My junior year at Syracuse University the Orangemen failed to make the NCAA Tournament. On the first day of the tournament my friends and I drove to Tully's on Erie Boulevard. At the restaurant we could watch all of the games and cheer along with the choices we made in our brackets. The game I was most interested in was the six seed in the west region Gonzaga taking on eleven seed Wyoming in Albuquerque, NM. I had a fascination with Cowboys coach Steve McClain, and wanted to see if they could beat the 29-3 Zags.
As the game began, and Wyoming took an early lead, I was perhaps a bit too loud in a public place with my enthusiasm for the Cowboys. From the next table overcame a gravelly voiced, unsympathetic question.
“Why are you cheering for Wyoming?” snarled Jim Boeheim. Instead of a long exclamation on having stayed up until 2am every Monday all season to watch Mountain West games and learning to love McClain's over-the-top court demeanor, I simply said that I was a fan of the coach and a couple of their players. Boeheim responded, “I have Gonzaga in my bracket,” and he looked away in disgust.
A year later I broadcast SU's National Championship on WAER, Syracuse's student radio station that carried the men's basketball games. From the time I was a sophomore I had a relationship with Boeheim. In an effort to drum up student support for the team Boeheim visited many of the dorms on campus, brought along pizza for students, talked about the team, and took questions. As he was leaving one of these sessions I went up to him to tell him a story about my dad. My father grew up in Scranton, PA, where Boeheim played professionally for the Scranton Miners of the Eastern Basketball League. My dad and grandpa had urged me should I ever meet Boeheim to remind him of his playing days. When I did so, he turned to a younger colleague and said, “you see, somebody remembers me as a player.” He smirked and seemed satisfied.
From that point through my graduation I talked to Boeheim a few times a year. I always appreciated that if I ever needed an interview, I could call his office, and frequently his secretary would immediately forward my call to the coach. If I wanted to meet in person, he usually said, “I'm available now, come on down.”
With a handful of job offers upon graduation I was mulling my choices when I ran into Boeheim. He asked me what I would be doing next year. I told him about the various opportunities and he suggested Charlotte, NC, sounded a lot better than my other choices of Albany, NY, or Evansville, IN. I'm not sure he helped me make my decision, but indeed I did move to Charlotte and it has proven to be a great choice.
The last time I saw Boeheim in person was in Worcester, MA. I was working for the Vermont radio network when the Catamounts upset Syracuse in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. Boeheim has been around a long time. He has achieved everything you could ask for in the sport, and suffered plenty of setbacks on and off the court. Syracuse is back in the Final Four. For all of the stories about Boeheim, the fact that the only true celebrity in blustery Upstate New York treated a student as an equal and a human being will always make me a fan of his. That being said, I was still happy that Wyoming beat Gonzaga breaking is bracket.