“So, you want to talk Purple Eagles?”
The gentleman asking the question sure did.
From his retirement home in St. Mary’s, Ga., North Buffalo native Dick Meyers eagerly returned a phone call on Saturday to a reporter in Niagara Falls. Like anybody who was around the hardwood here in the 1960s, Meyers was quick to share his Calvin Murphy memories.
Murphy, the former Niagara University guard that ESPN recently anointed as the 23rd-best college player in history, was the star of a freshmen squad that squared off on three occasions with an Al Maroone-sponsored AAU team Meyers played for.
“We held him to 58 the first game, 53 the second game, and 53 the third game,” Meyers said. “Calvin was impossible to guard.”
Meyers attended Canisius High School, where he developed a life-long friendship with Carmen Granto, the current superintendent for the Niagara Falls School District. After graduating from Le Moyne College, near Syracuse, Meyers returned home to coach at Cardinal O’Hara High School from 1965-68.
He eventually went on to build a powerful program at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.
“The original Purple Eagles,” Meyers said. “We want you to know that Gonzaga High School — and we were originally a college — was founded in 1827.
“The Niagara Purple Eagles are the nice newcomers on the block.”
Over the last dozen years, Meyers has helped to develop a Purple Eagles pipeline, sending three players and a student-manager from Gonzaga to Niagara.
The first Purple Eagle turned Purple Eagle was Akbar Waheed, a player who Meyers called “one of the best people I ever coached.” Waheed came to Niagara in 1995 to play for former coach Jack Armstrong, and returned to Monteagle Ridge in 2000 to work as an assistant under Joe Mihalich.
Waheed, now Mihalich’s top assistant, recruited Lorenzo Miles and Stanley Hodge, the starting backcourt on Meyers’ only city championship team. Miles graduated last year as Niagara’s 16th all-time leading scorer, and Hodge is a valuable member of this year’s squad, which plays a pivotal game in Baltimore today against Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference-rival Loyola.
Meyers couldn’t recall how many Division I players came out of his program, which has maintained its success and values under new coach Steven Turner. The most famous Gonzaga basketball alum appears to be John Thompson III, the current head coach at Georgetown University.
He was very proud to note, however, that since 1975, Gonzaga has produced 59 players, (including Miles and Hodge) who went on to captain their college teams.
“They teach you to be men for others at Gonzaga. That’s their saying,” Waheed said. “On and off the court, they teach you how to handle your business.
“Coach Meyers was very stern. He always wanted you to do your best. That’s one of the things that he instilled in all of his players. To go out and give 110 percent. He wouldn’t accept anything less.”
There’s some irony to how Gonzaga players have flourished at Niagara.
“We ran a play literally every time down the court,” Waheed said. “It was the Princeton offense. We were happy if the score was 32-31.”
Mihalich has encouraged up-tempo play and offensive freedom at Niagara.
Meyers, for his part, said he also favors the quick shot — when it presents itself — and said his teams didn’t run the exact same offense as the one Peter Carril made famous at Princeton, though they try and “use the floor.”
“If you can teach guys to play that way, with a sense of control, I think they can then do anything a college coach wants,” Meyers said.
Hodge echoed that sentiment, and added that Meyers’ defensive principles have helped him at Niagara.
“When you come up here, make sure you don’t forget you have to play defense,” Hodge cautioned potential recruits.
Mihalich, considering the contributions he’s gotten from Waheed, Miles and Hodge, noted: “We probably should’ve recruited more Gonzaga players over the years.”
Gonzaga plays in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, which Mihalich regards as “the best league in America.” Mihalich’s coaching career began at WCAC power DeMatha High School, under the tutelage of Morgan Wooten, the only high school coach in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“It’s the kind of league where you can get the fifth man from one of the really good teams — or even the sixth man — and he’ll come and have a really good career for you,” Mihalich said.
Daryl Greene wasn’t a starter at DeMatha but left Niagara in 2002 ranked among the school’s all-time leaders in points, assists, steals and 3-point goals.
Mihalich has even found it fruitful to recruit Gonzaga’s student-manager. Danny O’Brien, whose mother Catherine is from Western New York, was a four-year manager under Meyers, and has done the same at Niagara. One would be hard pressed to find another manager in college basketball as celebrated as O’Brien, who taps out a popular blog for PurpleEagles.com, and is almost as recognizable on campus as his roommate Charron Fisher, the nation’s second-leading scorer.
“Coach Meyers was an amazing coach,” O’Brien said. “He pretty much helped me get into college.”
O’Brien also noted that Turner was a mentor to him, serving as both an academic adviser and father figure.
“Danny, he’s a piece of work,” Meyers said. “I still have a beautiful letter from that young man that he wrote when I retired.”
O’Brien and Hodge are both expected to graduate this spring, but the Purple Eagles won’t stop talkin’ Purple Eagles.
“That’s one of our main recruiting bases,” Waheed said. “We go to D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Philly. We’ll go other places, but we always come back there. It’s a hotbed for talent.”
• WHO: Niagara Purple Eagles (14-8, 8-5) vs. Loyola Greyhounds (14-11, 9-4)
• WHAT: MAAC men’s basketball
• WHEN: 4 p.m.
• WHERE: Baltimore
• TV/RADIO: MSG, 105.1 FM
• NOTES: Niagara beat Loyola 83-79 at the Gallagher Center on Tuesday. ... The winner of this game will move into third place in the MAAC. ... The Purple Eagles are coming off an 80-76 loss at Rider, the first-place team in the MAAC. ... Loyola just won at St. Peter’s, 81-69. ... Niagara’s Charron Fisher and Loyola’s Gerald Brown have each topped 30 points in their last two games.
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258.
“So, you want to talk Purple Eagles?”