There’s an old saying that “you want what you can’t have,” and it’s an adage that seems especially true for some of the world’s best athletes.
LeBron James recently made headlines by saying he hoped to play in the NFL, even if it was only for one game. James’ idol, Michael Jordan, may have won eight straight NBA titles had he not taken a break to dabble in baseball in the middle of his hoops career.
Yet there is one recently retired NFL star whose double-life in multiple sports is not nearly as well known.
It’s Donovan McNabb, and as Syracuse gets set to retire his jersey for all his on the field football exploits this weekend, what many have forgotten is that McNabb also doubled as a walk-on for the Syracuse hoops team.
That’s right, as soon as football season ended for McNabb at the Carrier Dome, he simply switched locker rooms, switched jerseys and hid his helmet for the winter to turn his attention to hoops.
Safe to say it was an adventure-filled few winters on the hardwood for McNabb, who was even part of the Orange squad that went to the Final Four in 1996.
Yet everyone seems to have forgotten that little nugget of sports history. Everyone that is, except McNabb himself.
“Basketball is still my first love,” McNabb recently said in an interview prior to an episode of Fox Sports Live. “Football paid the bills, but I love hoops too.”
Like so many things in life, McNabb’s passion for all sports came thanks to a fascinating cross-section of variables when he was young. Not only was McNabb clearly blessed with incredible physical gifts, but he was also born into the right family, in the right city, at the right time, to allow all those outside forces to come together at once.
McNabb grew up in Chicago and came of age as a sports fan right around the time Michael Jordan began his playing career with the Bulls. Like every kid in his neighborhood, McNabb would watch Jordan on TV then immediately sprint out to the closest hoop and practice all the moves he’d just seen.
But for the future six-time NFL Pro Bowler there was an even bigger local star that he not only idolized but wanted to eventually surpass in all sports. That was his older brother, Sean.
“My brother was four years older than me,” McNabb said. “He played football, basketball, baseball, ran track. I saw him as my model. But I hated being recognized as ‘Little Sean.’ As I got older I began to make a name for myself.”
Indeed he did, and by the time McNabb entered high school he was already recognized as one of the top football and basketball players in the entire city. And it was at a tournament before his freshman season that McNabb met another eighth-grader who’d go not only to become a great friend long into their professional career but also play a small part in landing McNabb on the Syracuse hoops team. Not to mention he also became an on-the-court adversary for McNabb and the Orange in the 1996 national championship game.
“Coming out of eighth grade they had a summer league for all the kids going to different high schools,” McNabb said. “I remember my dad dropped me off and sat in the stands. I see this tall kid, about 6-foot-5, long neck, big head just standing under the basket.”
“So I went over and asked him his name. He said, ‘Antoine Walker.’”
The two quickly hit it off, and their friendship only continued when McNabb convinced the kid with a long neck and big head to enroll at Mt. Caramel High School that fall. Within a few years, the two became a one-two punch on the court, and the inside-outside combo that eventually led Mt. Caramel to within one game of advancing “Down State” for the Illinois high school state basketball finals.
Of course playing with Walker also had other perks. One that didn’t hurt McNabb personally was the ability to be seen by every major college basketball coach in the country, when they stopped by Mt. Caramel to try and convince Antoine to attend their school.
“By the end of my junior year I knew I was going to play football,” McNabb said. “So that’s when I talked to Paul Pasqualoni (the Syracuse football coach at the time) and told him that I’d love to come to Syracuse. But I wanted the opportunity to play basketball, too. I talked to Coach Boeheim and he said ‘Sure, we’ve seen you while we were recruiting Antoine and we’d love to have you.’”
McNabb followed through on that promise shortly after football season ended in 1995, when he joined a hoops squad that would eventually go on to the Final Four.
Yet for those who think that McNabb used basketball as a diversion, or something to simply pass the time during football’s offseason, think again. McNabb could ball. Just ask the Hall of Famer who coached him.
“A lot of walk-ons aren’t all that helpful,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “But Donovan was great that first year. He was a really good teammate, players really loved him. He was an above-average basketball player.”
For all his talent, McNabb didn’t play much that first winter, caught on the wrong end of a numbers game. Syracuse was a veteran team built for the Final Four, meaning that the star quarterback was mostly relegated to mop-op duty on the hardwood. Still, that didn’t stop McNabb from having plenty of fun as a member of the team.
“A bunch of us, we’d just play five-on-five, four-on-four before games,” McNabb said. “We’d have a dunk contest. Those were some of my best memories. We called ourselves ‘The Bench Crew.’ We were gonna be on the cover of Sports Illustrated if we won the national championship.”
Syracuse of course did not win the title, eventually falling to an Antoine Walker-led Kentucky team in the championship game. Still, that didn’t stop McNabb from having his own personal “One Shining Moment” in the Orange’s opening-round game against Montana State.
It came late in the contest, when McNabb entered in a one-sided blowout. Looking to get his name in the box score, McNabb cut to the basket and was hit in the hands with a perfect bounce pass.
“I caught it, took a hard dribble, went up with two hands, dunked it and came down,” McNabb said, a smile creeping across his face as he told the story. “And we’re celebrating and I’m thinking to myself ‘Man, I just dunked in the NCAA tournament! My parents are watching!”
Well, sort of.
“My mom called me later and said that as soon as they passed the ball to me and they saw me catch it … CBS cut to another game.”
“I remember telling her, ‘You didn’t see it? I had a two-handed dunk!” McNabb said with a laugh.
McNabb’s hoops career continued one more season, and because of heavy personnel loss off the Final Four team, included some serious playing time as well. The highlight will always be a come from behind victory against Georgetown, in a game that will go down in Syracuse lore as “The Donovan McNabb Game.”
That night, a thin Orange bench was decimated by foul trouble and Boeheim had no choice but to throw McNabb into the fire. McNabb — who by that point had evolved into a 6-3 shooting guard who played like a rugged power forward, with a toughness bred from a football background — went toe-for-toe with one of the biggest front lines in college basketball.
And frankly, he got the better of them.
“Georgetown went 6-11, 6-10, 6-9 along the front line,” Boeheim said. “But Donovan was a tough player. He had about eight rebounds and eight or 10 points and we came back and beat them.”
“He really turned things around. He helped us win that game.”
Unfortunately, like all good things, McNabb’s basketball career had to come to an end after Syracuse was eliminated in the NIT. With NFL scouts becoming regular bystanders at Syracuse football practices and games it was clear his future was on the gridiron. McNabb nearly left college after his junior year for the NFL, and even after electing to return as a senior, put basketball on the back-burner for good.
Yet even 15 years later, the man who coached him on the hardwood believes that had McNabb chosen a different path, he could’ve made a name for himself in basketball as well as football.
“Donovan obviously made the right choice, and I couldn’t be happier with how things turned out,” Boeheim said. “But I’ve always thought that if he’d come to college to play basketball at 6-2, 6-3, and stayed at 195 pounds, he would’ve been a really good two-guard in time.
“He would’ve been a starter for us.”
It’s a great “What If” question, and ultimately one we’ll never know the answer to. And after a career that saw Syracuse football springboard McNabb to six Pro Bowl appearances and Super Bowl berth, it’s as Boeheim said: McNabb did make the right decision.
Yet when McNabb does have his jersey retired this weekend at the Carrier Dome, it’ll elicit a lot of memories, for a lot of different people.
And not just for what McNabb did on the football field at Syracuse either.
Aaron Torres is a show writer for Fox Sports Live and a contributor to FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.