(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on St. Bonaventure basketball great George Carter, for whom a proper burial and memorial service will take place tomorrow following his death in November at age 76 from throat cancer. Today: How the Bona family was able to bring Carter back home.)
ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — Dale Tepas didn’t know George Carter.
The eventual member of St. Bonaventure’s famed Final Four team was a senior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Tonawanda while Carter was starring in his final Bona season, in the winter of 1967, some 70 miles south. And despite a shared place in program history, their paths never crossed thereafter.
Tepas, however, has been steadfast of Carter’s standing in Bona hoops annals.
Here, after all, is a guy who scored over 1,300 points in just three seasons before embarking upon one of the more successful professional careers of anybody who’s worn brown and white.
And though they never met, “I saw him play,” Tepas noted, “and quite honestly, over the last 10 years anyway, I’ve tried to convince the university that the No. 25 you have retired should also have George Carter’s name there. Because quite honestly, he was as good, if not better, than both of those guys (fellow greats Earl Belcher and Essie Hollis).”
Tepas is also knowing of Carter, the person, whom he referred to as “a special guy.” He, like any number of those associated with Bona, has long lived in the “Francisican spirit.” It’s ingrained in him.
And that’s where this story goes from being about basketball to something more.
CARTER, at least initially, had nobody.
The Bona legend struggled with both health and finances in the final year of his life. He went ignored by the NBA, which has done almost nothing to help its ABA brethren, such as Carter, after retirement.
He lost contact with virtually everyone in his family.
And when he died of throat cancer at age 76 last November in Las Vegas, where he’d been working as a limo driver, he was going to be given a “pauper funeral” by the state, since there was no listed next of kin …
Until a group headed by Eric Handler stepped in.
Handler, a 1982 Archbishop Walsh graduate, didn’t know Carter personally nor attend St. Bonaventure. But he’d always felt a connection to the Silver Creek native, who played baseball at Bona for Handler’s father, Fred, and had long been in awe of Carter’s athletic prowess.
Handler reached out to former Bona players such as Tepas and Jim Satalin, who had but one question, “how can I help?” He connected with Scott Tarter, co-founder of Dropping Dimes, an Indianapolis-based organization that assists former ABA players in need, which had been helping Carter with living and medical costs in his final months. He partnered up with Steve Morello, who played baseball with Carter.
They all believed that Carter deserved better.
And after months of raising money and recounting his story, they’ve given him better: Carter’s body has been returned to the area, where he’ll be given a proper memorial service and buried Saturday at St. Bonaventure Cemetery.
“We just kept talking about what can we do, what do we want to do?” Tepas recalled, “since, unfortunately, no one in the Carter family was either aware or wanted to be involved in bringing George’s remains back to the area, let alone the Olean area. So we sort of jumped in and got involved.
“And the rest has sort of snowballed, if you will. It’s gotten bigger and bigger.”
FROM THE beginning, each played his part.
Tepas and others, like fellow Bona great Jim Baron, contacted anyone they could -- friends, alumni, former players -- for support, financial or otherwise.
They made sure that Carter’s tragic tale was told. And when it was (by outlets such as USA Today, the New York Post and the Buffalo News), the university began receiving phone calls from people -- many of whom had no relationship with Carter -- wanting to donate.
One of the biggest efforts was facilitated by Satalin, who played with Carter in that 1966-67 season. With Bona having canceled alumni reunions due to COVID-19, Satalin’s Class of 1969 staged its own get-together, gearing the event toward helping Carter.
“Because many of them knew George or went to school with George,” Tepas pointed out. “If you didn’t know him, you knew who he was … he was a special guy.”
Along the way, the disconnect that existed with Carter’s family was mended.
It wasn’t that Carter, who was one of 20 program greats named to Bona’s All-Time Team in December of 2019, and his loved ones had severed ties out of anger. They’d simply drifted apart over the years, both physically and emotionally.
As progress was made toward bringing Carter back, however, contact was made. The family gave its blessing and a number of its members will be present for tomorrow’s memorial service.
“That was an initial concern,” Tepas acknowledged. “What’s the family and what does the family want to do? So once the family was contacted and they knew a little bit about what the Bonaventure community wanted to do, they were all in. They didn’t have an issue one way or the other; they were very appreciative of what this group and all the alumni -- and non-alumni -- have done to make this thing happen.”
He added, “I know the university helped try to locate any family members in the Silver Creek area. Initially, we couldn’t find any, but we (eventually) found one and now it’s up to … I want to say there’s around 20 Carter family members coming to the service on Saturday, which is great.”
IN THE end, Dropping Dimes did what it could to help Carter survive, and find comfort, in an otherwise distressing final year.
It provided him with enough money to get by after his illness left him unable to work. It helped pay both legal and medical fees relating to his diagnosis and the circumstances it created. It saved him from eviction.
Ultimately, however, Carter died alone.
But alone he is no longer.
Behind Handler, his “right-hand men” Tepas, Satalin and Morello and the aid provided by Tarter and Dropping Dimes, Carter is now officially back home. And tomorrow, he’ll be in a position similar to so many throughout his playing career -- from his days as a dominant 6-foot-4 swingman at Bona, to being drafted by the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, to a prosperous seven-year ABA career, to one of the very few who can say he was selected in each of the NBA, NFL and MLB drafts:
“It’s really about the Bonaventure family,” Tepas described of the last seven months. “It’s how Bonaventure is; a good portion of it is the Franciscan influence where, and Steve Morello said it a number of times: we take care of each other. And now it’s our turn to take care of George.
“That’s really sort of the underlying tone: Bonaventure people take care of each other. We don't want to leave George in Las Vegas in some pauper grave. We want to bring him back, put him in a proper place at the St. Bonaventure University Cemetery.”
As for what he feels is Carter’s deserving place in the Bona rafters, Tepas added: “That’s another story for another time and maybe this will help initiate more of that conversation. (Maybe) he’ll get his right spot on that banner as well.”
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)