Education

Stith Brothers' Legacy Extends Beyond the Court

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Tom (left) and Sam (right) Stith with their legendary basketball coach Eddie Donovan. Credits: St. Bonaventure University Archives
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A 1998 Bona Venture article about the unique challenges that confronted the Stith brothers. Credits: St. Bonaventure University Archives
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Editor's Note: One year ago today, the St. Bonaventure University community gathered in the university chapel for an open forum on race relations that was prompted by disturbing items posted on social media. At the start of the forum, the Rev. Francis Di Spigno, O.F.M, executive director of University Ministries, told a story about Sam and Tom Stith, the first two African-Americans to play basketball for St. Bonaventure. He said that when a restaurant refused to allow the team’s African-American players to eat in its main dining area and ushered them into a back room, the entire team joined them in that back room as a sign of solidarity.

After the forum, University President Sr. Margaret Carney, O.S.F., and Richard A. Lee, associate professor of journalism and mass communication, discussed the importance of preserving the Stith brothers’ story and the role they played off the court. Joseph Pinter, a graduate assistant in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a 2015 Jandoli School graduate, interviewed Sam Stith for the story below, which is accompanied by related materials from the university archives.

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No, Bob Lanier did not put St. Bonaventure basketball in the national spotlight. And while they contributed, Jim Baron and Andrew Nicholson did not either. 

In fact, the Brown Indians had been a premier basketball program for nearly 10 years before Lanier laced his massive, size 22 sneakers and took the court in brown and white.

The beginnings of Bonaventure’s successful basketball program can be traced indirectly back to Harlem, where two brothers were slowly making a name for themselves.

* * *

At many points in their childhood, Sam and Tom Stith could have veered off. They could have lost hope in their future as they watched their father and mother die. And shortly after their grandmother began raising them, she passed away, too.

Their sister, Eva, was adamant her brothers would not end up in orphanages. She fought to keep her brothers with her as they struggled through all that they lost in their short lives.

Eva may not have known it at the time, but she showed the Stith brothers the right path in life. A path of perseverance and grit. Not the easy path – the right path.

The Stiths were born in rural Virginia; after their father died, the family moved to Harlem. When Sam was 10 years old, and Tom was 8, they began learning basketball from neighbors and community members.

The Stith brothers ended up playing on a team in a New York City tournament that defeated St. Francis Prep, which had won the Catholic High School League the previous year. The St. Francis coach offered Sam, a 6-foot-2 playmaker, and his younger brother scholarships.

Sam had enjoyed his experience at St. Francis enough that he wanted to attend a Franciscan college. Enter tiny St. Bonaventure University in western New York. Some at the time may have been surprised since Sam had been recruited by much larger schools, but to him it was easy: he wanted to continue in the Franciscan tradition he came to know and love.

He came to campus in 1957 as the first black basketball player in the history of the university. There were other black athletes at the time, but not basketball players. He carried a fairly large load on his shoulders as he tried to, as he calls it, “help integration through basketball.”

To that point, he was wildly successful.

Sam excelled as a Brown Indian, as the team was named for many years, playing under legendary basketball coach Eddie Donovan. Sam then convinced Tom to commit to Bonaventure two years later, and the two were once again the focus of opposing coaches’ game plans.

Add in Freddie Crawford, also a black student athlete, and Brown Indians fans were treated to some of the greatest years in St. Bonaventure sports history.

Over the next few years, the Brown Indians played in the NIT and NCAA Tournaments. Sam believes he and Tom were the “greatest brothers in Division I history.”

They do hold the NCAA record for most combined points per game in a season – Sam with 20 and Tom with 30.

“We were like a unit of one,” Sam said.

Jack Aicher, a 1952 St. Bonaventure graduate, attorney and president of the New York City chapter of Bonaventure alumni at the time the Stiths played, frequently shared personal reminiscences about the Brown Indians. In a letter he sent around to the Bonaventure community, he described Tom, who was 3 inches taller than Sam, as a “scorer with smooth, graceful, athletic moves on the court that could remind one of the Bolshoi Ballet.”

Sam and Tom Stith both went on to spend time in the NBA with the New York Knicks and a few other professional teams.

Tom was diagnosed with tuberculosis and had his NBA career cut short. Sam only played a few more seasons professionally until he left basketball to enter a career in banking.

But nowadays anyone who walks the halls of the Reilly Center can see the Stiths’ footprints are still evident. Their numbers hang retired over Bob Lanier Court, and they have plaques commemorating their contribution to the basketball program and university.

Their contribution to another cause was even greater, however.

In the 1950s and 1960s black basketball players went to what were referred to as “black colleges” and they did not attend other schools. Very few NBA players were minorities.

Sam believes he and his brother had a big role in fixing that. They “changed the climate” at basketball programs, he believes.

“It’s changed,” Sam said. “Integration through basketball has occurred worldwide. … It helped a lot of people throughout the world through integration.”

Today, roughly 70 percent of NBA players are black – a long way from where the game was when the Stith brothers were polishing their jump shots on playgrounds in Harlem.

“It’s not a color thing now when it comes to whom fans root for,” Sam said.

The Stith brothers were not the first black athletes to call Bonaventure home. Roi Ottley and his brother Jerome, along with several other students from NYC came to Allegany to run track and cross country in the late 1920s. 

Jerome Ottley captured many of these memories in a book published years later. He noted that while he attended St. Bonaventure he was just part of the gang and "forgot he was a Negro." When he transferred to the University of Michigan "he was barred from such activities as debating and dramatics. He was a Negro again."

The Stith brothers had been the most notable student-athletes at St. Bonaventure to help break the color barrier. For that, both kept special places in their hearts for the tiny Franciscan school on the banks of the Allegheny River.

Tom died in 2010. Sam still visits the St. Bonaventure campus from time to time. He’s extremely grateful the university has continued to remind people of his and his brother’s careers. 

And of course, Sam is an avid Bonnies fan.

“Go, Bonnies, Go,” he said.

# # #

To learn more about the Stith brothers and their experiences at St. Bonaventure University, read The Bonnies Face Up to Racism from the university's archives.

 

 

 

 

 

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