2015: The Year In Sports
> BY ANDREW KULYK AND PETER FARRELL
The University of Buffalo mens basketball team finally, finally made it to the Dance and the NCAA tournament after so many years of trying. That was the highlight of the year in these parts, as the march to the playoffs remained just a pipe dream for our two major sports teams.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great stories. From the new coach at One Bills Drive to the tank over at First Niagara Center, one thing proved true…we still have some of the most steadfast and loyal fans anywhere. In most other places people would have bailed in droves by now.
Thank you to our posse at Artvoice, including our new editor in chief, for their continued commitment to present sports as part of this great publication. And thanks to our readers, the folks who run the teams, and the members of the sports media who make for wonderful colleagues.
As we wish you the best of the Holiday season, we present a few of our favorite stories from the year that was. Here’s to sunny days for Buffalo sports in 2016!
REX RYAN ROLLS INTO TOWN
Mark January 12. The former head coach of the New York Jets came into town with all the pomp and swagger that was so lacking in the personas of the Dick Jauron and Doug Marrone days. Named the 18th coach in Buffalo Bills franchise history, Ryan dazzled the Buffalo faithful and gave new hope to fans who haven’t seen the playoffs since all came crushing down in the “Music City Miracle” back in 2000.
“Get ready. We’re going.” promised Ryan regarding Buffalo’s long wished return to the post season. He made his appearances all over town and was adored by the fans. He bought a pick up truck and painted it in flashy Bills colors. He threw out the ceremonial pitch at the Bisons’ Opening Day. He jumped out of an airplane.
On the field? Well, now it will be 16 years without an appearance in the playoffs, the team is still New England’s bitch, and a long offseason looms at Bills headquarters.
THE UB BULLS GO DANCING
So many dashed hopes during the Reggie Witherspoon era. UB Mens Basketball made it to the finals of the MAC championship in 2005, only to see their commanding second half lead wither and to lose to Ohio on a buzzer beater. They got back to the finals in 2009 and lost again, and hadn’t been back since.
This season was different. Under coach Bobby Hurley and with the tandem of stars Xavier Ford, Shannon Evans, and MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss, the team made its run straight to the MAC finals in Cleveland. In their way was Central Michigan. The tight, back and forth game went right down to the last two minutes, when an injured Moss came alive just when he had to. No team had led by any more than 6 points throughout the contest, but in the final minute UB pulled away.
Confetti poured down from the rafters. Buffalo fans who made the trip were invited to celebrate on the court. The Terminal Tower in downtown Cleveland was lit in UB colors blue and white.
It didn’t take long for the Bulls to learn where they would be going during the selection show less than 24 hours later. “Buffalo will take on West Virginia this Thursday in Columbus, Ohio” said Greg Gumble on CBS right out of the chute. And there it was. “Buffalo”. In the brackets. The UB faithful could rejoice.
THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT
27 years to the day when our downtown ballpark opened, and it was a memorable one.
The Buffalo Bisons, already beset with a spate of weather related cancellations, were playing a doubleheader against the Pawtucket Red Sox on April 14. Actually, they were completing a suspended game from the night before, then set to play a second full game.
They got as far as the 6th inning, and then it happened. The entire stadium went dark. No lights. No scoreboard. No power anywhere, save for an emergency backup to allow the public address announcer to function and for the radio booths to continue broadcasting.
So the game continued in the twilight. Umpires kept the counts on the field, the scorer upstairs kept extra vigil to keep the line score accurate. Meanwhile, in the concourse the beer taps went still and credit card machines could not function. They got through the game, in the end a 9-6 loss to Pawtucket where the Bisons actually had the tying runs on the plate.
“When you’ve been around baseball as long as I have you’ve been through just about everything,” said Manager Gary Allenson in a flashlight lit clubhouse after the game.
Needless to say, the second game was postponed and fans were asked to carefully exit the stadium. By the next day power was restored and it was business as usual.
SABRES FANS PREPARE FOR LOTTERY DAY
In the topsy turvy world that was the Buffalo Sabres’ season, where half the fan base rooted for the team to tank and finish dead last, while others were outraged at the show of awful sportsmanship, Sabres fans could finally have a marquee event to look forward to.
On Saturday, April 18, the pubs and sports bars were packed, fans gathered everywhere, wearing the blue and gold. The occasion? The NHL Network was telecasting the results of the draft lottery. The 14 teams who did not qualify for the playoffs would all have a chance to nab the top prize, that being the first overall selection in the draft.
Conor McDavid mania was everywhere. The Sabres organization had a bulls eye on the prized generational prospect, and even though Buffalo’s chances as the last place finisher was only 20 percent of winning, it seemed, oh so inevitable.
As NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly unveiled the order of finishers, Sabres fans held their collective breaths. The biggest cheer came at the fourth pick, when the hated Toronto Maple Leafs were unveiled in their correct spot, depriving them of the Conor sweepstakes.
And then it all came crashing down…the Edmonton Oilers, third in the depth chart, had won the lottery. Buffalo would be relegated to the second pick.
For Buffalo fans, it wasn’t so much having to “settle” for Jack Eichel. It was the notion of once again coming in second. Even in losing, it seemed that Buffalo could not win.
THE BANDITS’ JOHNNY TAVARES CALLS IT A CAREER
When an obscure player named John Tavares was traded from the Detroit Turbos to the expansion Buffalo Bandits of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League back in 1992, who knew that Buffalo would get to have one of the most prolific players in the game put together an astounding career in box lacrosse.
Tavares broke every record there is; games played (306), goals (815), assists (934) and points (1749), he played in ten All Star games and was named league MVP three times.
The Buffalo Bandits last won their league championship in 2008. Tavares’ friend and mentor, former coach Darris Kilgour, led the team to the promised land, and then with his bizarre coaching methods and erratic personality drove the team to the brink of the abyss. Kilgour also dealt with his own off field troubles including multiple DWI arrests. Tavares could have walked away then, yet stayed with the team during its downward spiral; his leadership was rewarded as he was named assistant coach upon his retirement from the field.
Tavares will have his number retired on March 11 at First Niagara Center. Playing in a league that has become largely irrelevant with failing and shifting franchises, no substantial television presence, and a disappearing fan base, nonetheless there is no doubt that Banditland will turn out in full throated support, to offer their appreciation to one of the greatest players to ever wear a Buffalo uniform.