Book excerpt: Jim Boeheim reflects on 50 years of Syracuse basketball
From Bleeding Orange: Fifty Years of Blind Referees, Screaming Fans, Beasts of the East and Syracuse Basketball, by Jim Boeheim with Jack McCallum. Copyright © 2014 by Jim Boeheim and Jack McCallum. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
A Coach’s Notes VII
February 23, 2014
1 Day, 17 Hours, 58 Minutes until Tip-Off at the Comcast Center (Maryland)
This is what everybody is waiting for, right? The Boeheim Sport Coat Shuffle. Cameron Indoor Stadium, February 22, 2014. Oh, what a night. (The Dells, original release 1956.)
Let’s begin at the end. I’m on the bus after the game when my cell phone rings. It’s been buzzing for a while, but I’ve ignored it. What I don’t need now is long conversations, which I don’t indulge in during the best of times, and this is clearly not the best of times. The caller ID reads krzyzewski.
“I’m sorry, Mike,” I say by way of greeting. “I got a little crazy.”
“No need to be,” says Mike. “I understand completely.”
“I hope this didn’t mess up the game too badly,” I say.
“Are you kidding?” says Mike. “People will remember this one for a long time.”
We exchange a few more pleasantries before we hang up. I look around. The bus is almost silent. Outside of our own little bubble, though, the basketball world is buzzing.
BY THE TIME of the Duke game at Cameron, which was our 14th in the conference, Syracuse had become, for all intents and purposes, an ACC team. Certainly the change in conference didn’t matter much to our players -- it’s all just basketball to them. I didn’t know whether the average fan could identify UConn as a member of the American Athletic Conference or rattle off every member of the reconfigured Big East, but we had planted our flag squarely in the belly of our new league with that February 1 overtime classic against Duke at the Dome.
As a longtime Big Easterner, though, I couldn’t help but feel some pangs for the old league. An certainly there were those in the ACC who weren’t thrilled with me, the Boeheim sarcasm sometimes falling flat below the Mason–Dixon Line.
I had fired the first verbal shot across the ACC’s bow the previous season, during a game at Providence. I wasn’t trying to start anything; mostly I was feeling sentimental about Dave Gavitt (Providence had been his home) and the old days and started reminiscing about the great restaurants in that town. “Now, I go down to Clemson, South Carolina,” I said. “I’m sure there’s a couple Denny’s down there.” After that, a joke I made about Waffle Houses in the ACC made it into the public record.
Suddenly Boeheim was a jerk or, at best, a northern snob. Columns were written about it, and I heard it from fans on road trips. But you have to understand where I was coming from. Though we might’ve been culinary rubes when we started -- at least I was -- we thrived on a restaurant culture built around the Big East cities. P. J. Carlesimo knows more maître d’s and chefs around the country than Bobby Flay.
It became important for us to get a good meal on the road, a way to cut through the tension. Restaurants became a way of life for all of us eastern coaches. Take Mike Fratello, who, though he never coached in the Big East -- a long time ago, I did interview him for an assistant’s position but didn’t hire him, because he already had a job -- was a friend to several of us and around our crowd a lot. Fratello would find out where we were going to dinner that evening, gothere in the afternoon, lay down his credit card and pay in advance. Eating a good meal and arguing about who was going to pay was a way we showed respect, even if we did nothing but insult one another from salad through dessert.
The insult was indeed the very essence of our language in the Big East, the fulcrum of our communication. When somebody asked me why Pitino had not attended the 2013 ACC spring meeting on Amelia Island, I referenced Rick’s being a racehorse baron and said, “He’s still at the Kentucky Derby waiting for his horse to come in.” Compared with the way we slung around insults in the Big East, Denny’s and Waffle House references were nothing. What if I suddenly start referring to Buzz Williams, the new coach at Virginia Tech, as Wacko, like we used to call Gary Williams?
I have no doubt that the Syracuse bean counters are happier with us in the ACC. Our pregame meal at the hotel, which was nothing sumptuous, would cost as much as $110 per person during the Big East tournament. Four of us went out to an Italian restaurant in Clemson and it cost $150; it would’ve been $350 at almost any Big East stop (except Syracuse) and probably $500 in New York.
And, yes, the food in the ACC was very good. And, yes, we stayed at some excellent hotels, particularly one in Blacksburg, Virginia. I was always careful to provide any positive restaurant and hotel reviews to the locals.
Still, there are subtle differences between the Big East and the ACC, little things that make an impression on you, particularly off the court.
ACC luncheons, dinners and press get-togethers, for example, attract all sorts of sponsors and business people. They’re more of an “event” than a basketball gathering, business people looking to mingle and press the flesh. Big East functions, on the other hand, tended to include just the coaches, league officials and sometimes wives, with the main business being basketball and insults. They weren’t community-oriented. You’re getting together over cracked crab in New York? Big deal. I’ll wait for the games.
At root, the ACC is a club, formal, official and proper, but not without backroom feuds and nastiness. The Big East, by contrast, was a fraternity, complete with the spirit of brotherhood that bound each coach to the other, even if our civility would occasionally crumble and we’d have ourselves a good food fight.
Jim Valvano had a little routine he did about the difference between the Big East and the ACC. He would broadcast a Syracuse–UConn game and he’d describe Calhoun and me going at each other, the referees snarling, the fans F-you-ing each other -- and that was all before the opening tip. Then he’d go down to the ACC and everything would be nice and gentlemanly and outwardly civil . . . until the cameras were off. (None of that civil stuff, by the way, applies to Cameron.)
Krzyzewski has accurately observed that the leagues reflected their respective geographies. The fan base of the Big East was urban, more professional sports, more Yankees–Red Sox, Celtics–Sixers bitterness, more overt hostility, while the ACC has a collegiate, let’s-cheer-for-all-the-kids ambience -- some of it, to be sure, contrived. The Big East celebrated a cult of in-your- face coaches, while the ACC was about “leaders of programs.” Coach K gets more than his share of publicity, of course, but that’s because he’s won so much, and such a large percentage of the rest of the country hates Duke.
For my part, I didn’t feel that much like the classic, feeling-my-way-in-a-new-conference underdog. I’ve been around too long, and it was obvious that I came in at relatively the same level as the esteemed ACC coaches like Mike and Roy Williams. Syracuse was an overdog, not an underdog, and people wanted to kick our butt from the beginning. They didn’t need to get to know us; they knew us and didn’t particularly like us.
Overall, I feel nothing but optimistic about the direction of the ACC, which it can be argued has been the best basketball conference over the past 50 years. That’s because teams like the now departed Maryland, North Carolina State, Virginia and Wake Forest all had their glory moments to go along with the perennials, Duke and North Carolina. Even with UCLA’s dominance of college basketball from the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, the Pac-10 was never nearly as good as the ACC from top to bottom.
Over the past few decades, though, I wouldn’t say the ACC has been on top; after all, Duke and North Carolina have been responsible for 95 percent of the conference’s success. I’m prejudiced, but over that period, I think that the Big East has been the best.
But there’s no doubt that John Swofford pulled off one of the all-time commissioner moves by adding us, Pitt, Notre Dame and incoming Louisville, and I think the ACC will be dominant for a long time going forward. Plus, it’s a great conference for restaurants. The ACC tournament is due to come north, to the Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, in 2017. The eating will be terrific, but four words of warning: Bring lots of cash.
BEFORE OUR TRIP to Durham, C. J. Fair is concerned, and so is most of Syracuse Nation. After 25 straight wins, we finally lost, and it was an ugly one, a home defeat to lowly Boston College, 62–59. The only positive spin is that, if Duke beats us, the Cameron Crazies won’t have the thrill of knocking off the unbeaten number one.
C.J. is in a bit of a shooting slump, and I can read his mind. What are the pro scouts thinking about this? He returned for his senior year to better his chances of being a high draft pick, and now he feels that slipping away. He hopes to make pro ball his livelihood, and it’s understandable that he’s worried.
“C.J.,” I tell him. “It honestly doesn’t matter whether you score two points or 20 points. You know what you can do, and teams know what you can do, because you showed it in the first Duke game, never mind your whole career. A team is going to watch you work out and decide then whether they like you. And it only takes one team. Forget about everything and just go out and play.”
I have to say that I’m not overly impressed with Cameron Indoor Arena. Obviously it’s been great for Duke, and now, 90 minutes before the game, the crowd is already at what seems like full throated roar. But the Syracuse fans tell me later that the first-floor bathroom situation is disastrous. There’s only one. You would think they’d be able to have as many bathrooms as national championships, which means four.
I like to wander out onto visiting arena floors before games, just stand around and soak it all in. Sometimes fans notice me, sometimes they don’t. At Pitt this season, I must’ve posed for 30 photos. I’ve heard fans yell, “Boeheim sucks!” and then request a photo.
The Cameron fans see me, and that riles them up. A few point to the signs in the arena, two of which have no effect on me:
BOEHEIM USES INTERNET EXPLORER
BOEHEIM LIKES NICKELBACK.
I don’t have a personal computer and I don’t know who Nickelback is. People tell me I should be complimented for the latter.
As for the third sign -- WEGMANS IS OVERRATED -- it’s just plain wrong. Wegmans is the treasure in our little corner of the world, the best grocery store ever. So don’t start comparing Wegmans with Piggly Wiggly, because you’re going to lose that battle.
At any rate, for whatever reason, despite the noise, the clamor and Duke’s thirst for revenge from that overtime classic in the Dome, I believe that we’re going to play a good game.
AND WE DO. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Michael Gbinije, who transferred from Duke. He gives us eight points and a solid 20 minutes off the bench, and we need all of it. Our backcourt can’t do anything (Tyler is 2 of 13 and Trevor is 1 of 5), but they play solid defense, take good care of the ball against the Duke pressure and make the Blue Devils work for everything. C.J. and Jerami are terrific throughout, and Baye gives us nine rebounds in split time with Rakeem Christmas. We limit their three-point shooting, something we didn’t do in the game at Syracuse, and, after Rasheed Sulaimon (the guard who threw it into overtime at the Dome) makes one of two free throws, we have a chance to tie or win the game on a final possession. There are 24 seconds left and we trail 60–58.
I don’t always call for a set play in that situation, so I decide to just work something out of the offense, with Tyler making decisions. We want to get a shot fairly quick, so we’ll have a chance for an offensive rebound on a miss. Our offensive rebounding has been terrific, though our ability to convert second-chance points has been awful.
Duke closely defends Trevor coming off of screens, and as the clock ticks down, we get the ball in an opportune spot -- C.J. isolated with one defender in the left corner. He sees an opening, drives baseline and goes up to shoot an acrobatic right-handed layup as Duke’s Rodney Hood slides over from the middle and ...*
So C.J.’s shot goes in, Tony Greene blows the whistle, makes some kind of hand gesture (C.J. will later say he thought it was basket good and one free throw) and ... Offensive foul. No basket.
Subsequent commentaries and news stories will theorize that I should’ve known better, that my brain should’ve been able to run through all of the potential consequences and remain calm, figuring that we could still turn around a two-point deficit with 10 seconds left. Okay, I hear all that.
But life isn’t made out of “should’ves.” What ran through my brain was that it was a clear block, particularly given the new rule interpretation, and that we had gotten jobbed. So I reacted instinctively, in a way that I had never reacted before.
I charged onto the court, all the while tearing off my sport coat and managing to land a solid elbow to the chin of our head manager, Pete Corasaniti, supplying him with years of YouTube replays. Tony Greene was waiting for me. He T’d me up right away and, when I kept arguing, he gave me my second and thumbed me out of the game, the remainder of which consisted mostly of Duke free throws. We lose 66–60.
* Remember all that I’ve said in these pages about referees. Home teams tend to get a few more calls. On that night, we would end up with 14 free-throw attempts, Duke with 25. A few ticks earlier, Christmas was slapped on the head on a follow shot and got no call. In the first half, Gbinije tried to take a charge and was called for a block in a play that seemed more charge-y than this one. Most of all, keep in mind that the emphasis all season long has been on giving the advantage to the offensive player on a block/charge. If the driver even begins his move before the defender slides over, he gets the whistle. It’s a block.
OKAY, WHAT HAPPENED? There is a simple explanation: the heat of the moment. And there’s a complicated one: the collective frustration of playing in the Cameron madhouse against a perennial overdog, with a close friend on the opposing bench whom I really want to beat ...
Trust me -- it was the heat of the moment. It happened, I reacted, the one subconscious thought being that those kinds of calls are supposed to go to the offensive player. That’s not my policy -- that’s college basketball’s policy. In the hushed locker room, I’m immediately due for the postgame press conference. I make a decision: It’s time for diplomacy. Diplomacy with a little Big East seasoning, anyway.
The first thing I do in the postgame press conference is describe the game as “extremely well officiated,” which breaks up everyone.
“Don’t laugh,” I say. “I do make jokes, but that’s not a joke.”
I make it clear that I thought it was an obvious block, particularly given the new rule emphasis. “C.J. was into his motion,” I say.
Then I joke that my dash onto the court was deliberate. “I wanted to see if I still had it in me to get out there,” I say. “And I did. I was quick. I stayed down. Most of all, I didn’t get injured.”
A little humor will keep the jackals at bay.
I am asked if the technicals sealed the game. From the press perspective, that is the big question: Did I blow the game by giving Duke technical free throws?
“Well, I kind of thought the game was over,” I say. “I guess we still could’ve won the game. But that play decided the game. I thought it was the worst call of the year. I hated to see the game decided on that call. No, I don’t have any regrets. And I won’t have any today, tomorrow or the next day.”
The cha-cha-cha with the media goes on. My reputation for being a smartass has been firmly established, and something inside me wants to let that out. I had said something in past weeks about the Syracuse–Duke games and the Syracuse–Pitt games having a “Big East feel” to them, and some people felt I was slighting the ACC. Look, a man cannot forget where he came from. “They got mad at me down here,” I tell the press. “They’re always mad at me down here.”
The subject of our next game, less than 48 hours hence at Maryland, comes up. “Maryland’s off today, which is quite strange,” I say. “I guess they do those things down here.” And in conclusion: “These were two great games we played with Duke. And they’ll remember this one for 30 years, because the old coach went out there and got a little excited.”
At his later press conference, Mike Krzyzewski talks about “our phenomenal celebration of basketball” and says he “applauds me” for showing that I still care that much about the game. By the time he calls my cell, he has already seen my press conference. “It was just the right tone,” he tells me. I’m sure not everyone agrees.
BACK AT THE hotel, sitting in front of a 1:00 a.m. steak, there is time to think. Regrets do seep in, but it’s mostly frustration about losing a game we could’ve won. I do wonder if I’ll be fined by the conference. Early in January, the Big Ten had suspended Iowa coach Fran McCaffery for one game and fined the school $10,000 for violating the sportsmanship policy after Fran got ejected during a loss to Wisconsin. There is no set policy on fining and suspending coaches. It happens rarely in college basketball.
I also concede that I thought there was less time on the clock than 10 seconds. I thought we were at about three or four seconds. But I still hold that the charge call cost us the game.
Should Tony have run me? Well, I think he was looking to do it after I charged off the bench, but I suppose I would’ve been thumbed in the old Big East, too. Upon reflection, I guess it’s amazing that a single call never propelled me off the bench like that in all those years. If anything, it made me realize, as Mike said, how much I still want to win.
Conventional wisdom says that games like this help you become a better team. There could be something to that, I suppose, but my natural pessimism tends to dismiss that notion. This year so far we’ve probably had a dozen battles, games that could’ve gone either way. We won the first ten, and now we’ve lost two in a row, Boston College and this one. So who knows what the effect will be? I did tell the team that they should be proud of their effort. We walked into one of the toughest places in the country and almost walked out with a win.
If possible, the Boeheim family back in Syracuse had a worse evening than I did, as I discover when I talk to Juli. First, they all believed that the ESPN announcers were biased toward Duke -- not the first time that opinion has been offered. Then the power went out in the neighborhood. They had to go to a neighbor’s house and then over to Adrian Autry’s house to watch the game. There was a backlog on pizza orders. Then Dad goes bananas on national TV and gets thrown out.
Meanwhile, the scene has gone viral. I know this because seemingly every single person in the Syracuse party except me has fired up his or her personal device to read the responses to Duke–Syracuse II, a.k.a Boeheim–Sport Coat I. Everyone is a little afraid to let me know, but finally there’s so much buzz that even I -- a man without a computer -- have to pay attention.
It’s as a result of this game that I first learn about the word “meme.” The photo of me tearing off my jacket with my mouth wide open in protest has been photoshopped everywhere, proving if nothing else that a lot of people have a lot of free time. There I am with a crowd of movie stars at the Academy Awards. There I am with Leonardo DiCaprio at the helm of the Titanic. There I am with Michael Jackson. I have a feeling that at my funeral, all of the photos will be of me tearing off my sport coat. Boeheim in Ghostbusters, Boeheim in Breaking Bad, Boeheim running with the bulls . . .
Dave Gavitt once gave me a piece of advice: Don’t watch sports talk shows or read the paper if you know you’re going to be the subject. I’ve gotten better at it, but, back in my hotel room, I’ve already seen myself tearing off my sport coat a half dozen times on TV, and I suspect that image will be run into the ground until somebody else does something crazy.
Bob Knight had a lot of great moments as a coach, but you know the first thing people remember about him? When he threw a chair across the court. At the NCAA championship this year in Dallas, I ran into Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike. “Wow, Jim,” he said, “I didn’t know you had those moves left in you.”
Sometime early the next morning, Daryl Gross, our athletic director, gets a call from Swofford, the ACC commissioner.
“I’m not fining or suspending Jim,” says Swofford. “I have too much respect for him.”
The best compliment I can give John is that Dave Gavitt would’ve handled it exactly the same way.
P.S. In April, a longtime Syracuse fan, Neil Gold, will pay $14,000 for the sport coat as part of the charity auction for the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation.
P.P.S. It was a block, not a charge.
To purchase a copy of Bleeding Orange, go here.