Bob Lanier: A Forecast of Things to Come, 1974

[The six feet of snow now inundating Buffalo got me thinking about the late-great Bob Lanier, the city’s most-famous homegrown cager. Here’s an article about Lanier from a dog-eared 1974 paperback titled Pro Basketball Superstars, co-authored by journalists Bert Rosenthal and Bruce Lowitt. This short piece provides an overview of Lanier’s Buffalo roots more than a journey through his pro career. But Lanier’s Buffalo days were certainly memorable, and I’ll bet he shoveled a massive amount of snow in his red lumberjack shirt and, as his Indian name connotes, left some big tracks.]


When Bob Lanier was stomping around upstate New York, rewriting St. Bonaventure’s record books, he was a frequent visitor to the nearby Seneca Indian nation. One day, late in his senior year in the spring of 1970, the Senecas held a special ceremony making the 6-feet-11, 270-pound Lanier a blood brother. As part of the ritual, they gave him an Indian name: Ha-You-Non-Da.

In English, it means: “He leaves tracks.”

It was a tribute, no doubt, to Lanier’s huge size 22 shoes—but it was also a forecast of things to come. Since his playing days at college, Bob Lanier has been leaving tracks around the NBA as the powerful center of the Detroit Pistons. As teammate Dave Bing said: “Everyone knows how good Bob is. If they don’t, they’ll soon find out.”

If there were any doubters, they found out last season just how good Bob is. He was among the top 10 in the league both in scoring and rebounding. He scored 1,927 points for the Pistons, an average of 23.8 per game, and hauled down 1,205 rebounds, a 14.9 average.

Despite the personal acclaim he has won, Lanier is still not satisfied since he has been unable, as some fans expected, to single-handedly turn the Pistons into championship contenders. “I would like to be winning, and I think in time that will happen,” he said.

Bringing the Pistons and their fans closer to the NBA title isn’t the only reason Lanier looks forward to improving Detroit’s record. There’s a personal matter, too. Lanier hasn’t won the widespread fame he believes he deserves, the fame that has come to other centers like Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain. “It bothers me,” Lanier said. “But they’re winners. We aren’t winners, so you have to expect it.” And when asked if he felt he was as good a player as the rest of them, Lanier immediately replied: “Without a doubt.”

Big Bob has a couple of things to back him up in that claim. He was named to play in the NBA’s midseason All-Star game, both last season and the year before that, his second year in the league when he averaged 25.7 points a game.

And he’s the highest-salaried player in the Detroit Pistons history. When he was the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA in 1970, he signed a three-year contract worth about $1.3 million. After his third year last season, the Pistons tore up his old contract and gave him a new five-year contract, supposedly worth close to a million and a half dollars.

And, he has earned high praise from all three of his Detroit coaches: Bill van Breda Kolff, Earl Lloyd, and Ray Scott.

“Bob has good hands,” said van Breda Kolff. “He passes well, is a fine shooter, and has a good knowledge of the game.” 

Lloyd said it is “almost impossible to stop him when he has the ball. If you try to stop him inside, he’ll murder you outside. He’s deadly with his shots.”

And Scott, who took over as coach of the Pistons last season, said at one point: “Lanier has been outstanding.”

When Bob first thought about playing basketball, he seemed to be anything but outstanding. When he was 11 years old growing up in Buffalo, New York, he was already 5-feet-11. One day, he decided to drop into the Masten Unit Boys Club—and drop in he did. He tripped going through the door. It was only a slight delay, though. Within a few years, he focused that deadly eye and won the National Spot Shot Championship in which each player has to shoot the ball from 25 different marks on the basketball court. Lanier hit 23 of 25 shots, and he’s kept that deadly eye. In 1971-72, his second year with Detroit, he won the NBA’s version of playground basketball, its One-on-One championship.

But he didn’t become nationally famous until he traveled 70 miles south of Buffalo to the St. Bonaventure campus. Billy Kalbaugh, a former roommate and teammate of Lanier’s with the Bonnies, remembered the first time he saw Bob lumbering around the campus with the size 22 shoes and a bright red lumberjack shirt. “I took one look at him in that shirt and I said to myself, ‘This is an All-American?’”

Lanier was an All-American, partly because of the 5-feet-10 Kalbaugh set up the offense and spent much of his time getting the ball to Lanier. “I made him,” Billy joked, “and he won’t split his money with me. How’s that for gratitude?”

The Bonnies hadn’t had a team to rave about since the 1960-61 season when Tom Stith and Fred Crawford led them to a 24-4 record and into the NCAA championship series. In that year, a tradition was born. There was a 30-foot maple tree in the middle of the campus and, as St. Bonaventure kept knocking off team after team, stuffed dummies began appearing on the tree, each one signifying the Bonnies’ latest victim.

But there hadn’t been much reason to keep the tradition going—until Lanier showed up. As a sophomore, this first year on the varsity, he led St. Bonaventure to a perfect 22-0 regular-season record and a 23-2 overall mark, which included a trip to the NCAA playoffs. In that year, Lanier averaged 26.3 points, hitting nearly 60 percent of his shots from the floor, and hauled in nearly 16 rebounds a game.

Everybody was looking forward to another shot at an NCAA title in Lanier’s junior year—but the Bonnies never got the chance. Right at the start of the season, the NCAA charged St. Bonaventure with a minor recruiting violation and prevented the team from playing any postseason games that year.

With the chance for a championship taken away, the Bonnies seemed to lose their spirit, and early in the season, they lost four straight games. The fans started saying Lanier was getting lazy. “I must admit that made me mad,” Bob said. He and the Bonnies woke up and won 11 of their last 13 games, finishing with a 17-7 record.

Lanier had some personally brilliant games, too. He scored 51 points against Seton Hall on 20 of 29 shots from the field and 11 of 13 shots from the foul line, plus 20 rebounds and close to a dozen blocked shots. And a 43-point, 23-rebound show against Niagara.

By that time, Lanier’s huge sneakers had become about as famous as the rest of him. As one Philadelphia writer put it: “At 8:40, Bob Lanier’s feet began to emerge from the St. Bonaventure locker room. At 8:45, Bob Lanier emerged.”

In Lanier’s senior year, the Bonnies (with their one-year suspension over) went wild again, winning 26 of their first 27 games, making the NCAA playoffs once more. But Lanier injured a knee early in the playoffs and, without his leadership, the team folded, finishing fourth in the championships.

Even though he hadn’t brought St. Bonaventure the title, he was named an All-American. And he wound up with records, too, setting Bonnie marks with his 2,067 points and 1,180 rebounds in three years and tying the Holiday Festival scoring record at Madison Square Garden with 50 points against Purdue.

As an NBA rookie, Bob needed an operation on his knee, and it slowed him down quite a bit. He played only about 50 percent of the time and still averaged 15.6 points and better than 8 rebounds a game. If he’d been playing that usual 40 to 44 minutes, the figures would have been around 25 points and 14 rebounds, close to what he averaged the next two years.

Now he’s a seasoned pro, no longer in awe of the other spectacular centers in the NBA. And he has issued a warning of sorts. “The first years, it was exciting,” Bob said. “I was nervous. Now I’ve adjusted to the schedule and the mental aspects of getting up for a game almost every night. Now they’ve got to worry about me just as much as I’ve got to worry about them.”

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