To be golf coach was best. At Syracuse in the early 1970s, back when the athletic department could justify the salary only by piling additional duties on a graduate assistant basketball coach, Jim Boeheim preferred coaching golf for one reason: No one knew the results unless he phoned them in. Imagine a Final Four that worked that way. No Nantz and Packer; no scrum of coaches in a hotel lobby down the street; no one knowing what happened unless Jim Boeheim called with the news. "That was a lot more fun," Boeheim said last week, recalling his golf-coaching days. "Everyone thought we were undefeated."
No one had that misapprehension about the two Syracuse teams Boeheim took to the Final Four before this year, especially the one he brought to New Orleans in 1987. The world knows that the Orangemen had been on the business end of Keith Smart's shot with four seconds to play, the jumper that won Indiana an NCAA title. It took years for Boeheim to get over the pain of that loss, and the game tape remains the only one he has never watched. "I wish we'd have won that game, but would my world really be different if that shot hadn't gone in?" he asks. "I don't think so. I never thought Marv Levy would have been a better coach if he'd won one of those Super Bowls."
Boeheim was no better a coach by the end of this season, even after squeezing all he could out of a one-year wonder of a freshman named Carmelo Anthony, including Monday night's 81-78 defeat of Kansas in the Superdome for the NCAA title. He might, however, have been a different man. According to his wife, Juli, he had never before told one of his players "I love you," as he did to Anthony, a 6'8" forward, after the Orangemen qualified for New Orleans with their East Regional defeat of Oklahoma.
And what's not to love? From his sweet dish to center Craig Forth for the first basket of the title game, to his graceful pirouette while calling timeout in the final minute as Syracuse clung to a lead, to his 20 points, 10 rebounds and six other assists, Anthony embodied the credo tattooed to his right biceps, LIVE NOW/DIE LATER. "Ain't nothing left for him to do," said Anthony's brother, Justus, in the postgame tumult.
Nor, it seems, is there much left for his coach to accomplish after 27 years. "There's four seconds he has to clean up," Kueth Duany, Syracuse's lone senior regular, said of Boeheim last week, before Anthony and fellow freshman Gerry McNamara delivered the title by playing with more poise than the Jayhawks' senior leaders, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. "Those are the four seconds we're trying to get for him." And get them these unlikely champions did, replacing four final seconds with a Final Four first.
Much of the Syracuse narrative leading up to Monday night had been delivered by television, and for almost a quarter century that story line had been, alternately, boon and bane. During the 1980s and into the '90s, ESPN's images of a full Carrier Dome served as recruiting infomercials, particularly effective in Southern California, where impressionable high school stars, home from practice and waiting for dinner, would tune in. Many wound up making the surprising decision to go where winters are long and the local industry is air conditioning. At the same time, sideline cutaways always seemed to show Boeheim in full caterwaul, and to judge by his expression and body language, he liked neither people nor life, much less basketball, thereby establishing his reputation as a grouch and a yokel. (He didn't do much to dispel it. Asked once why he so rarely took his teams to tournaments in Hawaii, he said with a harrumph, "Ah, Hawaii. Syracuse in July") Boeheim had also mined New York City for recruits, like the play-maker Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, maestro of those teams in the early '80s. But the next great Gothamite point guard to come along, Kenny Anderson, chose Georgia Tech. A comment attributed to a member of Anderson's family may be apocryphal, but it had the ring of an epitaph: "That city's cold, and that man is, too."
Still, Boeheim carried on. He earned the respect of other coaches with his 20-win seasons—25 in all—and his feel for the game, especially in learning and incorporating its many styles. "He's very dangerous once they throw it up, because he sees the game globally," says Dave Gavitt, the founding commissioner of the Big East, the conference that gave Boeheim the national stage upon which he seemed so uncomfortable, especially alongside such outsized coaching personalities as John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino. But, as Gavitt says, "Jimmy's a very provincial guy, and all of a sudden his world was national." And although no Division I coach has been in the same place longer than Boeheim, other schools never really tried to hire him away. He attracted plenty of talented players, yet among NBA scouts they had a reputation for not always developing and not always practicing hard. Syracuse, you could say, was the UCLA of the East.
Then Jules met Jim. With a gesture as old-fashioned as a blue blazer or a 2-3 zone, Boeheim caught the eye of a stunning Kentuckian some 20 years younger, Juli Greene. At a Derby party in Louisville in 1995, she had returned from the ladies' room to find her spot on the sofa taken. Boeheim created a place for her and pulled up a chair. They fell into conversation, then a game of backgammon; he rebooked his flight to stay another day, and she taught him how to dance the two-step. A year and a half later, after he had dropped to one knee in the laundry room of his Syracuse home to ask if she would marry "this old stiff," she did.
Boeheim had grown up in the upstate New York town of Lyons, the son of an undertaker. The family home doubled as a funeral parlor, and little Jimmy quickly learned that it was good business to subordinate one's emotions to those of the family's customers. The critical point here is that Boeheim wasn't emotionally one-dimensional all those years; he was just raised to be opaque with his feelings. "He's basically a very shy guy who's finally reached a comfort level," Gavitt says.
"Everybody says that Jim has changed so much, but he really hasn't," Juli says. "What the public is starting to see now is the only Jim I've ever known."