OLEAN — Jim Baron has been back enough times and learned long ago how to manage his emotions, but there was also no denying them. He will forever cherish his relationship with St. Bonaventure. The Reilly Center is a family photo album of sorts, a collection of snapshots going back four decades.
Baron couldn’t take three steps Saturday without something triggering a memory from his career in basketball and his lot in life. He pointed upstairs, where a plaque hangs in his honor in the school’s Hall of Fame. He nodded toward the locker room and weight room, two projects among several he could call his own.
He looked at his son, Billy, who was still in diapers when he took over the Bonnies in 1992. Billy and his brother, Jimmy, were raised on Bona basketball. They made more buckets in the quiet gymnasium than all other players on both teams combined Saturday. Little Billy is now Canisius’ best player and unquestioned leader.
All these years later, Jim Baron remains one of the most revered men in Bona’s history for what he accomplished as a player and coach. Older generations still recall him leading Bona to a 24-6 record and the NIT title in 1977, when he was their senior captain. Fifteen years later, he returned to rescue a program on the verge of ruins.
He took pride in seeing J.R. Bremer, the smooth-shooting guard who ended up making the all-rookie team with the Celtics, get to join him Saturday in the Hall. He felt good about leaving the program in good shape when he left for Rhode Island after nine years as a coach in Olean. He did everything he could and even a little more.
“There are a lot of memories that I treasure,” Baron said. “The Franciscans were tremendous. The faculty was tremendous, the administrators. It was a great feeling of warmth when I was here.”
Yes, he left his mark on the school. Obviously, the university left its mark on him, too. Forty years after he arrived, it still matters. But let’s not get carried away with the warm and fuzzies, either.
Baron didn’t show up in Olean with the idea he would take a stroll down Memory Lane and rekindle relationships with old friends. It wasn’t a 40-year reunion. It still may be difficult for longtime Bona fans to stomach, but Baron wasn’t conflicted at all. He desperately wanted to beat his former school.
He was given his due respect Saturday night when fans greeted him with a warm ovation during pregame introductions. The good will ended about two seconds after the game started. St. Bonaventure sent its former coach home with an 86-64 loss in a performance Baron would have admired if he wasn’t on the business end.
Evidently, it was enough for fans to flee the stands.
“I was a little bit surprised that they stormed the court,” Baron said. “I mean, Canisius? It’s not a shocking one there. You do it for VCU, but this early in the season?”
The Reilly Center can be a miserable place for the opposing team no matter how familiar it may have been to the coach and best player. Baron worried whether his son would be too excited about playing back in Olean, but Billy was the least of his problems. Canisius had bigger issues, namely Bona’s size and athleticism.
Baron knew it would be a difficult game long before it began. He knew the Reilly Center all too well, and they didn’t disappoint. Baron smirked at one point while fans jeered his son with “Daddy’s Boy” and “Who’s your daddy.” Billy Baron finished with 23 points and four of Canisius’ eight assists in the game.
“It’s fun,” Billy Baron said. “It was awesome. Some of the things they were saying, it was ridiculous. I loved that. That’s the tradition they have here. I’m not just talking about the rivalry. I’m talking about the great tradition they have here. I saw that for so many years. The place was really rocking. It was kind of weird at times, but it was extremely fun.”
St. Bonaventure jumped to a quick lead against a Canisius team that looked tentative in the opening minutes and never really recovered. Every time the Griffs were poised to make a run, the Bonnies quickly put them back in their place and reminded them who owned the joint. Bona turned a four-point lead into 14 and ended up coasting to the end.
The game was all but over with six minutes left after center Youssou Ndoye made a 17-foot jump shot from the baseline. Ndoye arrived from Senegal three years ago as a 7-foot project, but he’s blossoming into a dominant big man. He has learned how to use his big body in the lane and has developed a soft touch around the basket.
Matthew Wright was terrific, particularly in the first half. The unflappable senior guard controlled the tempo early in the game and made several big shots early, which allowed St. Bonaventure to establish control. He finished with a career-high 27 points after going 10 for 14 from the floor. The Bonnies were in control from start to finish.
Billy Baron kept Canisius in the game for as long as he could. He threw one pass away in the second half that led to Charlon Kloof’s fast-break dunk that nearly blew the lid off the place. Canisius never found its shooting rhythm and ended up working too hard for its shots. They need help offensively if they’re going to compete in the MAAC.
After it was over, Jim Baron made his way through a crowded court and slipped out the door leading to the visitor’s locker room. He didn’t look like a man who was in the Hall. He looked like a defeated coach walking into the hall.