I remember when we moved to Allegany, NY in 1981, I started hearing the name “Bob Lanier” a lot. He had been, as far as I could tell, a very good basketball player who had attended St. Bonaventure University, where my father had just started teaching. Even though he’d been gone for ten years by the time we got there, his star was sufficiently bright to still be lighting up local college basketball talk. Lanier led SBU to its only appearance in the NCAA Final Four, and many are convinced to this day that SBU had a very real shot at winning it all that year, until Lanier was injured in the tournament.
[Aside: One of the common clichés of sports opinion is that you can’t, or shouldn’t, blame injuries for your defeats. This is such obvious nonsense that I can’t believe it’s still accepted as true by sports fans and commentators the world over.]
Anyway, Lanier was a huge name in the Southern Tier, and in Western New York in general. I didn’t realize just how big a name he was beyond my local home region, though, until I went to college in 1989. I was in Iowa, a thousand miles (maybe minus a hundred) from home, in a place where if I told people I was constantly explaining that my residence in New York State did not translate to a proximity to New York City. But one night I was at a season-opening dinner for the college orchestra (which also used local musicians from town), and I ended up sitting near an older guy, one of the trombone players, maybe. He asked me where I was from, and I told him, “Near Buffalo, NY.” He asked why I was in small-town Iowa, and I told him it had to do with my father being a professor at St. Bonaventure.
The guy’s face lit up and he said, “Ahhh! Bob Lanier!”
By this time, Lanier’s college days were twenty years in the past and his pro career five, but he was still well-known, that long afterward. Now, sure, Iowa is a state where college basketball is a part of local religion and thus the locals will tend to know their sport a lot better than in other places, but still, that’s impressive.
I’ve read a lot about Lanier’s outreach work after his retirement from the game, and he seems to have been a genuinely good man as well as a gifted athlete. He’s one of Western New York’s better exports out into the world, and I’m sorry to see him go.