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Sean Kirst: An old high school teammate honors Bob Lanier, ‘in neighborhood fashion’ | Local News

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Gregory Brown could easily have declined the call about Bob Lanier. It has been only five weeks since the death of Brown’s wife, Yvonne, and he offers a description of love at first sight in remembering her that he draws from some favorite lines in Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”

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She was a great inspiration in his life. He first saw her in a Black dancing workshop at the University of Buffalo 50 years ago.

Brown was motivated to call the phone because of the promise he made to Yvonne. He was waiting in line at an ice cream shop on Porter Avenue when he began to talk to the man next to him. This young college basketball coach was his friend. Brown said to him. “Yeah, in high school, I played with Bob Lanier.”

Brown was roughly half-century older than the coach. Brown was puzzled. Who was that?



A senior photo of Bennett High School basketball player Bob Lanier, taken from the 1966 yearbook. Photo courtesy Greg Brown, a friend.



“I used to brag about being a teammate of Bob’s,”Brown stated: “and I had no idea the time to do that bragging was coming to an end.”

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Brown was aware that many of his high school classmates are gone. The encounter taught him everything about community memory It is why it is so important after Lanier’s passing at 73 days old.

“The sun sets on all us eventually,”Brown said, “You need to share the stories.”

He was one year behind Lanier at Bennett High School. He was turned down by Canisius in nearby Canisius St. Bonaventure would have the greatest basketball season ever. A man many believe was just one NCAA tournament knee injury away of bringing back a national championship to Olean.

Lanier became a major center in the National Basketball Association. He was president of the players’ association and then a coach, a worldwide league ambassador and a monumental administrative figure in the ascendancy of the modern NBA, but Brown did this interview based on an understanding:

When he thinks about Lanier, he remembers the place where they grew-up.



Greg Brown Bob Lanier

From the 1966 yearbook, a photo of Bennett High School’s boys basketball team. Bob Lanier, who holds the trophy, is seated in front row. Greg Brown, Greg’s teammate, is number 11.



“We all came of age at the Masten Boys Club,” said Brown, whose older brother Al – gone now for 11 years – was a fierce power forward who played alongside Lanier at Bennett before they graduated together 56 years ago this spring.

Part of the neighborhood tale is well-known: Lanier – stunned by being cut from the team as a sophomore – brought all that hurt to Lorrie Alexander, a Boys Club mainstay and mentor who helped an upset high school kid raise his game to a triumphant level.

A humble icon: Western New York basketball personalities recall St. Bonaventure great Bob Lanier

Lanier, a Buffalo native, was remembered by local basketball figures as a private, giving person. He died Tuesday in Arizona. He was 73 years old.

Brown’s recollections sweep through the community. They intertwine with why a note about Lanier’s passing has already generated more than 300 comments on “Buffalo: A Toast to the Town” – a fast-growing Facebook memory page that Bartel Miller began with a shared emphasis on memories of women and men raised in Buffalo’s historically Black neighborhoods, a page that quickly grew to wrap in the whole community.

Miller heard stories from people who were able to recall when the teenager Lanier stopped in to help with furniture moving. Molly Majer, one of Miller’s correspondents, recalls how the young Lanier would often give Helen Bless, her great-uncle, a ride from a Your Host restaurant she loved to go home.

“He knew where he came from,”Miller agreed with Lum Smith in marveling about an extraordinary era in Western New York basketball. Smith, a longtime Buffalo educator, and community historian, still remembers going to evening basketball workouts at Buffalo State during a time when a new-tothe-NBA Lanier, and the great Randy Smith would arrive to run the court.

Brown’s earliest memories of Lanier involve a backdrop of the newly built Kensington Expressway. Brown explained that the construction of that sunken expressway changed daily patterns for Buffalo children who used to move from one block to another in Cold Springs and surrounding neighborhoods. Brown and Al Brown were at School 54. Lanier was at School 74, while Brown was at School 54. They became friends while battling on courts such as Trinidad Park.

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Newspaper reports of Bennett’s 1966 win over Emerson in the Buffalo Board of Education boys basketball title.



“That’s where the hoop was, where so many of us learned the game,”Brown said.

Lanier was a leader among Northland Avenue men when he showed up. Brown stated that neighborhood rivalries led to an intense eighth grade rivalry, which Brown said resulted in School 54 winning a title for the city. It was just before these former foes all ended up on one side at Bennett.

They were upperclassmen and merged into a power that the kids called “the kids.” “The Nickel,”Short for Nickel City. The culmination of the Tigers’ season was a 66 to 55 victory over Emerson in March 1966, which gave Coach Fred Szwebjka his second consecutive citywide Board of Education title. This was as described in old clippings from Brian Frank of the Herd Chronicles.

Remembering Bob Lanier: His trademark soft touch made him an all-time great

Lanier’s touch would have made him great in any era. He was a better bank shot with the hook and on mid-range shots than any other big man. 

“Me? I rode the pine,”Brown spoke about his junior year. But he remembers how Lanier had 25 points against Emerson, despite foul trouble and a defense geared to stop him, while three others scored in double figures for Bennett: Brown’s brother Al had 15 by “pouring rain with corner jump shots,”Kenny Maclin added 12 points and Joe Green, the point guard, added 10.

These were great rivalries that were forged by men who had honed their skills at Delaware Park’s endless summer games. Brown stated that large crowds watched Lanier and other playground stalwarts rise and fall, including future mayor Tony Masiello.

“There wasn’t a lot of money to go around in those days,”Brown, 72, a retired attorney whose father worked in a plant that supplied coke to steel production, said this. Brown remembers a lot of teenage socializing happening in the Masten gym and on the playgrounds.

They were rich in some ways.

Brown was born in Bennett and attended Brown University. It is a remarkable story about Buffalo: Brown was the son of immigrants from Louisiana who arrived here during the Great Migration. He made it to Brown University as an Ivy League student, which honors parents who never had that opportunity. Brown used to tell his classmates that Lanier was at the time burning it for Bonaventure. “Yeah, I know that guy.”

One time, his college friends put Lanier to the test. Lanier was playing against Fairfield University not far from his home. “Why don’t we go so you can say hello to your buddy?”Brown agreed, but he didn’t know how Lanier would react when he mentioned a childhood friend who was a benchwarmer for their high school team.



lanier_at_aud

Bob Lanier stands up to block a shot. (Photo courtesy St. Bonaventure Athletics)

Brown and his friends still made the drive and arrived on time. Brown climbed down to the court and said, as the Bonnies were finishing their shootaround. “Hey, Bob.”

Lanier lit up. “He greeted me,”Brown says it best: “in neighborhood fashion.”

This emotion is mirrored in Buffalo by those who were close to Lanier as children and how they are reacting to his death. Brown sees it this way: the loss his wife gave him what Brown calls “The Gift of Death.” “the made-up mind,”In however many years he’s been gone, “to be the man she always knew that I could be” – meaning he will try to live out and pass on what is most important.

Brown doesn’t think of Lanier or college heartache first. Brown remembers the jubilant Bennett celebration in 1966 when the Tigers beat Emerson to become champions again. They were 18 years old at that time, and one of their team-mates smuggled in champagne.

Brown’s memorable first sip came just after Lanier and his team won it all. It was a taste of how he feels. All these years later It still brings together everyone who helped them get there.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at [email protected]

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