February 3, 2010

by Pete Spiewak '10

One Big 5 school recruiting Mike Bantom had its best player try to convince the lanky 6-foot-9 kid from Roman Catholic to come play alongside him.

The scholarship offer was intriguing, considering that the program had been quite successful in the early 1960s, and was emerging once again with an All-American leading the way in its frontcourt.

Interested, Bantom asked Villanova's legendary big man, Howard Porter, why he chose the school on the Main Line.

"I wanted to be the big man," Porter told him, in a conversation that would have a dramatic impact on the history of the Big 5. "Not one of many."

With that answer, Porter had inadvertently ruined Villanova head coach Jack Kraft's dream of having a Porter-Bantom frontcourt. Bantom would also have been the perfect replacement for Porter, the three-time All American, who would head to the NBA in 1971.

"I guess Howard didn't realize it, but he sold me on Saint Joseph's that day," Bantom told a reporter during his junior season. "I didn't want to play in his shadow. I wanted to go where I could be the big man."

A growth spurt after his junior year in high school made the man known as "Stick," -- a nickname given to him because of his skinny build -- a hot commodity to college coaching staffs.

One of the first coaches to recruit Bantom was Jack McKinney. The Hawks' head coach had seen him play during his junior year at Roman Catholic, where he played under Speedy Morris, when Bantom was just 6-foot-5 and 160 pounds.

McKinney would drop by the school often to check on Bantom's progress. But the numbers the coach was concerned with were the center's height and weight, not his points and rebounds.

Bantom would eventually grow and become a well-rounded big man who dominated the MAC and the Big 5 during his three years on Saint Joseph's varsity squad. He paved his own way by choosing the Hawks, a team traditionally powered by guard play, and he made his mark as one of the top players in the history of the Big 5.

In his first varsity season, Bantom made a huge splash. The sophomore led the Hawks to a 19-9 record with his 18.1 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in the 1970-71 season, immediately drawing comparisons to Porter and Ken Durrett, the city's two best big men at the time, who would end up being considered two of the best Big 5 players ever.

Saint Joseph's would sweep the MAC in the regular season, going 6-0 against conference foes, including the last game of the regular season, when they knocked off #14 La Salle, who was led by Durrett, a three-time Big 5 MVP.

Just two weeks later, in the conference tournament, there was a rematch between the two schools. This time La Salle was ranked 19th nationally. The Explorers and the Hawks went into overtime, but the outcome was the same, 81-76 Hawks, as Bantom and Saint Joseph's wrestled the NCAA Tournament bid away from Durrett, a Big 5 legend, in his senior year.

A week later, Bantom and the Hawks would be taken down by Porter and Villanova at the Palestra in the first round of the tournament -- the only time the two schools have met outside of the regular season. With that loss, Saint Joseph's finished the season with a 19-9 record.

In his second season with St. Joe's, Bantom had a breakout season, which was even more impressive considering his stat line during his first year. The Philadelphia native managed to increase both his scoring and rebounding. Bantom's 21.8 points per game was a career best for him, as was his 14.8 rebounds per contest. The All-MAC and All-Big 5 performer that season became more efficient from the charity stripe, raising his free throw percentage from 65.3% in his sophomore season to 72.4%.

The Hawks would get off to a hot start, winning 17 out of their first 21 games. Saint Joseph's upset #18 Purdue, 85-74, thanks to Bantom, who scored 35 points. McKinney's team also set a school record for points in a game during that streak, when it blew out Nevada-Reno, 128-66. However, St. Joe's would struggle to the finish line, suffering the only two conference losses of the Bantom era -- both to Temple, once in the regular season and once in the MAC championship game - while winning just two of its final seven games. In a loss to Saint Francis (Pa.), Bantom had one of his best personal performances ever, scoring 35 points and hauling in 26 boards. The Hawks were invited to the NIT that year, but were knocked out in the first round by Maryland.

Bantom and the Hawks would regroup in the 1972-73 season, bouncing back from a disappointing finish to the prior season. With the help of Pat McFarland, Saint Joseph's would go 20-5 during the regular season, its best performance yet under McKinney. Bantom and McFarland would terrorize opposing defenses, causing matchup problems for everybody they faced. The 6-foot-9 Bantom was dominant in the paint--one of the best big men in the nation. McFarland, who was 6-foot-5, helped keep defenses honest with his great jump shot. If teams were paying too much attention to Bantom while he was in the paint, point guard Mike Moody would find McFarland, who would drain the jumper. If defenses challenged McFarland on the perimeter, he would dump it into the low post for Bantom, who hardly anybody in the country could defend one-on-one, for the layup.

With Bantom and McFarland doing the bulk of the scoring, the Hawks proved to be the team to beat in the MAC once again, earning a convincing win over Temple in February of 1973, 74-42. Saint Joseph's would head back to the NCAA Tournament after beating Gettysburg and Temple to win the MAC championship.

Saint Joseph's had a tough matchup with #4 Providence in the opening round of the tournament, and the Hawks would lose, 89-76. They finished the season with a 22-6 record.

Nevertheless, Bantom's career on Hawk Hill was a special one. He ranks ninth on Saint Joseph's all-time scoring list, despite playing just three seasons. His career average of 20 points per game is the third highest total in the history of Hawk hoops. The school's second all-time leading rebounder has collected three of the top 10 single-season rebounding performances ever at St. Joe's. He was an Olympian in 1972, when the Americans controversially lost the gold medal game to the Soviet Union. The Soviets were given three chances to overcome the United States' one-point lead in the final moments of the game, eventually topping Bantom and the Americans, who have still not accepted their silver medals.

He was named an All-American after his senior season. Bantom went on to play nine seasons in the NBA with Phoenix, Indiana and Philadelphia. On March 1, 2003, his number 44 was retired on Hawk Hill.

Today, he is the NBA's Senior Vice President of Player Development, where he helps young players adjust to life in the NBA and helps prepare them for life after basketball. In 2004, Bantom was named one of the 100 most influential minorities in sports by Sports Illustrated.

Through 100 years of Saint Joseph's basketball, he is considered to be the greatest big man to ever don the Crimson and Gray.

Over 40 years since he made his college decision, it's clear that Bantom made the right choice by going to Saint Joseph's. Back then he was the big man. Now, he's a legend.