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A Bona Fide Opportunity

What does ‘Bona’ mean?

It’s a question a lot of now out-of-state St. Bonaventure graduates have had to answer. The letters adorn baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts, bumper stickers and coffee mugs. Back in the summer of 2009, my North Carolina-born graduate professor stopped his lecture mid-sentence when he was distracted by these confusing brown letters across my mustard yellow t-shirt.

“What does ‘Bona’ mean?”

“It stands for St. Bonaventure,” I said, “a university about an hour south of Buffalo. It’s where I went for undergrad.”

He paused, folded his arms across his chest and said, “I’ve never heard of it.”

Many people haven’t. Those without Western New York birth certificates, Northeast residences or recollection of the Stith brothers may not be familiar with St. Bonaventure University. They’ve never encountered Merton’s Heart, the Jandoli School of Journalism or Devereux Hall’s third floor runner. They’ve never eaten a Burton burger or heard of Patsy Collins. They’ve never rounded third on Spring Weekend or stood misty-eyed at the sight of a shuttered Mad Dogs.

But, most people have heard of March Madness.

With St. Bonaventure’s inclusion in both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament this week, office drones, casual gamblers and maniacal hoop fans are eager to find out about this St. Bonaventure. They’ll want to know about the school’s background, location and history. They’ll want to know about their past tourney appearances. And, finally, they’ll want to know why they should pick some brown-uniformed team named the “Bonnies” as their tourney dark horse.

Both teams’ appearance on the national stage is a tremendous advertising opportunity for a university and athletic program that have persevered through adversity. But ultimately, basketball is merely a vehicle for what may be a more important opportunity for the school. With their Franciscan name found in ESPN brackets, St. Bonaventure alums now have the forum to effusively tout their clandestine college experience to associates. Simply put, it gives alumni a chance to reminisce and relay what exactly Bonas means to them.

My family has been doing this at an exhausting clip for nearly two deacdes. Of our four children, three of us graduated from St. Bonaventure—and the fourth married a Bona graduate. Between 1991 and 2000, we pursued different career paths while led by influential professors. We toiled at The Bona Venture newspaper, suited up for rugby or spun Bouncing Souls discs at WSBU. We occupied different bars, developed enduring friendships and lived in shabby, nicknamed off-campus housing (or atop multiple Allegany taverns in the same semester). But, on this past Sunday night and Monday morning, you can bet we were each united, ready to ramble out our own dazzling versions of SBU to anyone who would listen.

And basketball is a part of my version. It’s not because I wore a Bona-fanatic t-shirt and threw cookies at Temple’s John Chaney. (I didn’t.) It’s not because of my memories of heckling USC’s Brian Scalabrine when he rolled into the RC (though I did). Maybe it’s because I can still remember the musty smell of the Reilly Center on a Sunday morning. Maybe it’s because I liked how the old version of Butler Gym struck a vague resemblance to Hickory’s gym from Hoosiers. Or, maybe it’s because I was in a Cleveland bar called Flannery’s on March 16th, 2000—the last time the Bonnies were dancing.

Two months away from graduation, I carpooled to Ohio with eight people, little money and no tickets to our first round match-up with Kentucky. If we could score some cheap tickets once we got there, great. If not, we’d find this Irish pub across from Cleveland State's Convocation Center, some barstools by the television—and pray for a massive upset. When we woke up Thursday morning with no ticket prospects, we headed to downtown Cleveland with intentions of settling in at the day's established Bonaventure bar, Flannery’s.

If you walked up Prospect Avenue that Thursday morning, guided through the city's quiet hum by a distant, thumping tavern chant of, “Let’s go, Bonas,” you’ll never forget it. You’ll always remember the pregame bar scene, complete with Bob Lanier-era grads hoisting breakfast pints with robed Franciscans and graduating seniors; the overwhelmed Flannery's bar staff, who were not prepared for over 150 patrons at 11 a.m.; the laughing conversations between strangers in brown, yellow and white. And, whether you watched the game on the edge of an arena seat or on the edge of a barstool, you’ll never forget the unfortunate ending.

But the game itself didn’t instill the meaning of Bonas; the two halves and two overtimes didn’t define the St. Bonaventure experience. It was what happened at Flannery’s after the game that’s always stayed with me. Slowly but surely, students and alums found their way back to the bar not to complain, but to celebrate how little St. Bonaventure University nearly shocked the Kentucky Wildcats on national television. We charged rounds of pre-St. Patrick’s Day Guinness and started up the Bona clap-chants. Those at the game relayed stories of how the center's crowd—regardless of their collegiate affiliation—joined in the rising Rudy-like chants for the overlooked Bonnies as the game stayed tight. Before we finally embarked on the drive back to Olean, we stood amid a sense of unexplainable communion that most SBU alumni associate with their time as college students.

And this is the essence of the Bonaventure connection. This is the embrace of the underdog, the intrinsic bond that breeds such overt loyalty from the school's graduates. It was evident through my four undergraduate years, and it's been fact through the 12 years after. That’s what Bonas means to me.

Over the next few days, SBU alumni everywhere will get ample opportunities to answer questions about the reach of Andrew Nicholson, the range of Jessica Jenkins, and why “St. Bonaventure’s” have a fluffy wolf as their mascot. You'll be asked about the 1970 Final Four, the 1977 NIT finals or the aforementioned Kentucky thriller. In the midst of this questioning, please enjoy the moments of genuine, national interest. Reminisce about your October days outside Plassman Hall or your April nights on the OP patio. Recall the mayhem of West Main Street or the brief, Def Leppard-fueled heyday of Allegany Sub Shop. Remember your undergrad days, the freewheeling hours amid the mountains of New York's southern tier. And throughout the upcoming tournament days, complete with confused CBS analysts and interns who cite Chuck Daly as a full-fledged alum, celebrate the following:

You'll always know what 'Bona' means.

(Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to Otis Redding's "She's All Right.")
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