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Boeheim turned loyalty into legend
There’s a story people like to tell about Jim Boeheim that perfectly explains why, after Monday’s 72-68 victory over Detroit on the Syracuse University basketball court that bears his name, he’s now one of only three Division I basketball coaches to reach 900 wins in a career.
Boeheim and his first wife were vacationing in Hawaii with Rick Pitino, who was a Boeheim assistant before embarking on his own remarkable coaching career, and Pitino’s wife. As the four soaked in the Hawaiian sun, according to Scott Pitoniak’s insightful Boeheim biography, “Color Him Orange,” the conversation turned to which place on earth would be the perfect place to live. Pitino said Honolulu. Pitino’s wife said Park Avenue in New York City. Boeheim’s first wife, Elaine, said Paris.
And Boeheim? He said the not-quite-paradise of Syracuse, N.Y.
“Syracuse is like Hawaii for eight months of the year,” Boeheim explained to the incredulous group. “The other four months, I don’t care about the weather because we’re playing basketball.”
That story has become part of the Boeheim legend over the past 37 years, during which the Syracuse coach has built his basketball program into a national powerhouse and turned the gray, forbidding winters of central New York into a time of year residents actually look forward to. Some listen to this story and chuckle. They see it as a perfect allegory for a small-town boy who grew up 50 miles away in Lyons, N.Y., came to Syracuse a half-century ago as the tall, lanky son of an undertaker who could play some hoops, and never left.
I see this story differently. I see this story as the perfect allegory for a man who bucks all the trends of today’s climb-the-ladder world of college sports. Jim Boeheim is a nester, not a nomad. He’s someone who wasn’t always searching for the supposedly bigger and better jobs, instead content with the life he made in central New York while he built one of the greatest basketball programs this country has ever seen.
I see this story as an allegory for how Boeheim could take three of the most rare and underappreciated values in modern-day America — the values of longevity, loyalty and consistency — and use them to turn Syracuse into the college hoops version of Green Bay: an overlooked part of the country that’s turned into a sports hotbed simply because of one team.
“I don’t get that excited about that much — just the way I was brought up,” Boeheim told me last season, when I headed to Syracuse to write about the college basketball culture that has developed during Boeheim’s tenure. “You are what you are. You get to a certain point, we all become the course that we’re on. I’m from a small town. I was always taught to keep things in perspective. I was a walk-on here, so I wasn’t hyped up. I’ve never been one to buy into that hype and stuff. People don’t change. They are what they are. That’s how I’ve always been.”
If it sounds like a boring explanation of what makes him the third-winningest coach of all time, that’s because it is. He may be one of three Division I coaches to get to 900 wins. He may soon pass Bobby Knight, who won 902 games, for second on that list, behind Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. He may have last season set the record for most games won at a single school, passing UNC’s Dean Smith. He may be known as the ultimate guru of the 2-3 zone defense. None of this means Boeheim ever tries to be something that he isn’t. Sure, he enjoys his central New York fame. But he doesn’t think of himself as some university ambassador. He’s just a basketball coach.
Last year he found himself in the middle of the murky sex-abuse allegations against his former assistant coach, Bernie Fine. One of his greatest traits, that of loyalty — the same trait that explains why nearly all of his assistants have been Syracuse graduates — came close to costing Boeheim his job.
Shortly after the allegations against Fine were aired on ESPN, Boeheim’s emotional defense of Fine went too far when he lashed out at the alleged victims. (Last month federal investigators announced Fine would not be charged in the case.) It was a political miscalculation, and it made Boeheim appear like a bully, but it stemmed from the true and honest place of loyalty to a longtime friend. People who know Boeheim weren’t surprised he did that, since he’s someone who always wears his emotions on his sleeve. Jim Boeheim has never been a politician. He’s always just been who he is, one of the country’s finest basketball coaches, doing his job in one of the most unlikely of places.
“We’re a very transient society,” said Pitoniak, Boeheim’s biographer. “There’s something admirable and noble about people who find their paradise and aren’t looking for another paradise, a better paradise . . . The game was what he was concerned with, not all the other things that go with it.”
Last season I asked him, as he approached Smith’s single-school wins record, how much longer he planned to coach.
“I don’t know if you know exactly when it’s time,” he said. “I don’t think a light comes on and you say, ‘Oh, it’s time.’ I thought I’d be done at 60, I really did. And here we are, seven years later (he’s now 68). That just tells me that you really can’t predict. The time will come. I just hope I’ll know it.”
He paused for a moment. Not long after that conversation he passed Smith. On Monday night he hit the 900-win mark. Soon, he’ll pass Knight. Coach K is younger and has more career wins, so few scenarios have Boeheim passing the Duke coach. But Boeheim has spoken about his fire to win another national title. This year’s team, now 10-0 and ranked third in the country, certainly has a chance.
On that day in his office, Boeheim smiled when he thought about when the end will come. Not now, but some day. “I won’t be coaching when I’m 80 years old, I know that.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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