Finally Beat Syracuse
By Mike Vaccaro
I had the great good fortune of being inside Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall that forever afternoon of March 11, 2012. I actually made a point of requesting a press credential, rather than securing a ticket, because I felt that a quarter-century of professional training would allow me the necessary distance to keep from having a nervous breakdown with every possession. As the Bonnies dribbled off the final seconds of that 67-56 win over Xavier, the Musketeers graciously allowing their opponent to savor their first-ever Atlantic 10 championship, a guy I know approached me on press row and said, “I can’t believe it isn’t louder in here. There must be 5,000 Bonnies fans in here.”
“Wait for it,” I told him. “Right now, they’re all too busy crying.”
I kept my own eyes diverted from him. There’s no cheering on press row, after all, but there’s also no crying.
It was impossible to conceive of a game more satisfying than that one, more essential, after all the program had withstood for damn near 35 years. It was hard to conjure how a game could possibly have more meaning. This was the team, after all, after which the rest of the league had derisively nicknamed the postseason tournament’s 8-9 game the “St. Bonaventure Invitational” back when it was a nine-team league. And now that laughingstock had risen from the ash heap and won the championship. The roars soon overcame the tears at Boardwalk Hall. I remember walking onto the floor and nearly being tackled by a jubilant Mark Schmidt, screaming in that Boston Harbor accent of his: “THE BAWNIES AH BACK, BAY-BEEEEE!” I remember Sister Margaret hugging me, saying, “This is the stuff dreams are made of, Michael.”
Come on. Nothing could be better than that.
I was wrong.
Friday night was better.
It wasn’t pretty by any definition. It didn’t guarantee the Bonnies an NCAA bid (though it’s a nice chip to have), or a Top 25 ranking, or anything tangible. It was a 60-57 overtime victory over a good (not great) Syracuse team that, for probably the first time ever when these teams have met, didn’t feature the best player on the court (from the jump, that honor clearly belonged to Jaylen Adams). Through an objective lens, you might even question whether the Bonnies winning the game merited the term “upset” or even “surprise.” Certainly at 51-38, 11 minutes to go, it seemed that way to those who don’t truly understand what Syracuse has meant to St. Bonaventure for too long.
But who among us reading this essay truly owns an objective lens?
We know not only what Syracuse is, what it has been, but what it represents. For years, St. Bonaventure ruled with little rancor that area of New York state north and west of New York City. In 1961, when the first truly great Bonnies team was reaching No. 2 in the polls, nearly knocking off Ohio State in the Holiday Festival and featuring the nation’s best player in Tom Stith, the Orangemen were a 4-19 afterthought. In 1970, when the Bonnies reached the Final Four featuring the nation’s best player in Bob Lanier, Syracuse was a 12-12 mediocrity. Syracuse had Dave Bing and a nice little run in 1966, and that was that. The teams never even scheduled each other despite their proximity – and in those days, it would’ve been St. Bonaventure that would’ve had to agree to face the lesser program. And Syracuse that would’ve had to agree to whatever terms were demanded.
By 1975, though, that had already started to change. Both long-time independents had, by necessity, joined the ECAC, a loose confederation of northeastern and Atlantic-shore schools for which the soon-to-be-expanded NCAA Tournament would guarantee one automatic bid. The teams played twice that year: a 97-89 Syracuse win at the Reilly Center in early February, a resounding 100-81 Orangemen stomping in the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium a month later that secured the NCAA bid for Syracuse. Two weeks later the Orange, under Roy Danofrth, made it all the way to heir first Final Four. A year later, after one of the most intense recruiting battles in either school’s history, Roosevelt Bouie, a 6-foot-11 future All-American from Kendall, N.Y., selected Syracuse over St. Bonaventure.
And like that the dynamics had changed.
Syracuse still visited Olean every other year because the ECAC required it, but by 1979 the Big East was born, St. Bonaventure had already opted to join the Eastern 8, the ECAC faded away, and in 1984 Syracuse announced something that even 10 years earlier would have been absurd:
It was never coming back to Olean.
And as much as anything that has ever happened to St. Bonaventure during the evolution and revolution of college basketball, that one hurt. That one stung. That was a school that was alleged to be a blood rival declaring they had new rivals now, better rivals with fancier addresses, Georgetown and St. John’s and Villanova. Now, again, the owner of an objective point of view can say that perhaps this was an example of karma paying attention, since at almost the same time Syracuse was distancing itself from St. Bonaventure the Bonnies were doing the same thing to Canisius and Niagara, its longtime Little Three brethren, forcing the end of home-and-home every year, limiting the series to a two-game round robin with little meaning or consequence for anybody.
But, again: this isn’t a remotely objective prism. Shedding extra games against the Golden Griffns and Purple Eagles felt like a necessary manifest destiny as the Bonnies’ affiliation with the newly named Atlantic10 grew stronger, and as they embraced the conference’s mid-major ambitions.
Syracuse treating St. Bonaventure like just another “buy” game?
Like Colgate, or Wagner, or St. Francis (either one)?
That felt like being left behind. Because it was being left behind. For good. For keeps. Forever.
On the night of Jan. 26, 1981, when the Bonnies had most recently defeated Syracuse in what you would think would’ve qualified, even then, as a huge signature win, then-Bonnies coach Jim Satalin immediately threw a bucket of cold water on it, seeing where this was going before anyone else, saying in the postgame that night: “When you watch the fans and players react the way they did tonight, it’s hard to say this is just another win. And I’m not saying it is. But our key games are still the league games, same with Syracuse in its league. Those are the games that can extend our season and give us a chance to get into the NCAA.”
And you know, it’s funny: every time the TV camera panned the scorer’s table Friday night you could see Satalin, who now works as the color analyst for the Syracuse radio network. And you had to wonder what he was thinking. And feeling. He spans the entirety of the relationship between the schools, after all. Satalin was a star at Syracuse’s St. John the Baptist High, and in 1964 even a local star knew enough that if given the choice, you fled to Bonaventure. He coached the Bonnies to the two most memorable victories in this series, at the RC in 1977 and at Rochester’s War Memorial in ’78. And a few years later he had an up-close view when his good friend, Jim Boeheim, acquired the upper hand in this series and used it like an iron fist.
Now, Friday night, there was this game, this amazing and wonderful game, a first half in which Adams, no kidding, looked like an All-America and the Bonnies, no kidding, looked like a Sweet Sixteen team. There was a second half that set the very sport back decades (unless you happen to be one of those basketball oddballs who really does love defense and watching shots carom away one after the other). There was that 13-point lead that was frittered away to zero with 27 seconds left, and there was that missed drive by Tyus Battle in the dying seconds of regulation and, most extraordinarily, that missed bunny of a layup by Oshae Brissett.
There was the absurd elevator of emotions that accompany a sporting event in which you have invested to such extremes. There was no press pass around my neck this time, just me and my dogs and my television; my wife, wisely, spent most of the game food shopping and running errands. (She knows what Bonnies games do to me. She was downstairs while I was upstairs watching the 2011 A-10 playoffs on TV, howling like a lunatic for 50 minutes as the Bonnies somehow lost a 2-OT bone-crusher to La Salle. When I appeared a sweaty, pulpy mess for dinner a few minutes after the final buzzer she said, “I’m glad there’s only one team you feel this way about or I couldn’t live with you.”)
Instead, this time there were 45 minutes of almost continual pings from my cell phone, other members of the flock checking in, sometimes to great, even biblical, annoyance. As the Bonnies’ lead swelled to 10 at one point, one correspondent, never to be confused with a MENSA member, texted: “Would it be bad form to storm the opponent’s home court?” to which I berated him, in the sort of vernacular Father Dan Riley probably wouldn’t have chosen, for knowingly serving as a jinx. Another friend texted later, as the lead melted away; she’s sweet and kind and utterly devoid of anything resembling sports superstition, so when she gently texted, “So I’m worried Bonas will lose this game because I started watching” it took every ounce of my Franciscan schooling to refrain from replying “THEN TURN THE #$#@%&$$ GAME BACK OFF, HAVE YOU LOST YOUR #$#@%&$$ MIND???!!!”
And then, overtime. And the early deficit. And the continued ineptitude on offense. And the continued relentlessness on defense And Courtney Stockard stepping up and making five of the most extraordinary free throw (gosh, kid, have I mentioned you were worth the wait?) and Adams making two more, and that block by LaDarien Griffin …
And then there was Nathan Farrell.
Farrell is the referee who made what has to have been among the most courageous calls of his career with 11.9 seconds left in overtime. Bissett drove the lane. Stockard (him again!) planted his feet just outside the arch under the basket. The ball went in the basket. The Carrier Dome went berserk, expecting to see Farrell give the good-and-it-counts, and-one signal.
(And let’s be honest: so did you. So did I. Only it was a different kind of berserk. It was a distinct of-course-this-game-is-going-to-be-decided-by-a-ref-and-of-course-that-ref-has-to-be-in-Boeheim’s-pocket kind of berserk. A road team getting that call? In the Carrrier Dome, of all places? Are you kidding?)
Nope. Not kidding. Farrell made the call and make no mistake; he made the right call, no matter what the Syracuse yahoos on social media are screeching. Adams made those free throws, Griffin blocked Howard Washington’s 3-pointer and by the time the ball settled out of bounds there were only three-tenths of a second to go which meant there wasn’t enough time for the Orange to score on anything but a tip shot, which meant the game was effectively over, which inspired Boeheim to toss his clipboard like Al Oerter, which may have been the single-most satisfying thing any Bonnies fan has ever seen.
(Full disclosure: I like Boeheim, a lot, he has been endlessly helpful to me whenever I’ve called him on stories and columns my whole career, and I think he really is a genuinely good guy. That said? I couldn’t get enough of the whiny SOB throwing his clipboard – and, later, chasing the refs into their locker room – like a 6-year old, either.)
A funny thing happened then. My wife came in from her errand run. She breezily asked, “How’d the Bonnies do?” and was greeted with silence, which puzzled her until she saw the quivering mess of her husband, still planted in front of the TV, seconds after the final buzzer sounded.
This time, she just smiled.
“This is ridiculous,” I whispered.
Except it wasn’t. This one was something else. This one was forever, and was decades in the making. You’re damned right the room got dusty for St. Bonaventure 60, Syracuse 57 (OT). You’re damned right it did.
Stockard Photo courtesy of former Bonnie David Andoh. You can visit his website here