Every year about the time the snow melts and the sidewalks and streets reappear, so does the Syracuse basketball team. This season the Orange is 23-3, perhaps the class of the East and unnoticed and unloved outside its weather radar range.
Syracuse finished its regular season last Saturday by beating a good Rutgers team 82-72 in Manley Fieldhouse, where the Orangemen have a 78-5 record the last seven years. So how come they lack renown? "We're not colorful," says Jim Boeheim, the coach. If there is any color, gray is probably the right shade. The wind comes whistling off nearby Lake Ontario and across the Canadian border, making upstate New York a frigid, desolate place this time of year. You heard about Buffalo this winter? Well, Syracuse usually gets more snow than Buffalo, and although this season has been an exception, its 128.5 inches is far above average. It is from this area that the team gets most of its players. They hail from remote, isolated towns the glamour schools never find because their recruiters don't have snow tires.
Marty Byrnes is an archetypal Syracuse player. Boeheim calls the junior forward "my clutch player." but Byrnes, who comes from Pittsford, N.Y., was given a scholarship almost as an afterthought. And the team has a freshman, 6'9" Louis Orr, who fans think might someday be an All-America even though he is currently just All-Skinny. Because he weighed 160 pounds only two other schools, Xavier and Cleveland State, offered him a scholarship. "That was in the 10th grade," protests Orr. "I weighed 167 pounds last year." Boeheim recruited him shortly after being thrust into the head job when Coach Roy Danforth cleared out his desk and left during lunch hour to go coach at Tulane, where he could wear sunglasses. Orr is from Cincinnati, which is not Tahiti but still the farthest Boeheim has traveled to recruit, given his $11,000 budget. "We don't get the pro-type player," says Boeheim.
Not until this year, that is. Syracuse has an outstanding big man in 6'11" freshman Center Roosevelt Bouie, who was raised in Kendall, N.Y., a one-caution-light town. Bouie, however, was not unknown. He filled two trash bags with letters from imploring college coaches, and one school offered him a job in a bank, from which he was eligible for an interest-free loan. Boeheim needed 25 trips to convince Bouie that he could make Syracuse famous for something besides irony—one of the city's major industries is the manufacture of air-conditioners. So far Bouie is attacking the game with recklessness and bravado. He played seven games with his right hand in a cast after he broke it diving for a loose ball. And he wears two sweatbands bearing the inscription "Puddin'." "As in sweet and smooth chocolate," says he.
Despite getting in foul trouble against Rutgers, Bouie led both teams with 17 rebounds. Syracuse also has beaten Louisville—in Louisville—and St. John's and West Virginia, and its average margin of victory is 19.3 points, second in the country. But somehow the Orangemen manage to remain invisible even though they have been to postseason tournaments in each of the last six years, have averaged 21 victories a season during that span and have participated in every NCAA playoff since 1973, a feat matched only by UCLA and Marquette.
Part of the reason for the low Syracuse profile is the winter-wasteland factor. During the recent natural-gas shortage the team practiced in 50° temperatures, and when asked to rate the city of Syracuse on a scale of I to 10, Orr gave it a solid 2. Another reason is that few major schools deign to visit Manley Fieldhouse, which is flanked, appropriately enough, by a cemetery.
Playing in Manley is an unnerving experience because of "the Zoo," a section of rambunctious students who harass opponents with ridicule, paper airplanes, oranges, chants of "Sit, sit, sit" when the visiting coach stands, and howls aimed at the opposition's cheerleaders. "They tend to go sick," says Marty Byrnes. To the Zoo's left is the Sour Sitrus Society, the pep band that dispenses "Zoo Kazoos," upon which the fans blow derisively. "We don't try to be fair," says student Terry Averdick. "We try to be obnoxious." And at the other end of the floor is the Kennel Club, which barks at the opposition. "We sound like a dog pound greeting new arrivals," says member Denise Zimmer. The Kennel Club also has a cheer. It goes: "I saw your sister. She's ugly. You must be twins."
Moreover, Syracuse behaves in this manner all over the country. Bob Gilbert, a 27-year-old former student, has 125,000 miles on his car, many of them from following the Orangemen in 194 of their last 196 games. During the energy crisis he packed his car with 55 gallons of gas and drove the 710 miles non-stop to Charlotte, N.C. for an NCAA regional game. Another student, Jack Murray, is in his sixth year at Syracuse, mostly because he studies basketball. He has missed only one road game during that time. "It's a phobia," he says. "I feel sick if I miss a game, but when you've got a basketball team like this, it keeps you warm during the winter." The night before the Rutgers game the fans staged a pep rally complete with bonfire. "My high school did not even have pep rallies," said Byrnes.
Syracuse Guard James Williams, who leads the balanced offense with a 14.7-point average, was asked before the game who was the fastest guard he had faced. "I haven't played against any fast guards," said Williams. At least none as fast as he is. The senior used to be called Bug, but he took umbrage at the nickname, saying that it, well, bugged him. He was certainly a pest to Rutgers, scoring 24 points and breaking loose for two late lay-ins. Sophomore teammate Dale Shackleford added 18 points and 14 rebounds. "We're good," said Billy Drew, a transfer from Notre Dame. "We can play with anybody. We may not blow out teams like UCLA, but we can play with them." And now Syracuse may get another chance to do just that.