I’m often conflicted when thinking back to the good old days and equating them with my childhood. I’m 46, which hardly makes me a dinosaur, but I’m also old enough to remember another generation. If the old days were so good, how did we make so many advancements in the years that followed?
Sports are more popular and lucrative than ever. Almost any game can be found on television these days for a reasonable price. The Internet brings us closer to our favorite teams with daily emails, news updates and highlights, all in a few seconds with a few buttons on our telephones. It’s a faster, bigger world.
Is that better?
I guess so, but the progress made and billions generated by sports these days also came with a communal price that cannot be measured. Take college doubleheaders, which are virtually extinct in downtown Buffalo. The twin bill Wednesday night in First Niagara Center was a reminder of when basketball was big in Western New York.
Davidson met Niagara in the opener while Canisius and UB played in the nightcap. With so much happening in a faster world, the event was easy to ignore. When there were fewer distractions, and no video games, three local college teams playing under the same roof would have been a hot ticket in town and a must-see for any hoops junkie.
Bobby Hurley, UB’s first-year coach, wondered the other day if the joint would be packed. Not quite, Bobby. Two games for $20 was a bargain Wednesday, but only 3,233 fans showed up to see a pair of games that were worth the price of admission. Niagara beat a sound Davidson team and Canisius took over in the second half to beat UB.
The evening left people longing for the good old days.
“No question,” Canisius coach Jim Baron said. “Something is missing. Buffalo is a great town for sports. I go to the Sabres games. I go to the Bills games. We have great college basketball here, great high school basketball here. There’s enough for everybody. It’s a great town. People had a chance to see some excellent basketball.”
Baron played for St. Bonaventure at a time when basketball was booming in Buffalo.
These days, he spends time handing out tickets and reminding students when the Golden Griffins have a game. They didn’t need to be told years ago because they knew along with every other Buffalo sports fan.
Times have changed, indeed.
You don’t need to go back to Bob Lanier and Calvin Murphy for evidence of when Buffalo was a great basketball town. Kids, ask your parents about Ray Hall and Mike Smrek or Gary Bossert and Joe Arlaukas, or even Ed Book and Jeff Taggart. They were household names in Western New York in the 1980s.
Canisius and Niagara weren’t perennial powerhouses, but they mattered. If you’re old enough, you remember rolls of toilet paper raining from the blues and oranges after Canisius made its first basket of the game. It was entertaining. The college game in general was more innocent, more pure, than it is today.
When Buffalo had an NBA team, high schools often played the opener of a doubleheader followed by the Braves game. The community was involved.
The region churned out terrific Division I players, too. Hall was recruited across the country but stayed home. Lester Rowe played at West Virginia. Curtis Aiken was a star at Pitt. Bossert once helped Niagara beat third-ranked St. John’s at the Niagara Convention Center.
Cliff Robinson landed at UConn and had a great NBA career. Christian Laettner led Duke to two national championships and was one of the best players in NCAA history. He returned with Duke, and Hurley, before a full house at the Aud. Save a few players, Buffalo basketball dried up once Laettner left.
It’s not as if Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure became irrelevant, but they did become less relevant on the local scene. By the time UB arrived with a Division I program, it was too late to grab the attention of the masses. The Big Four has a nice ring, but really it’s little more than four teams struggling for regional support.
Let’s be honest, the average Buffalo sports fan these days would have difficulty naming six players in the Big Four. Mark Schmidt has been coaching at St. Bonaventure for seven years, but he remains mostly an obscure figure. Hurley has been here for eight months, hasn’t played in years and is the biggest basketball name in Buffalo.
“We just have to connect the dots. That’s all,” Baron said. “It has to be collectively done to really motivate the people – fans, parents, children, to come down and be a part of it. … I’m mystified. You do have a lot of intelligent fans in this city. All you have to do is ask them. You have more coaches here than any city I’ve been around.”
What happened? How did the game grow across the country but shrink here?
Television and the Internet contributed, but there were other factors. Families became busier. They had less leisure time and less money. First Niagara Center (nee Crossroads Arena) didn’t have the same charm as the old Auditorium. The seats were farther away. It became too expensive for the local colleges to rent the building. Economics took over.
And Buffalo became a stronger hockey town. The number of kids playing hockey coincides with the interest level of the Sabres.
The doubleheader Wednesday night took us back to a different world in which sports were less of a business. Let’s not forget the real reason for the event. Buffalo is hosting the NCAA Tournament in March, and a dress rehearsal was among the requirements. The arena will be full in four months, and Buffalo basketball will be alive again.
Here’s hoping local hoops eventually grows with the times. Maybe it could even return to the good old days.