Tuesday November 30th, 2004

When Syracuse's 6-foot-2 junior guard Gerry McNamara threw down his first collegiate dunk last Saturday in a game against Siena, the patrons watching the game on TV at Cosgrove's Clubhouse & Tavern in Scranton, Pa. -- many of whom may have also witnessed his two or so dunks in high school -- roared. "The place went nuts," says Peter Cosgrove, the owner of one of the hubs of the unofficial but enormous and ever-expanding Gerry McNamara fan club. "You just don't expect that from him."

You do expect all the other things McNamara did in that 78-56 victory, the fifth straight for Syracuse. He scored 29 points -- including his 200th through 205th career 3-pointers -- was perfect from the line (5-for-5), and made headlong, body-be-damned dives for the ball, including one that flattened a courtside photographer and another that took out the Siena band's woodwinds.

After taking three months off this summer, McNamara got off to a slow start this season, scoring 27 points in his first three games. In the last two, however, he has averaged 25. In Albany on Saturday he displayed the same competitive zeal against a winless mid-major as he did in his first two must-win games in last year's NCAA tournament in Denver. Remember those? Against BYU he saved the defending national champs from an embarrassing first-round exit by scoring 43 points, including nine 3-pointers, in an 80-75 win. Two nights later against Maryland he battled fatigue, dehydration, asthma, foul trouble and the suffocating pressure defense of D.J. Strawberry and Chris McCray to give the Orange 13 points and 35 minutes, every one of which, coach Jim Boeheim would later declare, was critical to Syracuse's advance to the Sweet 16. "He couldn't get a breath, but he was the guy making plays for us," said Boeheim. "If he had been out one minute, we would have lost the game."

There aren't many players like McNamara, at least not in the Syracuse family. His freshman year, the team's media guide presented the current players as "clones" of former Syracuse players. To find reasonable comparisons for most of the team, the sports information department had to reach back to the '80s or '90s. To find anyone like McNamara, they had to go deep, all the way back to the early '70s, when Boeheim was an assistant clad in plaid, and freshmen weren't allowed to play. McNamara, the staff decided, was a "clone" of Jim Lee, a scrappy, not-so-tall All-America guard who played from '72 to '75 and was the leading scorer in the '75 Final Four.

At this rate, McNamara should make some All-America lists, though he still isn't seeing much time at his natural shooting guard position. With the return of point guard Billy Edelin, who left the team midway through last season and has been sidelined this semester because of academic problems, and the arrival of touted freshman Josh Wright, McNamara was supposed to get some relief at the point. So far Wright has been used sparingly, averaging just 9.5 minutes and 1.8 points a game, and Edelin just returned to practice a week ago. Until that unknown date when Edelin plays in a game, McNamara will still be doing most of the heavy lifting in the backcourt.

But that's what people have come to expect of McNamara in his hometown of Scranton, which offers up as many as 2,000 citizens, most of them former Notre Dame or Penn State diehards, into the Carrier Dome every home game. "He's not a 40-minute a night guy, no one is at that level," says Cosgrove. "But he has done that on occasion."

McNamara's fans will take whatever he offers: 3-pointers, foul shots, assists, hustle, minutes, dunks. The winters are long in northeastern Pennsylvania. "The last two have been pure hell, snow on the ground for months," says Cosgrove. "But Gerry makes them go by quicker. Twice a week he gives people something to look forward to."

Cosgrove dares anyone to name a college basketball player in the country who has had as big an impact on fans' lives -- or on a single school's gate receipts -- as McNamara has. "I talk to friends in Allentown, in Philadelphia, in Washington, D.C., and they all follow Gerry," says Cosgrove. "Kids everywhere love him, maybe because he looks like a kid himself." Or maybe -- let's hope -- because he has a game and an attitude worth emulating, even though he doesn't dunk much.

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