ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — It doesn’t take much for Paul Hoffman to be pulled back into the Reilly Center in 1970.
All he has to do is look up the Ramsey Lewis version of Wade in the Water on YouTube, hit play, and there he is, back in the former University Center in his familiar pair of glasses and No. 20 jersey, ready to slash into traffic for a layup or fight for every available rebound.
The contemporary jazz-funk version of the African-American spiritual from the 1800s reminds just about every fan from this era of a St. Bonaventure basketball game. That association has been passed to the next generation of diehards, known to play the song in bars, at weddings, on social media and just about any other setting in which the brown and white might be a source of discussion.
It reminds Hoffman of game nights in the RC.
The rush that came with having it accompany the Bonnies during warmups. The energy extracted from the myriad of students and fans who rocked along with it. The backdrop it provided on the way to their iconic run to the 1970 Final Four.
“It did not take much to get me going,” said Hoffman, a sophomore starter on that team, “but that song was one great way ...
“I still play it in my car.”
Fifty years since helping to define the greatest era in school history, the tune has crept its way back into the Bona conversation.
There’s a reason for that, of course.
Trumpeted by the program since the summer, this season marks the 50th anniversary of that 1969-70 Final Four campaign. Tomorrow, that team will be honored in person after the Bonnies’ home game with Hofstra, making for one of the more special events in the RC in recent years.
As this anticipated day in this 100th-year celebration has neared, so too have some the memories associated with that season:
The payback Bona delivered to Duquesne after falling to the Dukes the year before. The night Bob Lanier responded to young Purdue center William Franklin’s claim that “The Big Dog will eat up the Big Cat” by torching the Boilermakers for 51 points at the Holiday Tournament inside Madison Square Garden.
And, yes, that song.
There’s no doubt that it served as the Bonnies’ unofficial theme song in that late-60s to early-70s golden age.
“Oh yeah, Wade in the Water, that was definitely our song, man,” forward Matt Gantt recalled in Unfinished Dreams, the documentary about that 1969-70 team that originally aired on the Empire Network in 1995. “It was a great song. When you heard that song, you know it was time to get busy.”
Added Bill Kalbaugh, the point guard and co-captain, in a Jamestown interview in 2016: “That was the theme song, yes it was. We all just kind of liked it. We started winning with it, so we had them play it on the (public address) when we came out.
How, though, did it become so closely connected with those former Brown Indians?
What were its origins?
The truth is, many of the players from that time aren’t particularly certain.
Hoffman noted that “it was already a tradition before I got to Bona’s, so I don’t know how it got started.” Mike Kull, a senior guard in 1969-70, said he didn’t remember where it came from. Jim Satalin, a member of the Bonnies’ Iron Man 5 from the year before, said he thought it began in the 1966-67 season when the Reilly Center opened, but wasn’t entirely sure about that.
Some among the Bona faithful believe it was Bill Butler, another program great and 1968 graduate, who first introduced the song an option for warmups. Others maintain that Vic Thomas, a key reserve on the Final Four squad, had something to do with it.
No matter how it started, however, one thing is for certain: if anything should be considered the Bona fight song, unofficial or not, Wade in the Water is it.
It was true then, when the song blared regularly through the RC loudspeakers en route to a 25-3 record and a No. 3 final national ranking. And it’s true now, as it continues to be played through YouTube and on jukeboxes — and occasionally in the RC, where it will almost certainly be heard tomorrow — after most Bona victories.
“Just the feeling of the student body there getting worked up,” said Hoffman, when asked what kind of memories the song elicited. “I never missed a game, and played most all 40 minutes in a game.
“It was such a great place to play. I often look into the (red seats) and remember there were no empty seats. I just love the area and I never really left.”
Remembered Gantt with a laugh when considering that atmosphere in Unfinished Dreams: “For a bunch of white guys (in Olean) … they loved Motown up there.”
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)