Former QC basketball standout recalls day Hawks were introduced to future NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier
QUINCY (WGEM) - The feet.
The size of the feet that’s what Dan Tolbert remembers most.
The feet Tolbert was referencing belonged to Bob Lanier, a gargantuan 6-foot-11, a 270-pound sophomore making his college basketball debut for St. Bonaventure University against Quincy College.
”His feet were humongous,” said Tolbert, who 55 years ago Friday was the starting center in a game the Hawks lost 103-55. “We’d be standing at the free throw line, and I’d look down and all I could see was his feet. Couldn’t even see his legs.”
Yes, 55 years ago on Dec. 2, 1967, the collegiate basketball world was introduced to Bob Lanier and his size 22 shoes and the rest, as they say, is history. Lanier was eventually inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992 after a celebrated 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks.
QU coach John Ortwerth assigned Tolbert the task of guarding Lanier, who died at age 73 on May 10 in Phoenix, Arizona.
”Well, I guess you could use that term,” Tolbert said of his “assignment.”
”I guarded him most of the game and I couldn’t block his shot,” said Tolbert, who was giving away about five inches in height and 50 to 60 pounds in weight. “He was just so big, but he was also quick and a great jumper for as big as he was.”
Lanier, whose size 22 shoes were the biggest in NBA history until Shaquille O’Neal and his size 23s came along, finished the game with 25 points, numerous rebounds, and blocked shots, although official numbers weren’t available.
”I didn’t have much chance rebounding against him because he’d just jump over me,” said Tolbert, who finished with seven points. “Just watching him warm up, you knew he was going to be a great player. He had a lot of ability.”
Tolbert also told of a memorable trash-talking exchange during the game.
”Lanier looked down at me, glared and said, ‘What did you say to me?’ " Tolbert recalled. “I thought I’d say something first, see if I could rattle him a little bit.
”So, what did Tolbert say to get the exchange started?
”I’m not gonna tell you that,” Tolbert said with a laugh.
The first time Tolbert played against Lanier was not his first glimpse of the 19-year-old man/child.
During Tolbert’s junior year during the 1966-67 season, the Hawks played at St. Bonaventure, Steubenville (Ohio) and Youngstown State (Ohio) to open the season. Per NCAA rules, freshmen weren’t allowed to play in varsity games.
”I saw him (Lanier) sitting over there in the stands in that old gym and what an impression his size made,” Tolbert said. “Now, it would be like looking over and seeing Shaq.”
As far as the game, the Hawks were never in it as the Bonnies grabbed a 14-0 lead in the first three minutes and were never headed. QC, which trailed 49-22 at halftime, was led by Mike Mathews with 13 points and Mike Brady with 12. The Hawks shot a frigid 27 percent (24 of 90) from the field but actually outrebounded the Bonnies 44-39.
The game was the first played in St. Bonaventure’s new University Center in Olean, N.Y. Previously, the team played home games in Buffalo, N.Y., or New York City. The game was the second of a two-game East Coast trip for QC, which played the night before at Gannon (Pa.) College.
Tolbert said the Hawks had a heckuva time just getting to the games.
”The weather was bad, and they couldn’t get the old DC-3 plane out of the Quincy airport,” Tolbert said. “So, we had to bus to Springfield and fly from there.”
The delayed flight set down at the airport in Erie, Pa., about 10 minutes before the scheduled game time, then the Hawks entered the gym before a hostile standing-room crowd of 3,300. The travel woes didn’t help much as QC quickly fell behind 18-3 in an eventual 62-51 loss.
The next night it was on to play St. Bonaventure, which went on to win its next 25 games after beating the Hawks before losing in the East Regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. The Bonnies reached the Sweet Sixteen in both 1968 and 1970, reaching the 1970 semifinals. But playing without the injured Lanier, the Bonnies lost to Jacksonville, which featured 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore, in the 1970 semifinals. Lanier was selected to the AP All-America first team in 1970 and second team in 1968 and 1969.
Lanier was drafted by the Pistons and played in Detroit until 1979 before playing his final four seasons with the Bucks. For his NBA career, Lanier averaged 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. He was also an eight-time All-Star, was named MVP of the 1974 All-Star Game and to the All-Rookie team in 1971. His number 16 was retired by both the Bucks and Pistons.
As for the Hawks, they finished the 1967-68 season with a 19-10 record after a first-round loss to Valdosta State at the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City. That record came on the heels of 20-6 and 17-14 seasons.
Tolbert, who was inducted into the QU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004, is the school’s single season record holder for rebounds per game at 14.3, set during the 1966-67 season, and the school’s sixth all-time leading rebounder with 935, averaging 9.1 rebounds per game.
He was also team captain and MVP in 1967 and received numerous all-conference and all-district honors as well as NAIA All-America honorable mention selection.
Tolbert said he competed against several players who eventually played in the NBA or the old ABA and followed their careers as time allowed.
”Al Tucker from Oklahoma Baptist was one as well as Lanier,” Tolbert said. “And then there was Henry Logan.”
Just weeks after playing St. Bonaventure, QC hosted its annual holiday tournament, the biggest and best NAIA event outside of the national tournament.
The Hawks lost to Logan and Western Carolina 116-101 in the semifinals as the 5-foot-9 Logan dazzled a sellout Memorial Gym crowd with a mesmerizing 53-point performance.
”We knew all about Logan,” Tolbert said. “(QC guard) Jimmie Byrd said, “I’ll be waiting for him as soon as he gets off the bus.”
So much for that plan.
Tolbert, who now lives in Highland, Ill., received his bachelor’s degree in 1968 before serving a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army. After discharge, Tolbert earned a doctorate from Saint Louis University in 1978 and then spent a long career on the faculty of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, where he authored numerous research papers and books.
He and his wife of 50 years, Bernie, have two adult children and a granddaughter. He is currently a member of the QU Board of Trustees.
For Tolbert and his QU teammates, they can always say they were there when the seeds of a Hall of Fame basketball career were planted.
The night Bob Lanier blossomed.
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