It’s twilight at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino, and the curtains glow a dim blue. Jim Boeheim stands on his heels at the lectern, the night before his annual charity golf tournament. Weight back, hips supinated, eyes down. The thunderheads are in. The bad weather is jammed in to the west and headed this way. Golf tomorrow is probably off.
But this is upstate New York, the Mohawk Valley, east of Syracuse. People know the weather doesn’t make any guarantees as to your happiness. Boeheim smiles and addresses the room from the cockpit of his trademark what-are-you-gonna-do shrug. Then he sets about his business for the night. He’s wearing a sport coat over a logoed golf shirt atop expensive khaki pants and some kind of boat shoes. The hoops coach in summer. Boeheim’s not playing in the tournament anyway. His game has slipped—he doesn’t like that one bit. And there’s the business of tomorrow: a hearing regarding an accident in which he struck a man on the interstate on his way home from a game last winter, and the man died.
It’s no secret. Boeheim was never charged with any wrongdoing. But a tragic accident, a gut punch for the born-here, played-here, coached-to-the-tippy-top-here legend. Grim business for an often misread guy. He will be cleared, but first he’s going to have to live through the reconstructions of the incident, the vetting of his reactions and intentions. Like anybody in a fatal accident. For the record. He knows this.
But that’s tomorrow.
He tells a few jokes from the lectern. Outlines projects funded by the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation and its $4.4 million in grants, all within the region. He auctions off a trip home from a road game with the team. Floor seats at another game. He’s done this for more than ten years now, since before the foundation he and his wife started to help kids in need and fight cancer cut its first check.
He knows these folks—local contractors, executives, coaches, alumni. He uses their first names, and breaks the chops of various donors accordingly.
Thunder rumbles outside. The rain starts in. Boeheim doesn’t give it a thought.
Boeheim will tell you: There’s a lot to love in Syracuse in late June. The sky that very afternoon, before the banquet? Clear and enamel blue. The trees? Verdant ceilings on the city streets. Men and women cook meats on their porches, smoke twisting away from their grills, hopeful fingers to the night sky.
He ticks off the lakes: There’s one in the city itself. A bigger one to the north, loaded with walleye. Beyond that, the Great Lake, Ontario—practically an inland sea, horseshoed into an eastern shore. The foothills of the Adirondacks are minutes from downtown. You can hunt there. Golf. Hike. You can kayak the ancient canal with your wife. Whatev. So much. Boeheim knows. “It’s like a secret,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t even want to tell people how great it is.”
And “Boeheim” is exactly what they call him in Syracuse. Not Jim Boeheim. Not Coach Boeheim. Not Coach. Boeheim. Syracuse men’s basketball coach for forty-three years now. Before that, he was an assistant at Syracuse, a captain at Syracuse, a player, and a kid who walked on. At Syracuse. In his time as coach? Six Final Fours, eleven All-Americans, thirty-four twenty-win seasons, and a national championship, all while playing in the two best conferences of their respective eras. In Syracuse they say his name from the back of the throat, like something guttural. A complaint. Bay-hime. Two accented syllables. Solid. Like con-crete. Or expel it into the air quickly, like a sneeze. Boeheim. Gesundheit.
Everyone agrees, Boeheim plays things a little crabby during games. He prowls courtside, contorts his face, shrugs and smirks up to the refs. When he sighs, he’s like a groaning Whisperliner on the tarmac. He is the face of exasperation. What you see in him is that he’s already seen enough.
It’s not a true love-him-or-hate-him thing for Boeheim in Syracuse. He’s all they have. In this frontier town of minor-league sports, Boeheim, six-foot-three, seventy-four years old, with the trademark looks of bafflement shot from the Syracuse bench, is the only real sports star for a hundred and fifty miles.
No one much hates the gangly, perpetually balding Boeheim. Not in Syracuse. It turns out haters don’t gotta hate Boeheim, but in Syracuse, some claim to suffer Boeheim. Him with his 73 percent career winning percentage. Him with his puzzling, sometimes stifling Zone.
That Zone is a subject of debate in upstate VFWs from East Rochester to the outskirts of Schenectady, the general bounds of the region that supplies the Orange with attendance topping twenty-five thousand for a full slate of home games played in sleet storms, blizzards, and snow squalls. And Boeheim explains the Zone often—but he’s imperious, they say. Short-tempered.
Again and again, Orange fans want to know what he knows that they do not.
For this type of fan, Boeheim is just a guy who won’t get out of the way. He agreed to retire in 2018, but then he recruited his own son to play for him. He’s nearly two years past his intended retirement, planning for three more. Boeheim is now a devoted father, a guy who backed out of a deal in order to watch his son play out the string for the Orangemen, not to mention two other children who play regularly for nearby colleges. He lives amid a wealth of basketball blessings. Good money. Good program. Good conference.
He has outlived scandals, losing 101 wins from the official record due to a program scandal for which he took the blame.
And cancer (of the prostate, in 2001).
And personal turmoil. The accident, and the window it opened on grief.
He almost certainly should be in the mix when talking about the greatest coaches ever. He pretty much snuck up on that territory. He’s never been a short-list kind of guy. He’s labored at the far geographic limits of New York. He’s always been at Syracuse. Upstate. Up there. Never wants to leave. Never will.
And Syracuse is still winning: 20–14 last season, good for an eight seed in the tournament. He smiles back at the cameras sometimes now. I’m still happy here, he seems to say. So sue me.
Days after the golf tournament, he leans over the neatly stacked desktop in his office. “In ninth grade my German teacher was the high school counselor,” he says. “And one day, I don’t know, random, he says to me, ‘Jim, everybody isn’t going to like you.’ I don’t know why he said that to me. I never thought I was that worried about what people thought, but maybe he saw something. It’s a good quote because everybody’s really not going to like what you do or who you are. It’s like you win the national championship, and next day you take a poll, and 20 percent of the people think you’re not a good coach. You’re just not going to make everybody happy. That’s just the way it is.”
The term upstate doesn’t mean anything specific in New York. It mostly means somewhere other than here. In Manhattan, upstate could mean Westchester—you could walk to Westchester from Manhattan—or Poughkeepsie, a mere two or three counties up the Hudson. But in Poughkeepsie, cities like Utica, Rome, and Syracuse are distant upstate outposts. Whereas in Syracuse—five hours from Manhattan by car—upstate might mean the austere and windblown city of Watertown, the forgotten village of Canton. Or, God forbid, Potsdam. In a lot of ways, being “upstate” just marks you as being from somewhere far from the action.
That’s Boeheim. He’s a Syracuse guy. He comes from somewhere else. Upstate. He was born in Lyons, New York, a sweet and sleepy burg about forty minutes from Syracuse. Boeheim tells stories about going down to the soda fountain after his games in high school. His father was an undertaker. They had an embalming room directly off the kitchen.
He gives a Boeheim shrug at the memory of it. “The other side of the house was the funeral home,” he says. “At a busy time we’d have two or three bodies in the house and one would be in our living room.”
Would he just look at them? It feels like a lot to look at.
“Not really,” Boeheim sniffs. “We had to be respectful. You know.”
The undertaker’s son. Was that what made him leave Lyons?
“I just didn’t want to do that,” he says. He’s most earnest when his answers are simple. “But I could have gone back and done that. Possibly. Sure. But I was always going to teach, if I didn’t coach. I could teach. Or I could go do that.”
He walked on at Syracuse in 1962 and by his senior year was cocaptain of the team with future NBA Hall of Famer Dave Bing, who was also his roommate. The civil rights movement made its way to Syracuse while Boeheim was there, and the school became an unlikely pioneer. The white walk-on from upstate and the black star from Washington, D. C., became close. “So Syracuse was the first school that really recruited the black athlete,” Boeheim says. “Dave was a really good role model, and he did everything right.”
Bing, who went on to own a steel factory and served as mayor of Detroit from 2009 to 2013, remembers Boeheim as an anticipatory player. “He knew how to get to exactly where he was supposed to be at the end of the play,” Bing says. “He sat around all night talking about how we could work from point A to point B to the shot. Same stuff he’s doing now.”
I ask about other similarities between past and present. He says: “He was a good shooter, but he communicated first. A lot of people must look at his antics on the floor now and see a crybaby. But I watch him, and he’s still communicating. He knows how to play the refs. Jim’s a sincerely introverted guy. It wasn’t easy, it couldn’t have been, to learn this new language on the floor.”
After he graduated from Syracuse, Boeheim took a position as graduate assistant with the program and spent weekends for the next five years playing semipro ball in Scranton, driving downstate. “The games were in Harrisburg, Scranton. Hartford had a team. New Haven had a team. Always somewhere else,” he says. “I was the fifth-best player on my team. I played with Bill Spivey, who’d been banned for point shaving. He was thirty-eight years old. But he was seven-two and he could still play. I drove ten hours each weekend. Five to get to a game, three to get back to Scranton, two to get back here. So, ten hours, played two games. Which was all right.”
The money was pretty good, he says, when added to what he was earning as graduate assistant coach, and the golf coach.
Besides, he says, “I always liked driving.”
Syracuse basketball is centered in the fifty-four-thousand-square-foot Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center, a training and practice facility opened in 2009, in part from a large gift made by none other than himself—Boeheim’s recruit and Syracuse star for exactly one season, 2002–03, the only championship season in Boeheim’s tenure. Thereabouts they call it the Melo, which may be the greatest designation in contemporary American architecture.
Boeheim stands in his office, then sits, before standing again to take a look at what’s happening on the practice courts. He looks a lot younger than he is. He’s slim, light in the way he treads the stairs. Energetic. A combination of bored and springy, like a guy who’s spent a little too much time on a treadmill. Sure, he is unassuming. Modest. Khaki pants, decent shoes, a pullover. He doesn’t exude a lot of wonder at how he came to be here. He isn’t puzzled by his work. He has shown from the beginning that he is capable of evolution. As player, assistant, and head coach. He’s lived through and thrived in so many distinct epochs of basketball that he has become a kind of memorial to them all.
A scrappy college player and assistant coach in the John Wooden era, and a knock-around minor-league pro in the late sixties. Newly minted head coach at a then-independent Syracuse, in the highly physical seventies. Hired Rick Pitino as his assistant in his first two seasons. No shot clock, no three-point line, and big men were the linchpin of a recruiting class. He averaged twenty-five wins in his first four years, playing in the old Manley Field House (you could squeeze ninety-five hundred in there, but it was tight) before the Carrier Dome opened in 1980.
He was influential in the formation of the Big East in 1979, a national, television- friendly super-conference that prospered in part on the big personalities of its mouthy, chattering coaches—Massimino, Carlesimo, Calhoun, Carnesecca, Thompson, Boeheim. His teams flourished when the three-point shot was unleashed in 1986 and evolved in the shot-clock era (introduced as a forty- five-second clock in 1985), winning 243 games in the league’s first ten years. His first real star, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, brought out the crowds like you’ve never seen. There was Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, Chris Mullin at St. John’s, but the Pearl—he was like dynamite going off.
Boeheim almost won it all in ’87. Man, he had Sherman Douglas, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman on that team, and they were cruising. Then Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers nipped them 74–73 at the buzzer in the championship game. But Boeheim was big-time.
He survived the decade-long influx of television money that created new rivals out of mid-major opponents. When the century rolled over, he helped make recruiting into a truly national free-for-all. (He won 232 games in the nineties.)
After he finally won his championship, he assistant-coached three U. S. Olympic teams, under Mike Krzyzewski, in 2008, 2012, and 2016, and they won gold medals all three times.
He survived Syracuse’s departure from the Big East in 2013 and a scandal for which he was stripped of those 101 regular and postseason wins between 2004 and ’12. Since then he has guided the program into position as an ACC powerhouse, and won back more than half the 101 wins he lost.
He may not be the single greatest coach in men’s NCAA history. But there’s a case to be made that he is several great coaches, over several great eras. He is a Mount Rushmore on his very own—all four heads. Same man, different challenges, a stunningly consistent result in each iteration.
We’re in the Melo waiting for his wife, who’s going to tour with us through some of the projects their charitable foundation has funded.
While he waits in his office, Boeheim can watch over two practice courts and dozens of training devices designed to improve the heaving of three-pointers, the pinpointing of free throws, the act of exploding upcourt with newfangled urgency. The Melo may have saved his career, he says. Extended it, anyway.
“This job is all time and space,” Boeheim says. “This building, this office and the view—that takes care of the space. It saved me. I’m not always walking around, building to building, to get a look. The team wants to be here, in this space; they can get in here twenty-four hours a day.”
He looks at me, purses his lips. “They have key cards,” he explains.
So the Melo gives him the space he needs. What about the time?
That’s where the trademark Zone defense enters. I ask the standard question: What’s with the Zone?
Boeheim smiles and states that his persistent use of the Zone is strictly a method of budgeting practice time so he’s most free to teach. “Time and space,” he repeats. “There’s an economy to every practice. We practice two hours. When you play man-to-man, you have to devote an hour and fifteen minutes to drill work. Every day. You have to practice Zone, too. That’s thirty minutes. So that’s the whole practice. Two hours. No choice.”
Boeheim looks out at the court as he speaks. He wants me to understand. And the thing about Boeheim when he’s trying to explain something? To me, to a ref, to a player during a time-out or a practice or from across the floor at the Carrier Dome at full decibel?
You can’t not understand him. You can’t not get him.
He speaks so plainly, and with such conviction, that there’s not a lot of room for misunderstanding. He’s boiling it down, hard as he can, all while watching out of the corner of one eye the practice routine of a local player who’s training for an upcoming season in Italy.
“Now, if you play all Zone, you gotta spend an hour on it,” he was saying. “Once you start spending an hour on your Zone, you can’t just go back, spend fifteen minutes on man-to-man, and try to use it. Man-to-man is different every game. It’s just not going to work. So we did away with it.”
It’s like a lesson plan, then. He purses his lips again. Shrugs. “Not many people know that, but it’s factual. It’s a fact,” he says.
Is he ever tempted to experiment with man-to-man defense?
“This isn’t an experiment,” he says sharply. “You only get one chance, and if you experiment during a game that you need to win and you lose it because you experimented, what did you learn? And then you miss the tournament by one game? It’s not good.”
His wife picks us up in the parking lot of the Melo for our tour of the good works of the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation. It’s a big SUV, with a pile of golf clubs sitting in one half of the backseat. Drivers—big, fat-headed drivers that appear to have been tested and rejected by someone filling out their bag. She offers me my choice. “Take one,” she says. “They belong to no one at this point. You should take one.”
This is Juli Boeheim, his second wife, for more than twenty years now. The mother of three of his four kids, all three of whom are playing college basketball within a reasonable driving distance from one another—a son at Cornell, a daughter at Rochester, and Buddy, at ’Cuse. Boeheim attends their home games religiously. He loves those moments in the stands. It’s a part of the hoops heaven he lives in at present. He doesn’t feel pulled apart by competing obligations. “Not at all,” he says. “That’s what holds me together.” Juli is Boeheim’s energetic counterpart, talkative, challenging, focused like a laser. She drives. Boeheim’s future as a driver is at this point still uncertain, pending the state’s decision following the hearing. (His license would be fully reinstated several weeks later.) It is an unstated tension.
Boeheim looks at the city, a bit dislocated as passenger. Each time we stop for a look at one of their foundation’s many good projects, I ask him what neighborhood we are in. That seems to puzzle him.
“This is western Syracuse,” he says at one point. He looks at the sky. “I don’t know what they call it.” Boeheim settles in the passenger seat, reaches for the stereo once or twice, turns it down. He’s a known Springsteen fan. And on our way to a Boys & Girls Club on the southern side of the city, I ask him, What Springsteen does he usually play?
“Nothing,” Boeheim says. “I mostly listen to sports. Or the golf channel on my way to work.”
“I thought you liked the Boss,” I say.
“Nah,” Boeheim says, demurring. He sniffs after a second, having rethought. “I mean yeah.” Another pause. It seems that he’s grinding out an answer.
“Once in a while, I’ll listen to him,” he allows. “I may put on the Springsteen station.” That’s as specific as he gets. He doesn’t want to grasp for song titles, or lyrics. “But I’m not big on tapes and . . . I have his albums, a couple of them, but . . . I mean tracks, but I just never really play. . . .” He drifts away then, looks out the window, takes a breath. “I don’t play music. I really don’t. I used to. I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to apologize for,” I tell him.
The moment is uncomfortable, and again it occurs that driving itself may be the issue. He sat through the hearing—two hours during which the February accident was reconstructed, and recounted, in order to establish the facts—just four days prior. It was Boeheim’s chance to retain his driving privileges.
A newspaper account reported that the judge warned Boeheim that the proceedings might be painful. As the accident was recounted, the local paper said, Boeheim laid his head on his arms as he listened.
Whether Boeheim is feeling any tension as we bounce from the Boys Club to an outdoor basketball court to a First Tee golf center, he does not say.
In any case, at one point Boeheim says, simply, “Dancing in the Dark.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“I like that one song,” he says. “I do listen to that one.”
It’s not a song I know well. Top 40 Bruce. And the word “Seriously?” slips out. I regret it immediately. “I mean, when do you listen? After games?”
Boeheim doesn’t seem to notice my response, or my question. He’s regarding the street in front of us. It’s a song about hating the place you are, the place you find yourself. I can remember one line: “There’s a joke here somewhere, and it’s on me.”
“No,” he says, as we pull into the parking lot of the Boys & Girls Club. And that’s it on the song.
The Boys & Girls Club is a rough business, the edges a little frayed, well-used. It provides meals for neighborhood kids twice a day for the entire summer. The floors are polished by the shoes of a thousand running children on a hundred afternoons. The Boeheim Foundation rebuilt this place, but it hardly looks flashy or overdesigned. We traipse from the computer room to the gymnasium and back out to the cafeteria, such as it is. At one point, Boeheim stands in front of me with his hands in his pockets.
“The roof was a wreck when we started this,” he says. “And the HVAC needed to be replaced. No one much wants to step in and build a new roof in a facility like this. It’s not hard to fund a basketball court. We knew someone would step in for that. So we did the roof. This place has to be here. These kids use it all year.” He shrugs and stares at me. “We redid the electrical, too. And the wireless or something. It might be hard to see the impact,” he says. It is not. The place is solid, permanent. It feels like it has always been here. It is just a modest surface, like the man who’s talking.
Back at the Melo, Boeheim reflects on forty-three years in the game.
What’s the biggest change? I offer one: the transfer portal that allows student-athletes to transfer their eligibility from school to school, a fairly free-market process. It was initially thought to favor large programs like Syracuse, because players might seek to work up from smaller schools to the premier programs as their prospects improved. Of course, players might leave Syracuse as well. To which Boeheim says: “I think it’s great for kids to go if that’s what they really want, but what if they just work through it? Would it have worked out better? Brandon Triche played very little here when he was a freshman and he became a great player for us. We had a kid leave here and go to Vanderbilt, he didn’t play, and Vanderbilt didn’t win a conference game last year.”
The biggest difference, he says, is the culture of impatience and expectation that’s taken over amongst the players. “They just want to play in the NBA. Twenty years ago, nobody even thought that much about the NBA. And they’re not going to get there. The NBA thinks it’s a problem. They’re worried about it. They don’t—there’s no place! There are six hundred players in the G-league. Every one of those guys thinks they’re going to go to the NBA. Not even thirty of them are going to. There’s no place for these guys, and we’re making it a culture of ‘Let’s go. Now.’ They don’t want to go to college. They don’t accept what it means.”
And the effect?
“What we’ve needed to do is give kids more money, which we have. People don’t realize that. Nobody writes this. These kids get paid. My son gets $1,300 a month. He’s a scholarship player because we give him cost of attendance.”
In cash? I ask.
“In cash. And they take their board money, instead of eating meals, and they buy their own food, but we also provide food for them, legally now, twice a day.”
Boeheim shakes his head.
He makes that look, like, You get me?
Finally, we are alone, talking about potboilers and detective novels. He’s a Michael Connelly man. I decide I have to ask about the accident, the man he hit on I-690. The PR guy had politely asked me to keep my distance from the subject; I’d promised only that I’d do my best. This feels like an opportunity, unless I’m misreading things. I apologize and let him know that I’m wading in.
“Asking?” he says, repeating the last word I used. He’s leaning back in his desk chair, arm wrapped over his ribs, as if suppressing an ache. “Yeah,” he says. “That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with you asking.”
I offer him another out. We can do it later.
“I don’t have a problem,” he says. “The crazy thing is, I’ve had five hundred emails, minimum—perfectly serious—more than five hundred emails from people that had the same thing happen to them. The testimony, the inquest, or whatever—it’s hard. And it should be hard. They looked into it. Every minute was accounted for.”
Going over one small set of reactions, one sequence of actions where you do your level best and it’s not enough. “It’s a miserable thing because a man was killed,” he says.
He pauses then, sighs. Pushes his glasses up his nose. He’s worrying.
“And his family . . .”
He lets another moment pass, then: “You know, I’ve been very smart, in a way. I stopped drinking completely.”
Do you mean that day?
“I mean altogether,” he says—he means years ago. “I stopped drinking. Not that I ever drank that much. Because if I’d just had two drinks that night? Just two.” He holds up two fingers, a reverse peace sign. “Even if I had one,” he says, staring at the wall above my head. “They’d ask: Were you drinking? Again and again. And I would have had to say, Well, I had one drink. That would be the headline. They’d say ‘drinking.’ So even if you had two, or say you were just at the limit.” He holds out his hand, splays out his fingers, ticks off the register of events that would surely follow. “Fired, prosecuted probably—all that.”
Even sober, it was an impossible scenario. “I came over a hill and it was pitch-black, and the other car was black. So I’m coming over the hill; I didn’t see it. I thought I was going to just go straight into the car, but I got around. I actually made a move—because there was nobody in the road—to get past the car. As I’m going by, the guy steps out.”
There’s a pause then. Boeheim stares past the front of his desk, thinking it through.
“He’d gone back to the car. He went back to get something and then tried to get back out.”
There were reports that Boeheim was directing traffic afterward. “I heard you were trying to keep people away and warn them,” I say.
“I got a letter from a guy who said I saved his life because he was going too fast and he saw me and slowed down and was able to get off. But it’s a terrible thing. You know that you did everything you could and it just didn’t work and then somebody’s dead and it’s just terrible. There’s no way to talk about it or explain about it.”
Jim Boeheim stares straight at me. He’s rock-solid, not choked up or overly emotional. Not that I can see. He leans back in his chair and widens his eyes. “Well, the only thing that shouldn’t be said maybe,” he begins. He reaches out and puts a finger squarely on his heart. “I grew up in a funeral home. I’m different than most people. I grew up with people dying, and picking up people who had died, and bodies. I mean, it’s different for me.”
He falls into a palms-up demeanor. “It just is. I was close to my grandmother. I loved her and everything. When she died, I went to the funeral and that was it. I felt that I could take it. It’s just life. That’s what happens,” he says. “I felt like I could take it.”
He thinks back then, not looking for what makes him especially resilient. He wheels out one of his soda-fountain stories. “In my sophomore year, high school, I had a really big game, just great, and I went down to the local soda fountain, and the guy waited on four people and didn’t say anything. He ignored me. So I just sat there, until he came by and said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ ”
Boeheim raises his eyebrows then, to be sure I’m still with him. He’s got his hands folded on his belly, his feet up on his desk. “And he was just joking around, you know: small town, you’re like everybody else. There’s no difference. I was brought up like that. It’s what I believe. I don’t think I’m better or different than anybody else.”
He raises one eyebrow, holds his palms out, tilts his hand a little. It’s a look he sometimes gives when he thinks people don’t get him.
But I get him.
You couldn’t not.
This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Esquire.