ST. BONAVENTURE, NY — The centennial season of St. Bonaventure men’s basketball has brought many legends back to light. In November, fans and individuals well versed in team history voted for the St. Bonaventure Basketball Centennial Season All-Time Team. In December, the 1970 Final Four Team, which includes NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, came back to campus. And on Feb. 5, Andrew Nicholson, who led the 2012 Bona team to the NCAA Tournament, paid a visit.
And just before all of that, at the end of October, John Hayes, a basketball player who graduated in 1969, was one of three alumni athletes selected for the St. Bonaventure Athletics Hall of Fame, Class of 2019, and was inducted Feb. 1 during the men's game against the George Mason Patriots.
One simply can’t write the history of St. Bonaventure men’s basketball without including Hayes.
He had the looks of one of the best players in the nation, according to writer/editor Greg Mitchell, a 1970 St. Bonaventure graduate. Mitchell remembers following Hayes closely and watching him grow as a basketball player, initially at Niagara Falls High School, the other alma mater the two men share.
When Hayes started his St. Bonaventure basketball career, freshmen could not play on the varsity team. Still, Hayes still made the most of his first collegiate season, leading all freshmen nationwide in scoring with 34.7 points per game. Even the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabar could not top that.
Later, Hayes proved to be a crucial part of the 1967-68 team’s Ironman Five, which also included Lanier, Jim Satalin, Bill Butler and Billy Kalbaugh. Rarely did any of them come off of the court. That season, the Bonnies went a perfect 23-0 and finished as the No. 3 team in the nation. During that run to perfection, Hayes scored an average of 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
In between all of his successes were two knee injuries. Hayes could have had, and should have had, more to his credit.
At first, it appeared as if Hayes had dodged a bullet with his first knee injury. During the first practice of his sophomore season — his first on the varsity team — Hayes went down with an injury, yet missed only a few games at first.
However, the second knee injury ended that season for Hayes before it truly started. A player with so much potential had to wait.
Mitchell, then a freshman, saw it live.
“They played Denver in Buffalo at the Aud on the first day of Christmas break,” Mitchell said. “Very early in the game, Hayes went up for a layup and went down to the floor, clutching his knee.”
And that’s when things really became an uphill battle for Hayes. Not only did Hayes have to get multiple surgeries, but he had to live without playing the game he loved. Hayes said he didn’t move from his hospital bed for two weeks.
“I went to school to play basketball,” Hayes said. “Fortunately, I stuck around and got a degree. This was a pretty serious injury back then, because the technology was considerably different back then than it is today. Now, I’ve had both my knees replaced, and you’re walking around the next day. I knew it was going to be a long time. It got a little depressing, because I went there to play basketball. I missed my sophomore year and hoped I could revive myself for my junior year.”
And Hayes did just that in the 1967-68 season. But he was not the same tall, athletic forward he once was. He had to reinvent his style of play — not just because of his injuries but also because he was sharing the court with Lanier and Butler.
“I swear I only saw one ball on the court when we were playing, but we needed at least two or three,” Hayes joked. “It was a different game then, and I did what I could to contribute. It worked out well. What a season that was.”
Lanier took the forefront of the Ironman Five, and is undeniably the program’s most recognizable player. Hayes likes to joke that he taught Lanier everything he knows.
“That is exactly true,” Hayes explained. “And don’t let anyone deny that. We played table tennis together, because we both hung around at the Boys Club. He was in Buffalo; I was in Niagara Falls. That was one of the games we both embraced. We played a lot of one-on-one, and we would split. He had a different game than I did, but the hardest thing was getting around him with his size 22 shoes.”
For Hayes, injuries put a damper on so much. Mitchell said Hayes had the makings of an All-American player. Considering flashes of the player Hayes could have been during his freshman year, that is not a wild thought.
Despite those injuries and their effect on his playing time, Hayes believes he made the most of the time he had at St. Bonaventure. He remains proud of what he accomplished during his four years.
“To this day, I still have people asking me why I went to Bona instead of Niagara,” Hayes said. “The guy who recruited me from Bona did a fantastic job, and Niagara never really recruited me. By the time they did, I had already committed to Bonaventure. I second-guessed it, of course. But after going there, doing what we did and never losing to Niagara during my four years, I never regretted the decision. I enjoyed every aspect of being down there.”
Hayes was the last of the Ironman Five to be inducted into the St. Bonaventure Athletics Hall of Fame, and says they saved the best for last.
“I am amazed at what I was able to do under my circumstances,” Hayes said. “Now, this honor is great. When Jimmy Satalin called me to congratulate me, I was joking with him on the phone. I said, ‘It really looks like they saved the best for last.’ ”
Satalin, Hayes said, “Got a big laugh out of that. But I was serious. I don’t know what he was laughing about.”