During timeouts at a Syracuse basketball game, Jake Presutti is easy to spot. He's in the Orange's huddle in a shooting shirt and shorts with eyes never straying from Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim's eyes. Behind Boeheim in the first row of seats beyond the Syracuse bench are a group of managers. Behind Presutti in the outskirts of the huddle are the Syracuse walk-ons and support staff.
Presutti stands in the huddle, flanked by teammates and coaches and managers, and he can relate with every one of them. This precise moment is a snapshot of Presutti's four years at Syracuse -- showing what he is, what he was and what he hopes to become.
Presutti began at SU as a manager, like the collection of students sitting behind the bench. After a year, Presutti made the team as a walk-on and became one of the players in the outskirts of the huddle. Now Presutti is a scholarship player, albeit one who seldom plays, but one who never strays far from the coaches he hopes to emulate when his eligibility expires.
His Syracuse story started as a high schooler attending Syracuse basketball camp. That is when the native of Belmont, N.Y. -- about two hours and 45 minutes from Syracuse -- fell in love with Boeheim's basketball program. He contacted associate head coach Bernie Fine, Boeheim's assistant of 33 years who runs the summer camps and oversees the managers and walk-ons. Presutti told Fine he wanted to walk on to the team; Fine advised him to come to the summer camp.
"I told him there were no guarantees," Fine said, "but this way I get a chance to see you for the week and have a better idea for a week rather than a one-hour tryout."
Presutti was the MVP of the camp and enrolled at Syracuse in 2004 hoping to walk on. The problem arose when former walk-on Josh Brooks decided to return to the team for the 2004-05 season. There were not enough roster spots, leaving Presutti out of luck. Yet it was important to him to continue to be around the team, so he accepted Fine's offer to become a manager.
During that season -- Presutti's freshman year -- he did not limit his job to the responsibilities of an ordinary freshman manager. Presutti traveled to Syracuse's road game, all on his own dime. He'd hitch rides when available and catch trains when the rides weren't. Whether it was Madison Square Garden or South Bend, Ind., Presutti found a way. He sought friends and family who provided a place to sleep, often times a couch or the floor.
"I told him to be careful," said Presutti's father, Steve Presutti. "I was mainly concerned about safety, hitching rides with people, friends of his. I don't know how he did it. He made arrangements to every game. It was exciting for him, something that he wanted to do."
It was also valuable. Presutti was able to develop relationships with the players on the road trips and earn their trust. His roommate became former Syracuse standout and current Chicago Bulls reserve Demetris Nichols.
"That's where I've become close to the guys," Presutti said. "To sit in the meetings, be around them, you learn a lot. You're seeing guys' preparation on gameday. That all sinks in, you know?"
After the season, Presutti participated in the team's workouts in the spring. He spent the summer on campus taking classes and practicing with Nichols and former SU starter Terrence Roberts. When Fine told him a walk-on spot opened for the 2005-06 season, Presutti joined the team.
Like most walk-ons, playing time was limited. He received time in three games and recorded his first point -- a free throw -- against Villanova. On defense, he guarded former Wildcats standout Allan Ray. He played only three games his junior year, too.
Yet he was never under the false impression he was on the team to play. He knew his role as a practice player and good student. Plus, there was something in it for him, too. Presutti wants to become a basketball coach -- his goal even before he arrived at Syracuse. He watched Mike Hopkins, Syracuse's chief recruiter, deal with the players. He interpreted why Boeheim would choose a certain set at a certain time. And he developed contacts along the way, observing what the other teams did to combat SU's 2-3 zone.
This past summer, Presutti worked as an instructor at different college basketball camps. Among his stops were Marquette, Duke, Florida, Maryland and Syracuse. He talked about earning respect from players with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski; he chatted about motivation with Marquette coach Tom Crean.
"He gave me his calendar for the summer and said I need to get a flight from here to there, here to there, these dates," Steve Presutti said. "He just likes to learn. He went to some of the best programs in the country, met a lot of people. I bought his plane tickets and he bee-bopped around the country, stayed with his grandparents [and other family members]."
He also worked as part of the United States' support staff for the Pan American Games trials in Haverford, Pa., in July. The U.S. was coached by Villanova's Jay Wright. Boeheim oversaw the team's selection.
Overall, Presutti took three days off during the four-month break. There's a guy who knows how to vacation.
At the Trials, Boeheim sat down with Presutti and discussed his plans. Boeheim mentioned the Orange might have an extra scholarship this season. Nothing was definite, but the possibility existed.
Presutti kept it in the back of his mind but seldom talked about it. When he was driving from Syracuse to Belmont in mid-August, his phone rang with a Syracuse phone number.
"It was funny, the number came up and I knew it was a 315 area code but I didn't know who it was," Presutti said. "So I picked it up, and he said it was (Boeheim). ...He said it was going to happen."
Presutti didn't know what to do next. He knew Boeheim was busy and didn't want to pepper him with questions. Presutti called Steve, but he was in a meeting and couldn't talk. So Presutti called his mother, Patricia.
So much for keeping the news quiet.
"She was real excited and wanted to tell people," Presutti said as he was impersonating his mother.
Yet little has actually changed for Presutti. He's played six games this seasons, although that is more a result of Syracuse's depleted depth chart than Presutti's scholarship. He plans on returning to Syracuse next year for his final year of eligibility, scholarship or not. Most of all, he's been a veteran on a team that starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior-college transfer.
"I want to show the young guys things I was taught from Demetris, Hakim [Warrick] and Gerry [McNamara]," Presutti said.
"It's like having another coach out there," Fine said.
The coaches don't treat him any different now that he's on scholarship and Presutti said the players don't either. The only difference is the tuition bills.
"Coach was just trying to help me out," Presutti said. "If anything, it helps with student loans."
It also changed his perception, especially back home in Belmont. There are more players who leave high school with the proclamation of walking on to a major Division I program than those who actually earn the chance. Receiving a scholarship is rarely entertained.
Even Steve Presutti had his doubts. He knew his son had the desire and work ethic, but coming from a rural town, it was difficult to imagine Presutti in the Carrier Dome in front of 30,000 people. Now, local residents who doubted Presutti four years ago ask Steve for schedules and posters.
"Everyone thought I should have gone Division III and play, but I knew it," Presutti said. "I'm from a small town and a lot of people kind of said, they'll tell you to do this and that, but I'd do the other thing and it worked out."