Bob Lanier was the greatest basketball player ever to come out of Buffalo. Of that, there should be no dispute.
Sure, Clifford Robinson played more games and scored more points over a longer, healthier NBA career. He played in the NBA Finals. Christian Laettner had a more celebrated college career and was a solid pro.
But Lanier, who died Tuesday night after a short illness, towered over them all. Lanier, who didn’t make the Bennett High team as a sophomore, became the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in 1970, an eight-time all-star and Basketball Hall of Famer who averaged 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds over a 14-year career.
Lanier is an enduring icon at St. Bonaventure, where the court is named in his honor. He led the Bonnies to the 1970 NCAA Final Four, and any faithful Bona fan would remind you that they would have won the national championship that year if Lanier hadn’t hurt his knee in the regional final.
Buffalo hoop fans also believe that Lanier would have been an even better pro if not for the knee injury. He had eight knee surgeries in his life. He played hurt as a rookie and was never quite the same.
Still, he’s one of three players in NBA history who averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 blocks over 500 or games while shooting over 50 percent. The others were Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They didn’t record blocks in Wilt’s day, but don’t tell me he didn’t block a shot and a half a game.
There’s a classic scene in the movie “Airplane” where a kid named Joey comes into the cockpit and recognizes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He tells Kareem his father thinks Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t work hard on defense or run the court very well.
Kareem grabs the kid and says, “Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.” Buffalo fans had to love hearing Lanier extolled on film. I remember a Providence center who played against Lanier saying he was just as tough in college as Jabbar.
But Lanier had a bigger impact as a human being. He never made an NBA Finals, but he was perhaps the greatest humanitarian in the league’s history, a man who spent decades traveling the globe as the NBA’s Global Ambassador under commissioners David Stern and then Adam Silver, spreading the gospel of education to the youth of American and the world.
“It was a labor of love for Bob, who was one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever been around,” Silver said in a statement. “His enormous influence on the NBA was also seen in his time as President of the National Basketball Players Association, where he played a key role in the negotiation of a game-changing collective bargaining agreement.
“I learned so much from Bob by simply watching how he connected with people.”
Buffalo fans take great pride in their reputation for contributing to charitable causes. We’ve seen it a lot lately with the Bills. It should be comforting to know the city produced a humanitarian of Lanier’s stature, an elite athlete who became equally famous for his community work.
In his playing days, Lanier was given the NBA’s citizenship award and the YMCA’s Jackie Robinson Award for “service to youth, good citizenship and leadership.” Later, he got the Oscar Robertson Leadership Award, a Congressional Horizons Leadership award, the National Civil Rights Sports Legacy Award. That’s not even the full list.
Lanier ran the NBA’s ‘Stay in School Program’ from 1989-94. In 1990, he came to Buffalo to promote a Three on Three Challenge at the Aud to raise funds for the Bob Lanier Center for Educational, Physical and Cultural Development, a program that helps address the various problems of youth in Buffalo’s depressed East Side.
He was only 41 at the time, and looking fit enough to shoot that smooth, left-handed jump shot. But he said there was no way. After eight knee operations, his heart was willing, but his head said, ‘Don’t be stupid.’
Lanier and Assemblyman Arthur Eve didn’t talk much basketball that day at the old Buffalo Hilton. They wanted to talk about kids who were growing up in tough circumstances, as Bob did in the city. He felt a strong desire to give back, to reach out to kids with similar backgrounds.
“Are you obligated to do it? I don’t think anybody has an obligation,” Lanier said that day. “But if you came up like I did, you came up Black and you came up poor. If you’re sensitive to seeing things around you that happen to people who have nothing, and how they’re treated, you want to help. I’ve been somebody who had nothing.”
He wanted to be remembered as more than just a player. Education meant everything to Lanier. He told me once about skipping school as a boy. His father, Robert Sr., dragged him off a basketball court and gave him the whipping of his young life. He said the experienced remained with him. He never forgot how important education was in a young boy’s life.
Bob told me that story in 1995, after he took over as coach of the Golden State Warriors. He never had great aspirations to coach; he was more interested in management. But Don Nelson hired him to coach his big men. Nellie had a conflict with Chris Webber and quit in midseason.
Lanier took over a wounded squad and finished 12-25. That was the end of his coaching career. But he got them to play hard, and to care, and he felt his work for the league with troubled American kids came in handy.
“I truly believe my experience in the Stay-In-School program for the last five years, and my work with young people over my lifetime, has helped me in this gig,” he said that day. “I want to give these young people some wisdom for life, versus just basketball. I think that motivation has been extremely effective in dealing with the young men I have to deal with here.”
“All these guys are products of the times,” Lanier said. “Some are disrespectful. Some are irreverent and apathetic. But for the most part, they’re just like other youth today. Most of them are good people, striving to make good things happen in their lives.”
He touched a lot of kids’ lives over the years. Older fans recall him as a player in the glory days of the late 1960s, when Calvin Murphy was at Niagara and Lanier at Bona and Canisius still very competitive.
My good friend and former editor, Dennis Danheiser, revered Lanier so much as a kid that he developed a left-handed hook shot. Dennis remembers listening to Pistons games on the radio and keeping stats. You could get 760-AM WJR from Tonawanda back in those days.
“On my 10th birthday in January, I went to a Little Three game at the Aud,” Danheiser said. “Lanier vs. Calvin Murphy. After the game, my dad took me down to the floor and I got Lanier’s autograph on a program. Funny thing, I gave him a golf pencil and he looked at me and laughed because it was so small in his huge hand!”
Those two words — Little Three — take people back to a younger, more innocent time, when college basketball was the big night out at the Aud on a Saturday, when kids argued about who was better, Lanier or Murphy. It’s tough when local sports heroes pass on. Randy Smith. Rick Martin. Dale Hawerchuk. Kent Hull. Each time, you feel a little older.
Bob Lanier was an ambassador for the NBA, but also for his hometown. Like Buffalo, he had a big, giving heart and he shared it with the world. Calling him the city’s best basketball player only begins to describe it.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.