The Carrier Dome sits high atop the steep incline here known simply as The Hill. It is appropriately the most prominent building on the Syracuse University campus. Viewed from all sides, the arena that consistently attracts the largest home crowds in NCAA basketball looks like a giant white bubble that keeps out the roaring winters of upstate New York.
As far as metaphors go, the Syracuse basketball program as a giant, insulated bubble could not be more fitting. Especially during this weird, trying, remarkable season.
Syracuse, N.Y. is to college basketball fans what Green Bay, Wisc. is to NFL fans, a place known for one thing and one thing only. It’s a place where every assistant coach is a Syracuse grad, where everyone in town has an opinion on Syracuse basketball, and where home games are the town’s biggest happening, the one uniting force that holds this economically struggling area together through the long, brutal winters of one of America’s snowiest cities.
“It’s like it’s its own little world,” said senior point guard and team leader Scoop Jardine. “They do a great job of keeping us well-protected up here, in our own little community. That’s what you want.”
Especially when a team of student-athletes is confronted head-on with the real-life mess of the past few months. A season that’s seen Syracuse set a Big East record for conference wins has been overwhelmed by the allegations of sex-abuse leveled in November against longtime Syracuse assistant coach Bernie Fine, incidents alleged to have happened decades before and involving two former Syracuse ballboys. And then this week came a report by Yahoo! Sports that Syracuse has failed to follow its own internal drug policy during the past decade.
When the news broke about the sex-abuse allegations in November, the intense media exposure seemed sure to derail not just this promising season but perhaps the career of the man who’s now the third-winningest head coach in Division 1 basketball history, Jim Boeheim. It was, after all, just weeks after the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal rocked Penn State and ended the career of Joe Paterno. On the surface the allegations against Fine, first reported on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” seemed very Sandusky-esque: a longtime assistant at a prominent sports program accused of sexual misconduct against minors.
The easy conclusion? That the Boeheim Bubble at Syracuse would prove the same dynamic as the Paterno Bubble at Penn State, which let the Sandusky cancer fester and grow. The fragile ecosystem around this hugely talented Syracuse team, not to mention the vaunted basketball program built by its Hall of Fame coach, would surely explode, its remains scattered across upstate New York.
Except that, on its way to the gallows, something surprising happened to Syracuse basketball.
Instead of bursting, the Boeheim Bubble grew stronger. The bubble insulated and protected not just the players, innocent from any of these decades-old alleged crimes, but Boeheim himself, whose reputation has remained largely intact despite the allegations against his longtime assistant. A bubble, after all, isn’t always a bad thing. It can be a place that nurtures and protects.
And as Tuesday marks the beginning of the Big East men’s basketball tournament, which second-ranked Syracuse will enter with a 30-1 overall record and a virtual lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, it appears that’s exactly the case.
“What’s so weird is how (the scandal) went away,” said Bob Thompson, a longtime Syracuse professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Pop Culture. “I thought this was going to be a transformational moment in the history of this campus and maybe even the city, because of the centrality of that identity that came from basketball. But no charges were drawn. (Bernie Fine) got fired. The story didn’t develop. The team started winning every single game they played. And now that seems so long ago, unlike Penn State, where the story has just kept going.”
As Jardine sat beside the courts after a recent practice, he pointed to the other end. There, tall blue curtains covered a window to the outside. For a couple weeks after the ESPN report aired, a half-dozen or more television trucks were permanently stationed at the practice facility. Boeheim had these curtains installed to block out cameras. When players disappeared behind those curtains, they came into a place where all that mattered was basketball, nothing else. Some players said those practices in the weeks after the ESPN report aired were the most intense, focused practices they’d ever experienced. And instead of rushing to get home, many players stayed at practice longer.
Instead of taking down one of the elite programs in college hoops, this scandal has instead become a galvanizing force, pitting the Orange against the rest of the world.
“It made us closer, because we felt we were all we had, everybody in here,” Jardine said. “Everybody associated with this program was all we had. That’s the mentality you have to have to get through something like that. And we got through it.”
The man whose nose-to-the-grindstone approach has managed to focus this group of young men on just basketball, nothing else, reclined in his office above the practice courts at the $19 million Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center.
But the story of the influence Jim Boeheim wields over his young men does not begin here. Of course it does not. Such a long, consistent history of winning — 28 NCAA tournament appearances in his 35 seasons, including three national title games and one national championship — cannot materialize out of nowhere.
Where it first started was 50 years ago, in the summer of 1962, when the tall, lanky undertaker’s son enrolled at Syracuse University and walked on to the basketball team. The skinny kid was used to being underestimated, having spent high school beating upstate New York teams from towns 10 or 20 times the size of his small town, but he had one advantage: A competitive streak from his father. Growing up, the two competed at everything. It didn’t matter if it was ping pong or pool or Gin rummy.
“The first time I beat him in ping pong was a huge moment,” Boeheim said. “I was 15 or so and beat him in the neighbor’s basement. He didn’t like it, and that was the last time we played.”
The year Boeheim walked onto the basketball team marked a seminal moment in Syracuse basketball history. Until then, this was a football school, home to the 1959 national champions, alma mater of the legendary Jim Brown and of Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Basketball was less than an afterthought; it was pathetic, having recently set a then-NCAA record for 27 consecutive losses.
That year, another freshman was generating buzz: Dave Bing, a blue-chip recruit who’d shocked people by committing to small-time Syracuse. Bing went on to become an NBA great, but it would be his geeky roommate who’d come to define the Syracuse basketball program.
“Jim would not live any other place than Syracuse,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino, a Syracuse assistant under Boeheim for two years, told FOXSports.com. “He’s a nester. He wants to live in the same community. He used to want to go to same restaurant every day for lunch, just order the reuben at Danzer’s.”
It’s a consistency that’s helped Boeheim build this small private school into a national powerhouse. He once turned down a lucrative offer to coach Ohio State. He’s denied overtures from the NBA. He stayed at Syracuse, winning year after year with undervalued recruits he knew would develop and with a 2-3 zone defense that he knew would work.
These days, people close to him say this year has worn on Boeheim. But his eyes light up when he’s talking about this team, his best since the national championship team in 2003. They’re one of the deepest in college hoops. There’s 7-foot sophomore center Fab Melo, who shed 35 pounds in the offseason and has a bright NBA future. There’s senior forward Kris Joseph, the team’s leading scorer who lit up rival Georgetown for six 3-pointers in a thrilling overtime win. There’s the hugely talented sophomore guard Dion Waiters, the dead-aim shooter Brandon Triche, the athletic C.J. Fair, and Jardine, the team’s unquestioned leader.
Say what you will about it being a down year for the Big East. Any way you slice it, Syracuse is one of only a handful of teams capable of romping all the way through the NCAA tournament.
Despite his whiny on-court presence, Boeheim is soft-spoken in person, pleasant as long as the conversation sticks to basketball. But ask about the Bernie Fine scandal, ask how it has affected his team and how he has coached them through it, and Boeheim bristles. He sits up in his chair and leans forward.
“Let me just tell you this and we can put this to rest,” Boeheim says. “I just coach this team. That’s it. I don’t care if there’s an earthquake down the street, as long as it’s not my house. I don’t care. I’m worried about this team, getting this team to play well. That’s all I’m focused on. Nothing else is even in my mind or thoughts when I’m coaching.”
If only it were that easy to put this to rest.
Yes, the media gaggle, incessant for weeks after the initial report, has petered out — although a new media gaggle ought to gather around Boeheim at this week’s Big East tournament, asking about the 10 or more players who’ve tested positive for banned recreational substances in the past decade yet continued to play. (Current players aren’t involved, according to the university, and the university has self-reported potential violations to the NCAA.) And the Fine situation has played out in the background the entire season. The first two advisers have lobbied at the state capitol to have the statute of limitations extended for child sex-abuse victims. They filed a slander lawsuit against Boeheim and Syracuse after Boeheim’s ill-advised press conference slamming the victims shortly after the allegations were reported. The federal government took over the investigation. The whole case seems murky, with new accusers and recorded phone calls by Fine’s wife.
And yet there is one way to keep the focus elsewhere, even if it doesn’t put this to rest: Keep winning.
“We knew if we started losing, that would prove everyone’s point, that we were breaking down as a team,” said Joseph, the senior forward. “So we just won games and put that to rest.”
Boeheim is a coach who is almost tunnel-visioned in his basketball focus. When news first broke about Fine, Boeheim gathered the team at the practice facility.
“He took us all in a room,” said Mike Hopkins, an assistant coach and Boeheim’s presumed successor. “I don’t know exactly what he said, but something in the sense of, ‘This thing’s not about you or me. It’s not about you. We gotta do our job. There are things in life that are gonna happen, things that’ll take you off what you should focus on. You guys are going to school, and you play basketball, and that’s it.’”
That was November. It was the last time Boeheim addressed the issue to his team.
But players noticed a change in their coach. They’ve never seen him so fired up. It’s as if he channeled all these off-court distractions onto the basketball court. Sometimes, he’s told players he wants to win by 50. Another time, Jardine remembers a meeting with the coach when Jardine saw Boeheim cry for the first time. For the players, it became a rallying cry: Win for Coach.
“We were No. 1 in the country, and nobody was talking about that at all,” Jardine said. “It would be the Syracuse scandal, then two highlights. We all felt disrespected from that, because it took away from what we were doing …
“But when your leader is not letting it bother him, it’s easier for us to focus,” Jardine continued. “All we could do is control what we could control, and that’s on the basketball court. And winning tends to make everything go away.”
And except for a mid-season slip against Notre Dame, that’s what these guys have done. They beat Louisville twice. They beat defending champ Connecticut twice. They beat West Virginia despite being outrebounded by 19; they beat Stanford despite having 21 turnovers. That’s what happens when you’re so deep: You keep finding ways to win.
Maybe it’s luck. Maybe the streak of close games Syracuse has won will come to an end early in the NCAA tournament, and the media can point to these off-court distractions as the reason why this promising team imploded.
Or maybe there’s something different going on here: A group of young men whose most difficult part of the season happened not in March but way back in November. Maybe we’ll end up pointing to that crisis as the moment that galvanized this resilient group, and that took a bunch of talented basketball players and turned them into something truly special.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.