For a little more than ten years, I’ve been writing about the Syracuse Orange basketball team. In all of that time, I had never attended a Jim Boeheim press conference in person. All of that changed on Friday, November 18, 2016 when, much like Frodo, I stepped forward to carry such a heavy burden for the rest of the world.
The great quandary was at hand. Once there, do I dare ask a question? Better men and women than I have done so only to meet catastrophic doom. I’ve spent the last decade watching this almighty curmudgeon eviscerate reporters, sometimes fairly, sometimes not, from the comfy confines of the West Coast. I never put myself in harm’s way and I suppose there has always been a part of me that felt like I was ducking my responsibility. A wise man once said, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” I would come at the king following Syracuse losses, NCAA investigations, and unfortunate presser diatribes. But since I was lobbing my grenades from 3,000 miles away, I never had to worry about missing. Until now.
The path I was now walking is well-trodden by the feet of reporters who asked the right question at the wrong time or simply walked into a trap they didn’t realized had been set days in advance.
Gregg Doyel felt the brunt of the ornery coach’s distaste for untimely questions when he asked the Syracuse coach if he planned on retiring following the team’s 2013 Final Four loss.
Who can forget the tongue-lashing that “disloyal person” and “idiot” Andy Katz received after he reported information that Boeheim considered off the record.
Cleveland reporter Anthony Lima lit a fire under Boeheim’s ass when he questioned how upset the Hall of Famer seemed following a loss. Jim then briefly considered turning the entire press conference into a roast in which he was the emcee.
The local media with the Syracuse Post-Standard certainly isn’t immune to this melee attack, like the time they were informed that they didn’t “know their business” when it came to how Boeheim stacked up to his peers.
Hell, even inanimate objects aren’t safe from his scorn and ridicule.
Not to mention his thoughts on whether or not Gerry McNamara was overrated (He didn’t believe so), whether he gave a shit if you think he runs a dirty program (He does not, in fact, give a shit), and what he considers people who try to predict where his players will be drafted (They are idiots).
When you walk into that cramped, windowless room under the bleachers in the Carrier Dome, you take your chances. And now it was time for me to take mine.
I spent the game itself watching from the crowd, perhaps in part because I didn’t want Jim to smell media on me when he looked out into the sea of reporters and wondered who that new guy might be.
All the while I wondered to myself if I was really going to ask a question. If so, what would I ask? Did I want to play it safe and ask him what he thought about the performance of one his players? I figure I couldn’t go wrong asking him to comment on the play of grad transfer Andrew White III, who scored 18 points to lead the Orange over Monmouth. A bit riskier might be to ask about Tyler Lydon, the star sophomore who has been in a shooting slump so far this year. Riskier still would be to ask about Tyler Roberson, the current recipient of the Paul Harris Memorial Boeheim Annual Doghouse Award.
I could have really rolled the dice and asked a big picture question. No good ever seems to come from making Boeheim prognosticate during the season. Not about his players, not about his team, and certainly not about his impending retirement. To ask Jim to do any sort of mental heavy-lifting is to invoke a wrath few have lived to speak about.
Once SU had finished their demolition job on Monmouth and improved to 3-0 on the season, I warily made my way through the visitor tunnel and into the press conference room. Boeheim was still a few minutes away from joining us but already the Post-Standard, Daily Orange, and other local reporters were claiming their seat or patch of carpet. Most of the cub reporters stepped to the side, perhaps feeling as uneasy as I did about sitting front and center. The twelve or so seats in front of the podium ended up only half full as most of us took strategic positions out of the direct line of sight. For some, it might have been subconscious. For me, when I positioned myself towards the back of the room behind a row of cameras, I was not unlike a horned lizard, camouflaging myself among the surroundings. If he couldn’t find me, he couldn’t yell at me.
I still hadn’t decided if I had it in me to ask a question.
Soon enough, the man who has lorded over the Syracuse men’s basketball program for 41 seasons appeared, Gatorade cup in hand, and took his rightful place behind the microphone. He launched directly into post-game schpiel like he has thousands of times before. There were things he liked. There were things he didn’t like. There are things his players need to do better. Monmouth is a good team, FYI.
Diatribe complete, he then said “Questions.” He didn’t ask it. He said it. Like a medieval monarch finally giving you permission to approach, curtsy, and praise him with your offerings.
My chance to rip off the band-aid and see what pours out had arrived. I decided to leave that adhesive bandage firmly in place for now.
Someone asked about Taurean Thompson and Boeheim launched into a biting critique of his stud freshman. Presuming already that the next day’s story would be about how good Thompson looked, he undercut every accomplishment the big man had with a mistake he’d also made that balanced the scales. His closing line was quintessential Jimmy B. “That’s why you talk to me. Because you were gonna write about what a great game he had.”
Classic James Arthur Boeheim material. It was obvious now that he was on his game. Dammit. The internal meter that powered whether or not I was going to ask a question immediately dropped by 50 percent.
The next question involved the injury Thompson had suffered towards the end of the game and what exactly might have happened. In a much more straightforward manner, Boeheim simply said he didn’t know. The snark had snuck out of his voice. I began to power back up. A question felt possible again.
The third question involved the possibility of Syracuse changing it’s defensive strategy at halftime. Again, Boeheim seemed measured. He answered the question he was asked and that was it. No fuss. No lecture. He was just spitballin’ up there. Now I could definitely ask a question. This was gonna be a piece of cake.
The fourth question involved grad transfer guard John Gillon and whether or not Boeheim expected him to distribute the ball a little bit more. The coach paused for just a moment (uh-oh). He referenced a statistic from the previous game that seemed to undercut the question and then asked the reporter to verify that stat on the fly (a classic Boeheim bait-and-switch tactic). He then shrugged before talking up Gillon. While the answer was subdued, Boeheim was sending a signal. I’m not gonna take the bait. If I want to downgrade a guy, I’ll do it on my own terms.
All of a sudden I didn’t feel so good about my chances once more. I figured I’d have to wait for someone else to ask a question that got him back on steady ground. When that happened, I’d pounce with my basic-as-hell query and then hope for the best. This was really happening. I was brandishing my jagged piece of rock and screaming, “Come for me, G’mork! I am Atreyu!” Lightning crashed. Thunder rolled. And in the end, I would stand victorious over this demon wolf in the form of a 72-year-old basketball coach, having defeated him with the power of my “Hey Jim, talk about…” question that wasn’t actually posed as a question.
Boeheim dropped his head as he waited for the next question to come. The one that would set me up to achieve all my hopes and dreams. He waited. And waited. And waited. As the seconds rolled by, he looked up, turning his head in each direction before resigning himself to the reality that no one was taking the initiative.
“That’s it?,” he pondered as I stood there silently wondering the same thing.
“Oh…alright.” He began to pick up his papers and the Gatorade cup he hadn’t touched the whole time he was up there.
“See you Tuesday.” And like Keyzer Soze, if Keyzer Soze was from Upstate New York and had more open disdain for your chosen profession, he was gone.
Only, he wouldn’t see me Tuesday. My flight out of Syracuse was Sunday. There would be no chance to ask my question after the upcoming South Carolina State game. I had missed my chance with no idea when another one would be coming.
I had dreamed a dream of asking Jim Boeheim his thoughts on an insignificant point of interest involving a basketball game that no one will remember a week from now. But now that dream was gone from me.
Don't tell Jim Boeheim I was in here pic.twitter.com/Y9ZMkS2KIb
— Sean Keeley (@SeanKeeleyIsMe) November 18, 2016
Perhaps it was for the best. Earlier in the day I’d gotten the chance to take a tour of The Melo Center, Syracuse’s new-ish basketball home base. As a special bonus, I got to take a look around Boeheim’s office. Full of memorabilia, plaques, and commemorative basketballs, it was like visiting an old house from the 1800s that had been turned into a museum except that the person you’re there to remember actually still works there.
Boeheim’s desk is unmemorable except for the fact that, in the year of our lord 2016, it does not have a computer on it. Because Jim Boeheim does not have a computer. His assistant explained that she compiles the day’s readings for him and when we asked if that includes blogs or other online writing, she replied, “I used to include those but they would just make him upset so we stopped.”
Boeheim's office wall. pic.twitter.com/FFALWQQrKV
— Sean Keeley (@SeanKeeleyIsMe) November 18, 2016
Now, I’m vain enough to think that my writing could have been a part of that daily printout packet at some point and also vain enough to assume it was some of my own writing that soured Jim Boeheim to the world of online content creation (He recently referred to pundits who saw SU as a Final Four team as the kind that “are on dot-coms. And they’re on dot-coms for a reason.”).
And so, I could now imagine a scenario whereby the nervous tone in which I asked my pandering question might have set off his predatory instincts. Instead of answering, he might have asked what outlet I was with. I would tell him and then watch as the lightbulb went off in his head. He’d smirk and start thinking back to all of the negative things I might have written (never mind the hundreds of thousands of glowing words I’d written about him). And then it would be too late. I would be witness to my own execution.
So, yeah, I’m pretty okay with the fact that I didn’t ask Jim Boeheim a question. It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt, right? I’m a fool who lives to write about Syracuse another day. Maybe on that day I’ll ask him a question. But I’ll deal with that when I get there.