ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — There were a thousand thoughts, a thousand emotions, a thousand pictures colliding in Mark Schmidt’s heart, and in his head, as he took those final eight steps up the blue Werner ladder.
Schmidt snipped the final two pieces off the net, pulled it off the rim and waved it with a flourish over his head, waved it toward his family, waved it toward the mass of alumni and fans and friends who refused to let go of this perfect afternoon at Boardwalk Hall. Behind him, against the backboard, sat a sign that was almost poetic in its simplicity:
“ATLANTIC TEN CHAMPIONS”
And above, even more lyrical, numbers forever frozen on a scoreboard, forever to be lasered into the hearts and minds of the most fervent believers:
St. Bonaventure 67, Xavier 56.
In the moments before he took that final triumphant trip up the ladder, Schmidt had found a familiar face, smiled, and in a voice still so full of North Attleboro, Mass., he’d yelped, “The Bawn-ies are b-yack, baby!” But that swagger was gone now, replaced by a wide smile and a scrapbook of images flooding his mind:
The wisdom of his mentor, the late Skip Prosser, whose message when Schmidt called asking if he should take the offer from St. Bonaventure five years ago was a simple one: “Why can’t you bring them back?”
The voice of his assistant, Jeff Massey, one fateful day early in his tenure when Massey was calling from Canada and saying he’d seen a kid who reminded him of Greg Oden. And Schmidt’s reaction, a week later, when he saw that gangly 6-foot-9, 180-pound stringbean with his own eyes.
“That’s your new Greg Oden?” he asked.
Of course, as he stood on the ladder, Schmidt could still feel the hug he’d exchanged with that former stringbean as the seconds had melted away, as the reality of what they’d done together solidified, as Andrew Nicholson, softspoken superstar, had whispered, “Congratulations” into his coach’s ear and the coach had replied, “Thank you. For everything.”
There were a thousand thoughts, a thousand emotions, a thousand pictures colliding in Nicholson’ heart, too, and in his head, as he wandered the floor with an arm full of trophies, one for All-Tournament, one for Tournament MVP, while never wandering far from the big prize, the one awarded to the conference champions.
“Can you even believe it?” he asked his classmate, the injured forward Michael Davenport.
“Believe it,” Davenport said. “It’s real. All of it.”
That MVP hardware was earned thanks to a virtuoso 26-point, 14-rebound, eight-block masterpiece that immediately goes onto the permanent Bona shelf alongside Bob Lanier’s 50-point outburst against Purdue in the 1969 ECAC Holiday Festival; alongside Greg Sanders’ 40 points against Houston in the ’77 NIT Finals; alongside Tom Stith’s 46-point splurge in the triple-overtme win over Providence in 1960 that was probably the greatest game ever played at the old Armory.
Nicholson couldn’t help but recall Schmidt’s words to him when the coach was trying to lure the sleeper to Bona’s basketball courts and science labs: “You’re a special player,” Schmidt said, “and I want you to bring St. Bonaventure back.”
And on the day when that very thing had happened, this is what was foremost on Andrew Nicholson’s mind.
“I hope I made a difference,” he said with a shrug.
Said Schmidt: “People ask me if he’s better than Bob Lanier. Here’s what I know: He’s our Bob Lanier.”
Off to a side, watching all of this with a smile as wide and wonderful as the Boardwalk itself was Sister Margaret Carney, the president of this cozy school that had suddenly, in the course of a few months, become the basketball capital of New York state. The women’s team was already safely in the NCAA brackets which will be revealed tonight, thanks to an epic regular season record of 29-3 that has captured the imagination of so many students, alums, and members of the basketball cognoscenti.
Now, across three impossible days in New Jersey, across two of the most heart-stopping hours of basketball you’ll ever encounter, she’d seen the men’s team join them in a Mixer of Madness. And yes: there were a thousand thoughts, a thousand emotions, a thousand pictures colliding in Sister Margaret’s heart, too, and in her head.
“Do you have any idea where I was exactly nine years ago today?” she asked.
For anyone who remotely cares about St. Bonaventure University, that is a timeframe — “nine years ago” — that resonates the way the memory of a phone call in the middle of the night does, sending chills across the skin and a dull ache through the stomach. So much of what the loud, partisan crowd of 6,101 celebrated yesterday was not only the dawning of a precious present but the death, at last, of a perilous past.
Nine years ago to the day — March 11, 2003 — Sister Margaret and Father Dominic Monti had faced a grilling in Buffalo from media members who wanted to know if a University that had lost its way could reverse itself before losing its soul, too. The men’s basketball season had dissolved in scandal. The players had walked out on the last two games of the season. It had taken a century and a half to build a pristine reputation, and less than a week for a misguided president and a misanthropic coach to light it all on fire.
Sister Margaret — then the interim senior vice president for Franciscan charism — and Father Dominic — the interim president — provided the first signals that day that, yes, Bona was bigger than the bums who’d tried to bury it.
That day, in fact, Sister Margaret had said, “We’re a college that has always stood for something in particular.”
Nine years to the day later, beaming, she said, “It almost makes you want to cry, doesn’t it?”
Well, no. Not almost. Not if you looked close enough all around Boardwalk Hall. Because as those final seconds burned off the clock, as the players began to leap and frolic all over the court, as Schmidt exchanged handshakes and hugs with Xavier coach Chris Mack, what you heard was more than a grateful roar from the 5,000-or-so folks wearing Bonaventure hats, and Bonaventure jackets, and Bonaventure sweatshirts.
If you wondered why the roar hadn’t been louder, maybe it’s because it’s hard to scream at peak volume when your voice is cracking and your eyes are dusty.
Everyone had their reasons. On press row, Steve Watson — the athletic director on whose watch this splendid rise has occurred — spoke wistfully about a friend who’d spoken to his father yesterday morning, and it made Watson
remember his own dad, John, who died unexpectedly last April, who’d served as both an academic vice president and a basketball radio analyst at Bona as well as a basketball coach at Olean’s Archbishop Walsh High School.
“He would have loved this,” Waston said. “So much.”
Next to him sat Mike Sheehey, who 28 years ago had led the Bonnies into their first A-10 title game, a 59-56 loss at West Virginia that, until yesterday, served as the closest the program had ever come to snagging the league’s automatic bid. He’s a TV exec in Philadelphia now, but for a second you could see he was 22 again, daring to dream again.
“Good for them,” he said, looking at the celebrating players. “Good for us.
”He pointed at the crowd, all of them chanting “LET’S GO BONAS!” and “THIS IS BONA TERRITORY!” and “S! B! U!” and all the other Reilly Center stand-bys, all of them serenading Schmidt and Nicholson and Demetrius Conger and Charlon Kloof, none of them wanting to even think about leaving. Leaving would make all of this a memory — a fond one, a forever one, but a memory nonetheless. Tomorrow would be for memories.
Today was for celebration. Today was for the sign — “ATLANTIC TEN CHAMPIONS” - and the score, St. Bonaventure 67, Xavier 56, and, most of all, for the sentiment, first uttered by Schmidt and echoed by everyone else as they finally forced themselves to the door.
The Bonnies are back, baby.
(Mike Vaccaro, a 1989 Bona graduate, worked at the Times Herald from September 1989 until June 1991, covering the Bonnies during two years when they won 13 games and lost 43. He is now a columnist at the New York Post. E-mail: email@example.com.)