Niagara Gazette

January 11, 2014

McGRATH: A Niagara souvenir worth keeping

Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Remembering Phil Scaffidi never gets old, at least not for me.

Niagara University plans to give the first 1,200 fans coming into the Gallagher Center on Sunday afternoon Phil Scaffidi bobbleheads prior to the Purple Eagles’ game against Rider. For some fans, it will bring back memories because they saw Scaffidi play and then watched the Niagara captain experience an ordeal that was both painful and uplifting.

For those of you who are all too familiar with those months in 1979 and 1980 as Phil battled deadly cancer, forgive me if you’ve read all this before. There are many Niagara fans now a generation removed who have only heard of Scaffidi, seen his No. 3 retired to the rafters and perhaps know he was an outstanding point guard. They might even have heard he played four sports at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and was talented enough in baseball to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates after his freshman year at Niagara.

Of all the athletes I had the privilege of covering over the years, Scaffidi was among the most personable. But more than than that, he was the most Courageous, with a capital C.

He became ill in December 1978 just a few games into his senior season and was found to have cancer in January 1979 during an 8 1/2-hour operation at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver. The rare form of the disease required doctors to remove what they called the largest tumor they had ever seen. The surgery cost him an adrenal gland, a kidney, part of his diaphragm and 60 percent of his liver.

When he awoke from surgery, tubes coming out of him all over the place and being unable to speak, his father said he pointed to himself and made a dribbling motion with his hand. He wanted to know if he would play basketball again. And so it began, his determination to wear the Purple and White again.

He was supposed to be in intensive care for 48 hours, but was out in 12. He was up and walking a few days after surgery and became the talk of the hospital.

In the 10 months that followed, Phil was obsessed with keeping his promise that he would play basketball again. The odds were long, but on the night of Nov. 6, 1979, Scaffidi was back on the court in the Student Center (now the Gallagher Center) as Niagara played an exhibition game against a team from Taiwan.

Geared up in knee braces and a flak jacket, his introduction brought a standing ovation that lasted more than two minutes. It brought a smile to his face and — almost — tears to his eyes. He logged more than 10 minutes, setting up his teammates and scoring his only two points from the free throw line.

After that, he played several regular-season games, setting the NU assist record on Jan. 21, 1980. A week later he played his final game, a cameo appearance against St. John’s at Memorial Auditorium. Cancer was winning the battle by then.

There was a testimonial for him in Buffalo on Feb. 1, with Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda among the more than 1,000 people who showed up. He was back at Roswell Park later that month, but he struggled out of his hospital bed to see Niagara beat Canisius at the Aud. It was the last time I saw him. Just a month before his 24th birthday, and only a few months before he was to be married, he was gone.

So if you are among those lucky enough to get a bobblehead Sunday, give it an appropriate place among your souvenirs. It truly represents a one-of-kind Purple Eagle.

Bill McGrath is a former sports editor of the Niagara Gazette and covered Niagara basketball for 30 years.