Neal Simon: A rivalry to die for
How does it end? Every living being conscious of his own mortality imagines what it will be like. Our minds, perhaps understandably, create from scant, dubious hopes, unrealistic, bordering on delusional, scenarios for the hour of our deaths: in our sleep, surrounded by the people and things we love, a painless, effortless denouement to our life on earth.
Yeah, right. Don’t count on it.
“How do you want to go?” someone may have asked me once or twice.
“Shortly after the final gun is fired at the end of a Buffalo Bills’ victory in the Super Bowl,” I would have replied. “That would literally meet the definition of dying happy.”
But how likely is that? Most of us would settle for just this: Make it quick.
But what if the end comes in the worst possible way? Enduring something we despise in a place we abhor? Can life and death really be that cruel? Almost, I have learned.
The Reilly Center at St. Bonaventure has been a personal house of horrors for about 30 years, essentially for as long as I have been visiting the on-campus arena to watch college basketball.
Perhaps “house of horrors” is a tad melodramatic. Maybe what I really should call it is the “house of the horrible” — as in guaranteed to make visiting fans feel unwelcome, slightly threatened and horrid as they file out after their team gets spanked once again by St. Bonaventure.
My alma mater, Canisius College, has made losing games in Olean as routine as George W. Bush mispronouncing “nuclear.” Blow-outs, heartbreakers, yawners. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to a extended sports losing streak takes unique detours, without affecting its ultimate destination. Until about three weeks ago, I mistakenly believed I had experienced every possible scenario for a disappointing Griffs-Bonnies game. I was wrong.
During the early and mid-’80s, when I was the public address announcer for Golden Griffins’ home games at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, I would ride the student bus to Allegany every other year, take a seat high in the bleachers and watch the Bonnies have their way with the Griffs.
Those were solid Canisius teams, featuring a dominating 7-footer, Mike Smrek (a future NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers), and Ray Hall, a swing man who would become Canisius’ all-time leading scorer by the time he graduated in 1985. The talent level of the squads did not seem to matter. Canisius always lost.
The Griffs went without a road win against St. Bonaventure from the mid-’50s until the mid-’90s.That’s remarkable, considering that for most of that period, the schools played one game a year in Olean in addition to an annual match-up in Buffalo.
After suffering through the ’80s, the sun finally began to break through in the ’90s, thanks to Canisius hiring John Beilein as its head coach. Division I college basketball is a coach’s game, always has been, and Beilein proved the rule, and then some, at the Jesuit college.
Along with John Anderson, I covered the Canisius-St. Bonaventure 1994 Reilly Center contest. John sat at the press table and did the game story for the Daily Reporter while I shot photographs from a perch under a basket.
What I remember most from that game is the Bona student section standing in unison, pointing at the Canisius bench, and chanting, “You can’t win here,” “You can’t win here.” They were correct, at least for that night.
My highlight was a photograph I snapped during the first half. It’s the best sports photo I have ever taken: Canisius star Craig Wise banging with two Bona defenders underneath the boards as he sinks a put-back shot.
John and I were back a year later when the Griffs, still led by Beilein, finally snapped their four-decade losing streak in Olean, silencing the partisan home crowd. I shook hands and then shared an awkward hug with the Canisius coach after the game, thanking him a dozen times for beating Bona. He could not have been more gracious. It is one of my all-time best sports memories.
There is really no rationale for hating on St. Bonaventure like I do. When my grandparents (who are buried St. Bonaventure Cemetery) immigrated to the United States from Lebanon as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, they settled in Olean.
That’s the city where my dad and his brothers and sisters grew up. My Uncle Salem was a St. Bona grad; my dad and my Uncle Kelly were huge fans of the basketball program. I believe I attended one Bona-Canisius game as a child, and I found myself cheering loudly for the Golden Griffins. I remember my dad looking me over, frowning, and shaking his head.
During my journalism career, I have been surrounded by Bona grads, great guys and girls without exception. They have all been gifted reporters and editors, well-trained, obviously products of a first-rate institution of higher learning.
Many years have passed since the night when John Anderson and I finally watched the Griffs break through on their rival’s home court. Canisius has won several more games in the Reilly Center over the years, while Beilein has climbed the coaching ladder. Two years ago, his Michigan Wolverines defeated Syracuse in the National Semifinals, before falling in the championship game to Louisville.
I was back at the Reilly Center on Nov. 22 for the 163rd meeting between the schools. I attended the game with a friend, a Bona grad who insisted on showing me around the enemy campus prior to the late afternoon tip off. (A visit to my grandparents’ graves was considered, but I decided I would stop by the next time I was in town.)
We visited the Friedsam Memorial Library. I was shown the portrait of 13th-century Scottish Franciscan scholar John Duns Scotus, the originator of the dunce cap. After so much walking, I was having some minor trouble catching my breath. I stared at the portrait while resting up against a study table. SCOTUS seemed to be staring right back at me. I swore those eyes were watching me, asking me, “Who is the dunce now?”
More walking, and then we climbed two flights of stairs to an upper section of the arena. The helpful PA announcer suggested that Bona fans remain on their feet until Canisius hit its first bucket, which meant that to see the action, I had to stand.
The Griffs went five minutes without scoring as St. Bonaventure jumped to an early 10-0 lead. After a timeout, Canisius went on a 15-0 run, taking over the lead and controlling the game for the rest of the half. Just before halftime, with the Griffs leading by five, a Bona player hit a long three-pointer just a half-second before the buzzer. The lead was cut to two, and Bona went into the intermission with all the momentum.
I felt oddly subdued throughout the rest of the game. Just a little off, not really getting bent out of shape as I typically would as Canisius went ice cold from the field. Bona inched to the lead, and held on for a 59-52 win.
We made the long walk to our car, sat in traffic for nearly 30 minutes, then made a stop at my favorite fast food restaurant in Olean. The place was packed, with each of the four food order lines a dozen people deep. The wait was so long that I had to sit down while our food was prepared and bagged up.
I did not have a good night. After climbing the stairs at home, I was completely out of breath. And hungry. I could not fall asleep, and I could not stop eating, especially sweets. I woke at about 8 a.m., pain radiating from my chest, down my left arm. I changed positions, with no relief.
I sat up, I sat down. I had a drink of water. I got some air. Nothing helped. Nothing would make the pain go away. I reluctantly agreed to a trip to the emergency room. I allowed my driver, unfamiliar with Hornell, to speed past the emergency entrance of St. James. I was trying to buy a few more minutes, giving fate one last chance to change its mind. It didn’t work. We turned around, and this time I showed her where to park.
A week later, while recuperating with my family in Buffalo, I decided I felt well enough to get out for a few hours. Sure, I was just four days removed from the operating table at Rochester General Hospital, where surgeons inserted stents to open two blocked arteries, but I felt like I couldn’t stay indoors for another afternoon. My life had changed, probably irreversibly, but I needed to see another game. I wanted a basketball do-over.
A friend dropped me at the front entrance of the First Niagara Center. No walk involved. I was holding two tickets within five minutes, and was in my seat for the St. Bonaventure-Niagara game in less than 10.
The Bona students were on break, so I was expecting a subdued, respectful crowd. I should have known better. Little Three rivalries are forever. While the young rowdies were not present, their elders — old time Bona grads, middle-aged and up, bankers, lawyers, doctors, priests — were carrying the load for this one.
During a timeout, the Niagara cheerleaders ran on the court and did a routine. When it was over, several Bona alumni did the totally expected: They stood up and booed.
“Awesome,” I thought, “There is some juice in this place.” I stood up, ready for some engagement with the Bona fans. Maybe we could trade a few barbs, get into some back and forth. It would be fun. I felt a shot of adrenalin. My heart started racing, just a little. I felt alive. This is what it’s all about. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and all that.
But I sat back down. It was Niagara, not Canisius. I had no dog in this fight. Who cares? Life is too short to get worked up over a basketball game. If a Bona grad feels moved to jeer a young, innocent Niagara cheerleader doing her best on a basketball court in downtown Buffalo, who am I to criticize?
And besides, the next Bona-Canisius game is only 51 weeks away. I plan to be in top form for that one. I have not made my last trip to Olean, after all.
Neal Simon is the city editor of The Hornell Evening Tribune.