Believe it or not, there was actually a basketball game played here on Saturday evening. The fifth-ranked team in the country, the Syracuse Orange, ran all over an undersized, overmatched opponent, beating Colgate 92-47.
But the real story that swirled around this game and swallowed it whole was infinitely more important than anything as trivial as basketball. Though head coach Jim Boeheim kept trying to steer questions back to basketball at a packed postgame news conference, the game was the sidelight here. Depending on whom you asked, the real story was either a horrific story of a longtime assistant coach taking advantage of youngsters, engaging in sexual abuse and perhaps bringing down another top college program, or a just-as-horrific story about the character assassination of a good man based on lies and exploitation of the media.
Instead of being played out on a basketball court inside the Carrier Dome, the real story could be found in nearby Bridgeport, at the small suburban house of Bobby Davis on an unfinished cul-de-sac. Davis, a 39-year-old former Syracuse ball boy, this week told ESPN that Boeheim’s longtime assistant coach, Bernie Fine, had sexually abused him for 16 years, starting in the seventh grade.
At Davis’ house on Saturday, a friendly Weimaraner wagged its tail on the front porch and nuzzled a visitor. But nobody answered the door.
Instead of playing out before thousands of screaming students, the real story could be found at Fine’s home an upscale enclave outside Syracuse called Limestone Heights. In the assistant coach’s front yard, an orange and blue sign had appeared overnight: “We believe in your innocence Bernie, we love you!” The poster was signed by a dozen names.
An SUV was parked in the driveway. Fine’s wife, Laurie, answered the door. She looked weary, as if a prisoner in her own home, but she managed to smile politely when she said, no, she did not want to talk about her husband’s situation. After all, Fine had already released a statement, calling the charges “patently false in every aspect.”
The real story could be found not on any basketball court but across the street from Fine’s home, where Boeheim lives with his wife and children. A bit before noon, Boeheim pulled his SUV into the driveway. A CNN camera crew rushed toward him, but Boeheim scurried inside. He did not answer his door moments later. The message, it seemed, was that Boeheim — who has staked his reputation on forcefully defending Fine, his assistant at Syracuse since 1976 — had said all that he would say.
The real story could be found in the small upstate New York town of Constantia, the home of Davis’ stepbrother, Mike Lang. Lang’s corroborative story about also being sexually abused by Fine led ESPN to air its report, police to begin an investigation and Syracuse to put Fine on administrative leave. On the shores of Oneida Lake, townsfolk spoke about the sexual-abuse allegations as if they’d been the opening volleys of a civil war, pitting neighbor against neighbor, those who believe the stories of sexual abuse versus those who believe in the integrity of Fine and Syracuse basketball.
In this town, people kept coming into the Nice n Easy Grocery Shoppe, complaining that Syracuse’s basketball season would be ruined. People spoke about Lang as a nice guy, though allegedly a heavy drinker. At Lang’s house, nobody answered the door, but Syracuse memorabilia was all over: a jersey hanging in the window, stickers, a doll, a plush foam finger.
Down the street, Celia Richardson, who worked for Lang at his diner in town, said she’d been crying about the news. “His family is like family to me,” she said, calling Lang “son.” “He likes to party too much, but other than that, he’s a good kid.”
And finally, the real story could not be found on Jim Boeheim Court in the Carrier Dome. Instead, the real story was courtside, next to Boeheim, where there was an empty seat. It was 7-foot Brazilian center Fab Melo’s idea: Let’s leave this seat empty to honor our missing coach. And after Syracuse’s 45-point romp, each player tapped the seat as he walked off the court.
Afterward, Syracuse players sat in the locker room, cameras surrounding them as they kept trying to talk about basketball. But reporters kept asking about Fine. Melo said Fine has been like a father figure to him. Guard Scoop Jardine spoke about the loyalty bred by the final thing the team says before a game: “1, 2, 3, family!” All the players said it wasn’t tough to focus the past two days. You just think about basketball.
In his news conference, Boeheim said he’d rather just talk about basketball, too. But the real story wasn’t about basketball, and the questions kept coming.
“I’ve been friends for 50 years with Coach Fine, and that buys a lot of loyalty to me,” he said. “Our program will be fine. It’s been pretty good for 36 years. We’ve been through a lot of different things. We’ll get through it.”
And in Syracuse, in the midst of these murky, ugly allegations of sexual abuse, that’s the real story: How the basketball program will get through it. How Syracuse University will get through it. How Bernie Fine and Jim Boeheim will get through it. And most importantly, how — if the allegations prove true — the victims will get through it.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.