At noon ET today two old coaches will square off against each other one last time. They’ve been coaching almost as long as I’ve been a fan, and both have been alive a lot longer than me. They’ve been a remarkable source of continuity and a reminder of younger, simpler days.
I wrote a lot about Mike Krzyzewski earlier this week when he coached his last regular season game for Duke and lost his last home game on his campus. Today his post-season begins at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn in the second round of the ACC tournament where he will square off against Syracuse and their equally auspiced coach, Jim Boeheim. Jim Boeheim has been coaching SU since 1976–four years before Coach K reached Duke and was an undergraduate student there beforehand. Yes, he was coaching SU when I was a student in nearby Oswego. Of course, I have a story about him. He was the first national personality I interviewed as a TV “reporter”.
I interned for WTVH5, the CBS affiliate in Syracuse, in the sports department during my senior year. After a year where they “slipped” to 22-12, despite winning the Big East conference title they reluctantly accepted a bid to the National Invitational Tournament. After going 4-for-4 in getting bids to the NCAA tournament, the NIT invite was seen by newsroom colleagues as a letdown. But the NIT did play its finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and I grew up a huge fan of it, as did my dad. Our dentist was Irwin Dambrot, who was a member of the 1950 City College of New York team that to this day was the only college team to win both the NCAA and the NIT in the same year. In his day, the NIT was the more significant tournament, and a team from upper Manhattan winning a title in midtown Manhattan was right up there with the Rams winning the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium this year. Dambrot would tell stories of winning those titles and turning down the nascent NBA for the more lucrative career of being a dentist in Queens. I remember him being really tall, his smile dazzling and his drill very painful.
So while the Newscenter5 team was meh about the NIT, I was jazzed, as was a cameraman who I got friendly with who was also a native New Yorker. Syracuse won the opening round games and qualified for the Final Four at MSG. As I was heading to spring break and he home for a visit during the week the NIT finals were held, we both intended to be at the game. Our news director, always looking to save a buck or three, overheard our kibbitzing and said, “Hey, why don’t you take a camera and file a report for us?”. He said to me “Since you’re an intern and not yet in the union, we can’t pay you and you can’t appear on camera. But we’ll get you in the game, and you can grab a hot dog on us if you want.”. He had me at the free ticket, but the hot dog sold it in.
So Rodney McMahon and yours truly were on the floor at Madison Square Garden covering Syracuse’s eventual 86-84 loss to the Tulsa Blue Hurricanes, who were coached by another future NCAA champion coach Nolan Richardson. I wrote a shot sheet, and held the flagged tv5 microphone up during Boeheim’s post-game presser. I had the courage to ask Coach Boeheim “Does coming up short in a tournament other than the NCAA hurt more than had you lost there?”. Eyebrows of far more experienced reporters raised. In hindsight, it was a pretty ill-timed question. To his credit, Boeheim answered with far less anger than he may he may been entitled to, As I recall he said, “You always want to win a title when you have the chance to win one. You never know if you’re gonna get back”. Nice sound bite. Rodney and I raced to an edit bay at WCBS-TV uptown, he cut the piece and we uploaded it via microwave back to the station, where it made the 11:25 PM segment. My shaky hand never looked better on TV.
The next year, Syracuse went 16-13 and missed the NCAAs again. They lost in the second round of the NIT. Boeheim had been prescient. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Boeheim eventually won a title for Syracuse in 2003, and today he’s got more at stake for this season than does Krzyzewski. Yesterday’s first round win against Florida State merely tied him with that 81-82 team for fewest wins in a season of any team he’s coached, and this year he’s only at .500. He’s never had a losing record in any season in his SU history. A win today most likely assures that streak will continue. Yes, the emotion of Coach K losing a second milestone game within a week will frustrate a lot of Dookies. But as a top conference tournament seed and with such a strong regular season Krzyewski’s sunset season will continue next week. He will have one last chance for a tournament run and could conceivably cut down the nets one last time.
Boeheim isn’t retiring just yet. Depending upon whether you acknowledge the 101 victories the NCAA took away from SU for recruiting violations over five seasons, today he’s going either for victory 1100 or number 999. Either one would be monumental for him personally, not to mention a superb Championship Week upset that could conceivably lead to a post-season path (certainly the NIT, and if they can somehow make it to Saturday perhaps even the NCAAs). The odds are long. But between him and K, they’ve got nearly 90 seasons of experience at battling those odds. It’ll be intriguing, perhaps exciting, and possibly even epic. And this time, I won’t ask any stupid questions.
Let’s go, Orange.