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Books | Sports

February 27, 2012

The Boeheim Brand of Basketball

Jim Boeheim left behind the family burial business, but his biographer Scott Pitoniak says the legendary Syracuse coach learned how to compete from his father.

Andrew Golding

Jim Boeheim is an iconic figure at Syracuse University, where he has been the head coach of the men's basketball team for 36 years. He has led the Orangemen to nearly 900 wins during his career, and this year's team is ranked second in the nation, with a record of 27-1. Boeheim is 67 years old, tall and skinny, aptly described as lanky, with thinning hair and wearing glasses, often seen yelling at referees during games, like many of his peers.

Scott Pitoniak
"Boeheim loves the competition and he loves coaching the game. The other stuff, he doesn't enjoy and never has."

Scott Pitoniak

Unlike many of his peers, Boeheim is no son of a coach. His lifetime in basketball—beginning as a player at Syracuse, then as an assistant coach and now as head coach—was wholly unexpected, considering his background. Some sons follow their father's lead into coaching, including younger coaches named Sutton, Drew, and Knight. And some don't. Jim Boeheim, for one, had no interest in being a funeral director. As Scott Pitoniak explains in his book Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story, it was Jim who broke the four-generation chain of the burying Boeheims.

In the following interview, conducted by phone and edited for clarity, Pitoniak tells Gelf about the Jim Boeheim he's come to know, how his unlikely background and upbringing drives the longtime coach, and which of his former players Boeheim holds in higher regard than any other.

Gelf Magazine: I want to ask you about the Bernie Fine situation first, because that's been the biggest Syracuse story in the last year. Former SU ball boys accused Fine, Boeheim's longtime assistant, of sexually molesting them when they were minors, and Fine was fired by Syracuse. Observations, thoughts, insights?

Scott Pitoniak: My timing in writing the book is either impeccably good or impeccably bad, because Color Him Orange came out literally days before the scandal happened. It's been a very sordid tale, to be sure. It's going to take time to play out, because when the feds are involved, you're not going to get a quick resolution to the situation. I thought I had written the definitive biography of Jim Boeheim, but obviously this is going to be another chapter yet to be written.
It's been shocking and somewhat surreal, especially so given that it came out on the heels of what happened at Penn State. At first, it was totally unbelievable and I had to wonder if this was some sick joke or something. It was a total surprise to me, as I had never heard a whiff of anything about these accusations when I was researching the book and in the 36 years that I've covered the team. When you cover a major college-sports program or pro-sports team, you're always chasing after rumors and at least 95% of the time, there's nothing to them. You would hear rumors of different things regarding different people but I never, ever heard anything regarding Bernie Fine and child sexual molestation and that sort of thing. Clearly, this is going to be a major chapter of Jim Boeheim's legacy. What we know now is there's no evidence Jim had any knowledge of any of this going on.

Gelf Magazine: Boeheim reacted to the allegations against Fine by bashing the accusers. In the book, you write about Boeheim's propensity to be short-tempered, bothered by criticism, and to sporadically lash out at the media. Plus, he was defending his longtime assistant. Can you imagine Boeheim reacting any differently?

Scott Pitoniak: I cringed when I heard him say those things but I wasn't shocked at all because that's who Jim is. He's a guy who is ruled by emotion and doesn't have a filter, and that has gotten him into trouble from time to time. He sometimes fails to realize he is arguably the most visible representative of Syracuse University. In many respects, he is the face of the university around the world. He doesn't always use great discretion, he sometimes speaks before he thinks, he acts with raw emotion, and all that can get you into trouble. I think most people would understand at least his initial reaction; he's got a person he thought he knew so well, in Bernie Fine, for the better part of a half-century. But I think he overstepped his bounds when he started being so critical of the accusers and continued on with that. I think if he continued to shoot his mouth off, he would have put himself in a very precarious situation and the university would have had no recourse at that point but to ask him to step aside.

Gelf Magazine: You write that Boeheim is shy and a loner, "uncomfortable being the center of attention." It seems ironic that he decided to go into such a high-profile job.

Scott Pitoniak: Jim loves the game, and it's all about the game with him. Unlike so many high-profile coaches in sports, he does not want to be the focus of attention. He loves the competition and he loves coaching the game. The other stuff, he doesn't enjoy and never has. Dealing with the press is still something he does not enjoy at all. At times, he can be very humorous and self-deprecating. And there are other times where it is obvious he would rather be getting a root canal than speaking to the media. I'm not surprised he would choose this profession, and talking to the media is part of it. He's the spokesperson for the program, and that's every bit as important as the X's and O's of the game. You've got to deal with it.

Gelf Magazine: So what's kept him at Syracuse all these years, as there's been interest from other schools?

Scott Pitoniak: This is essentially a small-town guy. He may have left Lyons, New York, where he grew up in a canal town of 6,000 people, but Lyons has never left him. There's a sense of loyalty which is sometimes ingrained more deeply in people from small towns. He had success at Syracuse as an undergrad—he showed up as a walk-on in 1962, played on the basketball team and roomed with Dave Bing—and has never left. At some point, he realized that as head coach, he had enough here in terms of support and facilities to consistently compete for a national title. So when Ohio State came calling with three times as much money and much better facilities, Jim realized it isn't all about the money.
Also, there was the formation of the Big East conference, and no one ever envisioned that being as successful as it has been, giving Syracuse such exposure. The move to the Carrier Dome from Manley Field House—which Jim was initially opposed to—also was a draw. Nobody ever envisioned 30,000 people for a basketball game. The dome was an incredibly telegenic sight, this sea of orange-clad humanity, with almost twice the attendance of Madison Square Garden.
Plus, it's important to talk about the recruitment of Dwayne "Pearl" Washington. When Pearl committed to Syracuse—and he committed to SU live on national television—Syracuse went from being a fairly successful eastern basketball program to a national basketball program. It had a pied-piper effect on recruiting. You had kids from California who wanted to go play at Syracuse. All those things have made it possible for Jim to compete at the level he wanted to compete.

Gelf Magazine: I'm wondering who Boeheim's favorite player is. Is it Melo, who gave him his only national championship and later donated $3 million to Syracuse? Gerry McNamara, for his ability to star while playing through pain? Coleman? Moten?

Scott Pitoniak: Jim will never tell you who his favorite player is. But he did tell Carmelo that he loved him, and there's some real genuine emotion there. I think a lot of that clearly has to do with Carmelo being the guy—along with Gerry McNamara, to a lesser extent—who got the King Kong off Jim Boeheim's back. He'll always have these incredible, special feelings for Carmelo because of that.

Gelf Magazine: If your son Christopher is a top Division I athlete, recruited by every school, would you recommend that he play for Boeheim at Syracuse?

Scott Pitoniak: It would ultimately be his choice, but deep down, I would hope that he would go to Syracuse. It's a family tradition and I would have no problem with him playing for Jim. But he better get used to being yelled at, though he would have to get used to that anywhere.

Gelf Magazine: This is your 14th book, and you have two more to be published later this year. I'm interested in your process for writing—where do you write and how do you write?

Scott Pitoniak: I was a longtime newspaper columnist and two years ago, I left the job and now write from my home office. I'm a morning writer—I get up and try to get at it, and I go from there. I'm a procrastinator, like many writers, and almost need a seat belt to keep me from getting up, looking outside the window, taking a walk around, and doing anything but sitting in front of the keyboard and typing. Even if there's no flow going, I commit to getting something up on the screen. There's days where it's pulling teeth to get any words to go together, and then there's other days when you get up and they just start flowing.

Gelf Magazine: What challenges did you have in writing the book?

Scott Pitoniak: Part of the challenge was, there was this stereotype of [Boeheim] as a whiner and sore loser who can be crass and difficult, but is it that simple? There's gotta be something more than that, and the why.
This is not an authorized biography, as Jim did not have any interest. The publisher said to me, you've covered him long enough, there's never been a book about him, let's just go ahead and do it. The other challenge was, I wanted to be objective, and not influenced by times when Jim was cruel to me and other reporters. I did not want to let that influence the approach of the book, and by the same token, I didn't want to be too rah-rah. I wanted to be honest. You think you know a subject when you've covered someone for 36 years, and I did not want to fall into what's already been reported, but I wanted to go deeper and challenge myself and find out more about this guy.
I spent an awful lot of time in his hometown of Lyons, to find out who influenced him, what influenced him, and also spent a lot of time with people from his high school and college days to try to put the pieces together. I found that the oldest stuff is the newest stuff in putting together this biography.
When I put the pieces of the puzzle together, I found that Jim was heavily influenced by growing up in a small town, and also by his father. I think his relationship with his father is central to who Jim Boeheim is. The apple didn't fall far from the tree; Jim's dad was an incredibly demanding guy. I came across an interview with Jim's dad where he was talking about how, as a kid, his aunt allowed him to win at a game of cards. He couldn't believe that his aunt would allow him to win. His vision of the world was a fiercely competitive, unforgiving world that would give you nothing and you would have to earn everything, and that's how he raised Jim. I think that helps explain the competitive fire that enabled Jim Boeheim to turn a small, private university into a basketball juggernaut, as well as explaining how he can be a poor loser. I think a lot of who Jim Boeheim is—the good and the bad—can be traced to his relationship with his father.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding







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Comments

- Sports
- posted on Mar 03, 12
Jamey Fadim

Love the way Gelf gets the story behind the story!


Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding

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