The big feet.
For many basketball fans, the one thing they remember is the enormous feet. If you go to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, you can see a bronzed pair of what Converse says are size 18½ sneakers. That’s the curse of being Bob Lanier. People remember you for your gigantic feet.
The fact is those feet anchored a rare body. For what I most remember about the late Bob Lanier was that, at 6 feet 11 inches and approximately 270 pounds, his moves could almost be described as elegant. He was, without question, the most graceful man of size who ever played in the NBA.
Were I a cartoonist, or if I were to commission one, I would have portrayed Lanier shooting a hook shot with an elephant’s trunk replacing his nose. And I would dress him in a tutu. I would call if “The Ballerina Pachyderm” and it would be a supreme compliment.
Hubie Brown agrees. “People who never saw him cannot imagine how graceful he was is in the paint,” Brown says.
Bob Lanier, who died Tuesday at age 73, entered the national consciousness in the 1967-68 season as a sophomore at St. Bonaventure. The Buffalo native led the Bonnies to a 23-2 season that included a first-round 102-93 NCAA triumph over Boston College down at Keaney Gym at the University of Rhode Island (I broadcast that game for student station WVBC). Two years later, St. Bonaventure went 25-3 en route to the Final Four. The only problem was that the Bonnies arrived in College Park, Md., without their star player, who had torn an MCL in a freak collision with Chris Ford (a future Detroit Pistons teammate) in the late stages of a 97-74 destruction of Villanova in the Eastern Regional final.
Hence the great “what if?” The undermanned Bonnies put up a valiant fight before losing a 91-83 decision to Jacksonville and Artis Gilmore in the national semifinals. With Lanier, could the Bonnies have beaten Jacksonville and, in the final, UCLA? I join countless St. Bonaventure fans by answering in the affirmative. Lanier left St. Bonaventure having averaged 27 points and 15 rebounds a game, and he remains the greatest player in school history.
Now, the 1970 NBA Draft was loaded. The first round included the likes of Rudy Tomjanovich, Dave Cowens, Geoff Petrie, and Jim McMillian. And, get this, future Hall of Famers Calvin Murphy and Tiny Archibald led off the second round. Wait, there’s more. ABA signees and future Hall of Famers Charlie Scott and Dan Issel were grabbed by Boston (seventh round) and Detroit (eighth), respectively.
But the first pick of that bountiful draft? Bob Lanier; that’s who.
He was off on a 15-year journey to the Hall of fame. The first nine-plus years were spent in Detroit and the remainder in Milwaukee. His career averages were 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. He made eight All-Star Games. He was the MVP of the 1974 All-Star Game. He was also named the winner of the 1977 Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award. He left Detroit as the franchise leader in points and rebounds (Isiah Thomas has overtaken him on points and Bill Laimbeer on rebounds).
Lanier had a complete offensive game, startling with a dominant low-post repertoire. “In my first two years in Milwaukee, 1973 and 1974,” points out Brown (then an assistant to Larry Costello with the Bucks), “he definitely could match Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] in all the offensive facets of the game, with regards to shooting ability, size, quickness, and power. He had advanced moves in the low post.”
Lanier also happened to be ahead of his time in a very important way. He was a very large man with a very soft touch from the outside. He had excellent range up to 20 feet, and like countless others of his time, had he been asked to extend his range to shoot the you-know-what, he would have put in the time to do so. It just didn’t happen to be a job requirement for NBA centers.
His time was the 1970s and ‘80s, and this was the Golden Age of NBA (and ABA) centers. The big southpaw competed with the aforementioned Kareem, Wilt Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Cowens, Nate Thurmond, Gilmore, Bill Walton, Robert Parish, Moses Malone, Jack Sikma, Jerry Lucas, Mel Daniels, and the unjustly forgotten Tom Boerwinkle. I assure you none of these gentlemen looked forward to their encounters with the man known universally in the NBA community as “The Dobber” (or was it “Dawber?” There was some debate).
Here’s one more distinction: Lanier’s uniform number was retired by St. Bonaventure, the Pistons, and the Bucks.
But all this was Part A of the Bob Lanier Story. Part B was the 30 years spent in the employ of the NBA as a goodwill global ambassador. The tributes pouring in following word of his death had as much to do with The Man as with The Athlete. He was a man of great warmth with admirable people skills.
About the only thing missing on his résumé was a spot on the list of the NBA’s Top 75 all-time players. Well, OK. We can argue forever about that. What we do know for a fact is that Bob Lanier was a top-10 person.
Bob Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.