The rise and fall of Buffalo’s college hoops golden era

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Canisius’ Tony Masiello and St. Bonaventure’s Bob Lanier fight for a loose ball in a Little Three game at Memorial Auditorium in 1969. (Buffalo Stories archives)

For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Buffalo have been fanatically devoted to sports.  Since 1960 for the Bills and 1970 for the Sabres, relatively large, rabid fan bases have supported those squads through lean years and even lean decades with open wallets and enthusiasm.

Buffalo fans warmly remember Saturday night college basketball doubleheaders, followed by Sunday night American Hockey League Bisons games at Memorial Auditorium in the late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

But with college basketball bringing March Madness to Buffalo again next week, thoughts and conversation inevitably turn to the years before the Bills and Sabres when “Little Three” games between Niagara, St. Bonaventure and Canisius were the city’s most riotous sporting events, tickets to Saturday night basketball doubleheaders at Memorial Auditorium were Western New York’s hottest ticket, and Buffalo was universally recognized as one of America’s great college basketball towns.

Up until World War II, the most ferocious rivalry among the Little Three schools was in football, but as football became too costly, each of the schools had disbanded its team by 1951. Once students and alumni had only hoops to hang their hats on, the heated rivalries burned even brighter, and all of Buffalo came along for the ride.

St. Bonaventure stuffs Niagara at the goal line in a 1940 Little Three football tilt. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In his infamous 1969 Sports Illustrated piece on Buffalo sports and Buffalo’s sports fans, Brock Yates’ account of basketball at the Aud sears an image:

“Saturday night standing room-only crowds elbow their way into the grim, lakeside fortress known as Memorial Auditorium to scream for Canisius.”

A few years later, Ray Ryan remembered it this way in a 1975 article in Buffalo Fan magazine:

“The collegians and their camp follows would converge on the downtown hall early in the evening, elbowing through the crowded lobby, passing the turnstiles, and crowding up to the beer stands … (with) an electric air of excitement as the cheering and jeering began …”

Basketball doubleheaders had been all the rage at New York City’s Madison Square Garden when Buffalo’s first two-game basketball set was played in 1936 at the Broadway Auditorium. Canisius played Georgetown and Niagara played St. Bonaventure in “a program worthy of any court in the country.”

The 1936 Canisius Golden Griffins basketball team, including future city councilman and “Over the Tavern” inspiration Big Joe Dudzick, bottom row, third from right. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The venue was an upgrade in size from Canisius’ usual home court at the Elmwood Music Hall, and the ability to fill the larger space showed basketball’s honing in on boxing as one of Buffalo’s favorite spectator sports.

But there was still room for improvement in those early years. The Broadway Auditorium was larger, but not regulation. Notre Dame’s coach George Keogan almost refused to play on the barn’s concrete floor, but with 5,000 spectators watching, he was assured by a Canisius official that it was “soft concrete” and the game went on with a laugh.

Canisius played many home games at the Elmwood Music Hall, which stood at the corner of Elmwood and Edward until 1938. (Buffalo Stories archives)

As World War II dawned, and continuing after the war, Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure each became competitive and started attracting some of the country’s best teams on the way to or from those big dates in New York City. It was a confluence of great basketball, great fans, great gates and Memorial Auditorium’s opening in 1940 to make all parties involved excited for college basketball doubleheaders in Buffalo.

Through the early ’50s, the Aud was guaranteed 10,000 spectators, usually with more filling up standing room. Then things waned. There was a point-shaving scandal with several big New York City schools. Pro-basketball started catching on in New York in the scandal’s wake, and college basketball as a whole took some lumps.

Canisius vs. Niagara at Memorial Auditorium, 1951. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The local series was not without hiccups even through the glory years. The late Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser, himself a Little Three athlete as guard on the Cansius football squad, said that pettiness between the schools was as much a part of the tradition as the games themselves.

It was a critical hit was when, in 1958, Niagara pulled out of the Aud doubleheaders. A few years later, Bona opened the Reilly Center and trips to Buffalo became less important.

In 1965, then-Ellicott District Councilman James D. Griffin wrote letters to the presidents of Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure inviting them to a Common Council discussion on the use of the Aud and the Rockpile.

Niagara phenom Calvin Murphy can’t make it past Canisius players Tom Pasternak and Tony Masiello, (Buffalo Stories archives)

Writing “as a sport fan as well as a member of the Common Council,” Griffin hoped it would be possible for the differences that broke up the Little Three’s run at The Aud to be set aside “not only for the same of the loyal fans, but also for the sake of the City of Buffalo, which enjoyed much favorable publicity due to the high caliber of ball played in previous contests.”

College basketball’s last great kick at the can came in the end of the 1960s, and it had to do as much with great players as schools setting aside differences.

Each of the Little Three had big stars to help capture the sports passions of Buffalo. After starring for Black Rock’s Cardinal Dougherty High School, Tony Masiello went on to star for Canisius College before being drafted by the Indiana Pacers in the 1969 NBA Draft.

Bennett High’s Bob Lanier led St. Bonaventure to an NCAA Final Four bid in 1970, before a Hall of Fame pro career with the Pistons and Bucks.

And before he ever shot a basket for Niagara, Calvin Murphy — who remains the shortest player ever inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame — was entertaining Bills fans with his champion baton-twirling during halftime breaks at the Rockpile.

The energy and excitement these three brought to the court and to the old Little Three rivalry was just enough for Buffalo to win an NBA franchise in 1970. The Braves were wildly popular until the end of the season, when top players were traded away and the franchise was sold and moved out of town.

But with the huge following of the pro Bills and Sabres, it was too late to rekindle the glory days of the Little Three. An attempt was made in 1996 with the opening of then-Marine Midland Arena, adding UB to make the Big 4. While there was some excitement among fans, it was the schools that put a damper on the idea by not cooperating in scheduling games.

“Does this sound like something out of a 35-year-old time capsule or what?” wrote Larry Felser on one of those opinionated days in 1997.

Torn-Down Tuesday: The fetid, festering Hamburg Canal

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The Hamburg Canal, which was built to divert traffic from the busy Erie Canal. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Before they were even finished digging the Hamburg Canal, in 1849, the standing, fetid water in the half-dug ditch was blamed in part for a growing cholera crisis in what we now call the First Ward and Canalside areas.

1896 map with Hamburg Canal highlighted in blue. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Originally conceived to help divert traffic away from the busy Erie Canal, soon the railroads were doing a good enough job of making the Hamburg Canal in particular nearly completely obsolete.

For decades, the fate of the canal was a political hot potato. Albany politicians tried to wrestle control of the valuable land. Others vowed the city could make a fortune by filling it in and getting the land into the hands of the railroads – but which railroad seemed to be the point of disagreement.

Meanwhile, the mucky water sat festering.

The Common Council declared the Hamburg Canal a nuisance in 1869. The following year, Buffalo Mayor Alexander Brush and a group of concerned citizens took a tugboat tour of the Canal from Michigan Street to the Buffalo Harbor. One participant called the waterway “a horrible bed of pestilence.”

It got worse from there. A 1912 report called the canal a “mass of decaying filth, stagnant water, foul-smelling, and covered by a dark scum.”

The largest part of the Hamburg Canal was finally put out of its misery when the Lehigh Valley Railroad built Buffalo’s glowing new passenger terminal on a filled-in portion of it in 1916.

Hate for the man-made waterway was reignited when Depression-era WPA workers came across a long-covered portion of the canal running where they had been planning on building the foundation of Memorial Auditorium. Special reinforced sewers were built below The Aud to allow the old canal’s waters to continue to move all through the building’s nearly 70-year history.

Today, the Canalside rink, the Courtyard by Marriott and The Buffalo News are all on ground that was once Buffalo’s most derided waterway.

Buffalo in the ’80s: Sabres score nine goals in a single period

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Second period box score
second period box score

It’s an NHL record that stands to this day.

On March 19, 1981, the Buffalo Sabres became the only team to score nine goals in a single period. The torrent of goals came in a 14-4 trouncing of the Toronto Maple Leafs at Memorial Auditorium.

In just that second period, Gil Perreault had a hat trick. Andre Savard and Ric Seiling each had four points. Savard had two goals, Seiling, Derek Smith, Craig Ramsay and Danny Gare also each had a goal.

The score after two periods at Memorial Auditorium. Torontos three goals combined for the most ever scored in an NHL game.

The score after two periods at Memorial Auditorium. Toronto’s three goals combined for the most ever scored in an NHL game.

Perreault returned from a rib injury that night to “the easiest hat trick (he)’d ever had.”

“It was a great, beautiful night,” said Andre Savard, who had three goals and six points on the night. “We played well in the first period and couldn’t score, but we did score in the second period.”

Here are photos of four of the nine goals:

sports090

Andre Savard with one of his two goals in the record-breaking period. Buffalo News archives

sports090-22

Gil Perreault scores one of his three in the record-breaking period.

sports089

Bill Hajt, Craig Ramsay, Andre Savard and Jim Schoenfeld celebrate another of the Sabres nine goals in the second period. Buffalo News archives

sports089-22

Ric Seiling scores top shelf.

Buffalo in the ’70s: Hubert Humphrey and the Buffalo Braves

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Vice President Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee for president in 1968 when he lost to Richard Nixon in the general election. In 1971, as he contemplated another run at Nixon the following year, he stopped in Buffalo for a pre-campaign visit and to take in the Buffalo Braves home opener at The Aud.

Humphrey-Hubert251

Senator Humphrey appears to be having a better time than Mayor Frank Sedita as the former VP gets ready to lob the ball out onto the court.

Humphrey-Hubert252-1

Humphrey visits quickly with the Braves cheerleaders. No record of whether an “ooh, ahh… Hubert on the warpath” chant broke out.

Humphrey-Hubert252

Fans directly behind them in the golds and reds don’t seem too interested in the courtside conversation going on between Braves owner Paul Snyder, Braves Captain Walt Hazzard, Vice President Humphrey, and Mayor Sedita. That night, Hazzard, in his first game with the Braves after being acquired from the Hawks in the offseason, led the Braves with 14 points as they were pounced by the Seattle Supersonics, 123-90.

Buffalo in the ’70s: Rick Jeanneret in the Aud Press Box

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Spine-tingling. Quirky. Explosive. Imaginative. These are all words that have been printed in The News over the last 45 years to describe Rick Jeanneret’s colorful Buffalo Sabres play-by-play style. Rick, in comparing himself to another wild and exciting play-by-play man said, “I don’t think he’s quite as nuts as I am.”

Buffalo News archives, 1989

Like most of us who have grown up with Jeanneret as an inseparable part of what the Sabres are to us, it was easy to take his style and personality for granted. “This is how hockey—how Sabres hockey—sounds, right?”

The new announcers who have taken some of the load off Rick’s schedule over the last few years do the job well. They describe the play in a knowledgeable, exciting, fun, and professional manner. But Rick is, well, in his word, “nuts.” There’s nothing forced about him talking about how tough a “lady is for taking a puck off the coconut” and “not even spilling her beer.”

Rick Jeanneret and the late Voice of the Bills Van Miller are different in almost every conceivable way, but the one way  they were exactly the same is the same way they honest-to-goodness lose their minds when their team—our team—does the extraordinary. There’s nothing fake in the shouting. Rick’s goal calls mix perfectly with the explosion of screaming at taverns and gin mills and in living rooms and in cars all over the place—because it’s the same excitement.

We all remember “May Day” and “LalalalalalaFontaine” and “Hasek robbed him blind!,” but there was also, “whooooa, he really PUNCHED him,” and “HERE COMES SHIELDS,” as goalie Steve Shields skated the length of the ice to make sure his teammates weren’t outnumbered in a fight. There was also the infamous question for a Quebec Nordiques goalie  shouted in the course of impassioned play-by-play, “Richard Sevingy–  Where’s your jockstrap!?!?”

Our guy RJ, inseparable from our love for Sabres hockey, watches the game and says the things we wish we were smart and cool enough to say. If he were only one of us, he’d be the funniest, most excitable, best-informed guy watching the game with us at the tavern. Instead, for 45 years, he’s been the funniest, most excitable, best-informed guy in every tavern in Western New York.

When News reporter Lee Coppola visited Jeanneret in the Memorial Auditorium press box in 1979, he wrote that when watching Rick work behind the mic high above the Aud ice, “it’s his feet that catch the eye … a cup of beer to his right and a filter cigarette in the ashtray to his left.”

Buffalo News archives, 1979

His feet never stopped tapping while he was telling us what he saw on the ice, but he says he limited himself to one beer per period to “help loosen his tonsils” while calling the game the way he’d want to hear it. By 1989, the beer drinking during the games had dried up—mostly because, Jeanneret told The News in 1992, new arenas were being built without thinking of a play-by-play man’s washroom needs.

It all started one day in 1963, when Jeanneret was a disc jockey at CJRN Radio in Niagara Falls. He went to a junior game as a fan. Despite the fact that he’d never done hockey play-by-play before, folks from the station came to find him when the guy who was supposed to announce the game on the radio called in sick. He’s been a hockey announcer ever since, including for some time with the American Hockey League Buffalo Bisons, and living inside our radios and TVs as one of the voices of Sabres hockey since 1971.

“I’ve got a better job than Wayne Gretzky,” RJ told The News in 1992. “I just don’t make as much money.”

Buffalo in the ’70s: Bob McAdoo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tangle at the Aud

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It was an overtime thriller in a battle of two of the NBA’s premier big men as Bob McAdoo and the Braves hosted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lakers at Memorial Auditorium.

Buffalo News archives

It was Nov. 9, 1976, and McAdoo was showing the stuff that had won him the NBA MVP Award a season earlier.

Down by 20 heading into the fourth quarter, McAdoo led a comeback — including hitting a basket with two seconds left to tie the game. Randy Smith’s eight points in overtime cemented the Braves’ 121-116 victory.

Abdul-Jabbar led the game with 37 points in the losing effort; McAdoo had 34.

Buffalo fans were getting one of their last looks at McAdoo in a Buffalo uniform. Exactly one month to the day after this photo was taken, McAdoo was traded to the New York Knicks along with Tom McMillen for John Gianelli and cash.

McAdoo and Abdul-Jabbar ended up teammates on two Los Angeles Lakers championship teams where McAdoo was the sixth man on the club that also featured fellow Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and James Worthy.

Buffalo in the ’50s: Gorgeous George brings showmanship to the Aud

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Gorgeous George was wrestling’s first bad guy. He invented the persona after he married his real-life wife in the ring, and then over and over again, seeing the potential for showmanship in the sport, which had little of it before his silk robes and atomizer.

Buffalo News archives

This photo comes from a 1949 match at the Aud, with GG (as the papers of the day referred to him) against Ray Villmer, “The Mighty Yankee.”

You can be sure the crowd was erupting as it looked like “The Human Orchid” might finally lose. From a clipping on another match:

Gorgeous hardly is gaining in favor with the populace. Mincing down the aisle in a cream robe, cape style, he was the target for assorted paper cartons and one entire beer. He was thrown out of the ring early in the mill, and his well-being appeared endangered until he escaped.

GG is well-remembered for rebuffing any touch with a boisterous “Get your filthy paws off of me,” but two events remained etched into the psyches of Buffalo wrestling fans. One, the night Stormy Bob Wagner “gave Gorgeous an authentic beating” at Memorial Auditorium, complete with a real head wound created by GG’s perfume bottle.

The other press event involved Gorgeous George driving to the Aud down Main Street in a convertible, waving around handfuls of dollar bills. When he began to throw them out to “the peasants” in Lafayette Square, a riot almost ensued.

The stories are emblematic of a showman whose curly locks and silky robes helped make wrestling into a popular attraction that became the multi-billion dollar industry it is today.

To remember GG as merely a heel wrestler — even only as “The First Heel Wrestler” — belittles his memory. The Human Orchid was one of the great stars of early television. Wrestling was cheap, flashy and easy to televise — and Gorgeous George was the performer that people loved to hate. It was said that in TV’s earliest years, Gorgeous George’s appearance on TV sold as many televisions as Milton Berle’s.

Gorgeous George — his legal name after 1950 — died of a heart attack at age 48 in 1963, just as another boisterous, flamboyant, larger-than-life personality began his career in the ring — albeit the boxing ring.

In the same 1964 Associated Press story that asked if Cassius Clay was “a hoax … or the new golden boy,” his promotional style was offered up as patterned after Gorgeous George.

Buffalo in the ’50s: The closest Buffalo’s ever come to a presidential debate

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

During the 1952 presidential campaign, both the Republican and Democratic candidates visited Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium for rallies on back-to-back days.

Buffalo News archives

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War II and Republican candidate, drew a crowd of 20,000 at the Aud. The photo shows the future first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, along with former New York Gov. and 1948 Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, on the Aud stage. At the time, it was the largest-ever crowd in the building.

The day before, Gov. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, spoke to about 13,000 at the Aud.

The Courier-Express called the two days of campaigning “Buffalo’s Great Presidential Debate.” Judging by the numbers of supporters who showed up for each event, Eisenhower won the debate — and the White House. He served two terms, with Mamie as first lady, from 1953 to 1960.

Buffalo in the ’70s: Cheering on your Buffalo Braves

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo News archives

“Oh, ah, Braves on the warpath.”

We can’t be sure exactly what the cheer was at the moment News Photographer Robert L. Smith snapped this photo, but the scorer’s table at Memorial Auditorium didn’t seem too impressed.

Fans in the Gold and Red seats, however, seemed to be paying closer attention.

Buffalo in the ’70s: Up in the Oranges, hanging on for dear life

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

As hockey season gets underway in Buffalo, inevitably someone will wax poetic about the great old days of watching the Sabres at Memorial Auditorium.

Buffalo News archives

While the memories might be sweet, the modern hockey fan might not last even one period without complaint.

This 1973 photo shows the extreme pitch of seats in the Orange section of the Aud as compared to the grade in the Upper Blue section just below.  Even the most thrilling fights on the ice were often outmatched by the hundreds of people fighting vertigo after standing up too quickly from their perch in the Orange section after a beer or three.

The photo also shows one of The Aud’s features which even the most nostalgic fan has a hard time recalling with warmth. Look at the legs underneath the lighted sign, and remember the obstructed Upper Blue seats, from which fans watched a good portion of the hockey action on ancient television sets dangling from the underside of the Oranges.

The plastic-backed orange seats date to the 1971 expansion of The Aud, when the roof was raised to make room for the upper level.

The wooden blue seats—which before the expansion were gray—dated back to the original construction of Memorial Auditorium in 1940.

The Aud closed in 1996 as the Sabres (as well as the Bandits and Blizzard) moved into Marine Midland Arena (now First Niagara Center.)

Memorial Auditorium was slowly dismantled in 2009, and the site is now covered with canals replicating the original Erie Canal. The canals are open for paddle boats in warmer weather, and ice skating when frozen. A marker in the canal points to where The Aud’s center ice faceoff dot once was.