WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Syracuse and head coach Jim Boeheim can reach their fourth Final Four together Saturday with a win over Marquette at the Verizon Center in what will be either the last or second-to-last game in original Big East history. (Conceivably, either Syracuse or Marquette could reach the national championship game and play Louisville, which would be absolutely the last Old Big East game). A Final Four appearance would be the first for Boeheim since Carmelo Anthony (and current assistant coach Gerry McNamara) led the Orange to the national title in 2003. Prior to that, Boeheim and 'Cuse lost in the '87 (to Indiana) and '96 (to Kentucky) national title games. (Boeheim has never lost a national semifinal, a historical oddity that provides him little comfort).
The part of America that tunes in to watch this slugfest will recognize -- and many will be annoyed by (because that is his role) -- the balding, bespectacled man on the Syracuse sideline. Boeheim remains a ubiquitous figure in the college basketball landscape, a winner of 919 games after Thursday's laughably easy dismissal of No. 1 seed Indiana. Only Mike Krzyzewski, Boeheim's boss with the U.S. Olympic team, has more wins among Division I coaches (active or otherwise). Nobody has more wins at a single Division I school. To multiple generations, Boeheim has simply always been there. Yesterday Thursday afternoon Boeheim flopped onto a couch in a Verizon Center lounge, wearing Syracuse sweats that looked like pajamas, which was appropriate because his body clock still hadn't fully adjusted after last weekend's first two NCAA games in San Jose, Calif. "I fall asleep at 4 in the morning," said Boeheim, and then he shrugged. Boeheim has an all-world shrug, maybe the best ever.
When Boeheim took over at Syracuse in 1976, neither Al McGuire nor Dean Smith had won a national title. John Wooden had retired only one year earlier. Countless other historical trivialities can be applied. He is 68 years old and he goes back. And even further.
In the 1960s and 1970s, retired NBA Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes operated a youth basketball camp on a small lake in the southern Adirondack Mountains of New York State, not far from Lake George. For most of the summer, Camp Walden was a sleepaway camp, mostly for Jewish kids from New York and Connecticut. For the last two weeks of the summer it was "Dolph Schayes All-Star Basketball Camp." The setting was a woodsy heaven, with rustic cabins climbing up a hillside and at the top of the hillside, a half-dozen paved basketball courts and one indoor court for rainy days.
The camp, as with all such camps of that vintage, was a combination of "Hoosiers" and "Lord of the Flies." We were there to learn some basketball, but for most of the campers it was the first taste of freedom that would later be doled in large and far more dangerous doses. At the age of 13, I was among the oldest campers in the 10-13 age group and in the competitive league games that followed clinics and drills, I was often matched up with Schayes's son, Danny, who was three years younger than me, yet just about the same size. (Our growth and basketball careers went dramatically in different directions shortly thereafter). In the evenings, we would raise all manner of hell in the bunks and surrounding woods.
There was risk in this. The camp was staffed by a collection of high school basketball coaches, college players and even some college coaches. During after-hours shenanigans, no counselor was more feared than a balding (even then), bespectacled (even then) Syracuse assistant coach named Jim Boeheim, then just past his mid-20s. You did not want to get caught raiding the canteen or swimming in the lake after hours by coach Boeheim. The mention of his name would send terror-stricken youths running for cover. "Boeheim!" (The only other counselor who was similarly feared was Dolph Schayes' brother, Herman, then a pot-bellied enforcer who had once played for the Washington Generals; Dolph will turn 85 years old in May; Herman died in 2008). Those caught by Boeheim were subjected to untold horrors -- fingertip push-ups, leg-raises and worst of all, standing with arms extended to the side until lactic acid forced them to drop. Yet getting caught by Boeheim was a rite of passage, too, fodder for tales not just over bug juice and family style mystery meat in the mess hall, but long afterward, back home at practice, too. Those who ran from Boeheim in the dark of the night would watch in wonder on subsequent afternoons as Boeheim lined up for "counselor's games" with the likes of Gail Goodrich, Happy Hairston, (Jumpin') Johnny Green, Bob Lanier and Boeheim's close friend and college teammate, Dave Bing. The skinny, balding guy with the nerd glasses strapped to his head was a player, a ball-out, end-to-end terror. "Boeheim?" we would say to each other, incredulous. Sure enough, Boeheim. Even then.