When St. Bonaventure, the second-best basketball team in the country, took the floor in its familiar—though hideous—Olean, N.Y. Armory last Saturday night, there was a deafening clamor from the breathing-room-only crowd of 2,200 students, their faculty of Franciscan friars and the local townspeople. They had all come to see the Bonnies extend basketball's longest home-game winning streak to a round 100 games. A hundred minutes later they sat in shocked silence as the same team walked off the floor, soundly beaten 87-77 by Niagara University in the most improbable upset of the season.
In winning, Niagara paid no attention to the partisan tumult and shouting, was unaffected by the crowd that sits exactly two inches from the playing area on one side of the court, and ignored the balcony which projects to the edge of the other side of the playing area. The visitors seemed to revel in the way the dim light reflected off the bilious-green walls. They behaved as if this architectural monstrosity in western New York state was their own home instead of St. Bonaventure's.
Even more important, Niagara's Purple Eagles broke through the unusual galloping-Gertie style of defense with which the Bonnies had won 21 games this year (they had lost only one, to Ohio State, before Saturday). It was enough to tax the equanimity of even a Franciscan, and the members of the order which founded St. Bonaventure University 103 years ago left the Olean Armory sorely taxed indeed. The friars take their basketball seriously.
The day before the game Rev. Brian G. Lhota, president of the university and a doctor of philosophy, explained: "I have a special place to stand at the armory. I do this because, frankly, I am too nervous to sit down. But I am not the worst. There are some who feel the excitement of a game is too much of a strain. They stay on campus and listen on the radio. One friar refuses to do even that. He leaves the radio off but dashes out of his room every five minutes to ask the score.
"You must understand that the Franciscans are a rather good-natured lot," he continued. "We like to say St. Francis put the smile into Christianity. We enjoy life." That obviously includes basketball.
In the neighboring library building, meanwhile, the school's slight and scholarly librarian, Rev. Irenaeus Herscher, was showing around the oldest Bible in America as casually as if it were a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, pointing out the two Rembrandts which hang in the reading room and volunteering some tidbits of Franciscan lore. Why, for instance, is a plain rope used to cinch up the middle of the ankle-length brown robes worn by the friars? "Because as a man grows, he becomes more outstanding," explained the friar. "The cord allows for expansion." Father Irenaeus does not attend the basketball games. He is one of the radio listeners.
While the friars were sedately fitful about the game (not a little because Niagara is an archrival run by another Catholic order), the 1,400 students at St. Bonaventure were more vigorously excited. At one end of the main cross-campus walk, a 30-foot maple had been transformed into a hanging tree, with the effigies of 13 Bonnie opponents swinging in the wind. "They aren't too difficult to make," said the sophomore in charge. "Stuff one dummy, and you've stuffed them all." The archway of the gymnasium was decorated with a sign reading "Purple Eagle Eaters," and across the main entrance to the campus was stretched a couplet on canvas: "100 wins on the armory slate, NCAA and Ohio State." On Friday night the student senate threw a pep rally, complete with 200 cases of beer. "We may be a small college," summed up one enthused student, "but we have a big winner."
St. Bonaventure is a big winner. Coached by Eddie Donovan, a smiling 38-year-old who doubles as athletic director, the team has been ranked second in the country for weeks and never worse than third. The Bonnies average 90 points a game, tops among major colleges, but it is their defense which is intriguing and the defense which would give them at least an outside chance of victory if they meet Ohio State in the coming NCAA championships.
The defense works around Whitey Martin and Orris Jirele, two guards who begin pressing an opposing ball handler as soon as he nears the center line. Martin is a 6-foot-2 sandy-haired senior with hands as quick as a nervous pickpocket. Unlike most players on defense, he keeps his hands low and tries always to have them near the ball. He gets more fun out of stealing a pass than making a basket. Jirele, 5 feet 11 inches, jiggles and jerks around the court like a mechanical toy. Somebody wound him up tight and threw the key away. Of Bohemian ancestry, he is a violinist at heart. When a nun from his home town of Austin, Minn. learned Jirele was playing basketball she wrote Coach Donovan and demanded to know how he could permit such talented hands to be used in a mere game. But then, she never saw Jirele and Martin jitterbugging around a confused opponent.
"Our defense is neither zone nor man-to-man," says Donovan. "We play the ball. That's what counts two points when it goes into the basket." The Bonaventure team obviously enjoys this bustling defense. It plays it with vigor and élan. When an opponent broke away from a Bonnie guard recently he called cheerfully up the court to his teammates, "Cut him off at the pass."