Sam Pellom stood on the floor of Alumni Arena on Friday afternoon and marveled at how things have changed.
In the mid-1970s, when Pellom was “The Franchise,” as they called him, UB played in Clark Gym on the South Campus. A game might draw 1,000 people even as Pellom carved out his place in UB history. He was the country’s leading rebounder as a sophomore.
Tonight, Pellom will be back at Alumni Arena accompanied by some 15 family members as his No. 50 uniform is honored with a banner. The atmosphere should prove electric. The Bulls will wind up and take another shot at Mid-American Conference rival Akron, which arrives on a magic carpet. The Zips are 23-4 and haven’t lost since Dec. 15 while running the longest winning streak in the country to 19 games. They are ranked 24th in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Tipoff is 6 p.m.
UB (11-17, 6-7) needs to spring an upset or two over its final three games to move into the MAC’s top five and avoid a first-round game leading into the Cleveland portion of the MAC Tournament. Could this one be within their reach? The Bulls led the Zips by as many as 20 points before falling, 68-64, on Jan. 26.
“Anytime we play Akron, whether they’re 24th in the country or they’re 100-and- something, it’s always going to be a good game,” said UB senior captain Tony Watson II. “We felt like we gave them that game. And from that game to this game we’ve gotten a lot better.”
The Zips (13-0 in the MAC) are deep, with 10 players averaging at least 11 minutes. The center of attention, though, is 7-foot senior Zeke Marshall, a leading MAC Player of the Year candidate. Marshall averages a team-high 12.7 points, shoots 66.3 percent from the field and ranks fifth nationally in blocks at 3.6 a game. (UB junior forward Javon McCrea, another POY candidate, is 18th in blocks at 2.68).
The play of the big men should be of particular interest to Pellom, a 6-9 center during a playing career that included four seasons overseas and 196 games in the NBA. A Wilmington, N.C., native, Pellom was doing factory work and playing on the pickup circuit when he was “discovered” by a friend of Bulls coach Leo Richardson. Richardson paid a visit, offered Pellom a scholarship on the spot and welcomed into the fold a 22-year-old freshman who had grown eight inches since high school. (Current UB coach Reggie Witherspoon was a ballboy for those UB teams),
“That’s how I got to Buffalo,” Pellom said. “And I loved every minute of it. Glad to get away from home. Glad to go to college. That was the main thing, going to college.”
Pellom remains UB’s career leader in rebounds and blocks and had a 31-rebound game against VCU. His 16.2 rebounding average as a sophomore was tops in the nation. He played three seasons in the NBA, mostly with Atlanta, three years in Europe and one in Argentina. Basketball, as it turned out, was his ticket around the world.
“Coach Leo Richardson, I thank him to death for giving me the opportunity to do what I did,” Pellom said. “For being here today, he gave me that opportunity.”
Pellom was inducted into the UB Hall of Fame in 1983 but this is his first time back to Buffalo in 35 years. He’s married with three boys and lives in Atlanta, where he’s a manager for Walgreen’s.
You wonder if he likes to drop his place in NBA history into the conversation now and then.
“I always do that, especially nowadays,” Pellom said with a laugh. “Every chance I get I mention it. Everything that came off that backboard was mine. We had an assistant coach named Harry Huff and he’d say, ‘Sam, if you don’t get it, we ain’t going to get it so you got to get it.’ And that’s what stuck in my head.”