I love college basketball. More specifically, I have been a Syracuse University basketball fan since I first saw two of their players, Jimmy Lee and Denny DuVal, give a free throw shooting exhibition in my high school gym during my senior year. They were beyond amazing, compared with the level of my classmates’ talent, as well as most of the players on teams we competed against.
And I suppose the fact that I found Jimmy Lee hot had something to do with my becoming a forever S.U. fan. Come on, I was 17.
So to say that I am proud that for the first time ever, both Syracuse teams—men’s and women’s—made it into the Sweet 16* of the NCAA Championship this year is a bit of an understatement.
I love the sport for many reasons. It’s fast-paced. Unpredictable. Often exciting, sometimes heart-wrenching. And because the players are college kids, some solely looking for a ticket into the NBA and others working as hard on their majors as they do on their sport, there’s a new team make-up every year.
This presents college basketball coaches with an array of challenges all leading to one goal—teaching this year’s line-up how to play together in order to win games.
That’s probably what I love best about the sport: watching Coach Jim Boeheim and his assistants deal with and frequently overcome those challenges. From managing the inflated egos of former high school stars new to Division I basketball, to teaching the rudiments of the game to players for whom English is a second language, every season presents a unique composite of dilemmas to overcome, hurdles to jump and issues to work through.
Some of those issues include the homesickness of a kid who has traveled thousands of miles to play for Syracuse…the lure of college party life…the threat of being benched due to poor grades…a season-ending injury…the breakdown of a team when one player allegedly steals the girlfriend of another. A key player loses a parent. Another, a best friend to gang violence.
And yet, despite the adversities, teams that win games emerge year after year. Under their coaches’ guidance, players learn what their roles are, and how to capitalize on their strengths as well as on the strengths of their teammates. Passes connect. Missed shots get rebounded. Key players remain poised at clutch moments. And there are moments, games and even entire seasons when the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
I sometimes joke that I want to be a Division I basketball coach in my next life. I want to bring out the best in my players, not only in terms of their athletic performance, but in their personal development. My goal would be to motivate them to do their very best—physically, mentally and emotionally—and then meld those players into teams that inspire and win. Then, I want to see my young protégés go on to live successful, extraordinary lives.
That would be cool.
Not that I underestimate the stress of that job, the politics of working for a major university, the stinging disappointment when players full of promise fail to live up to their potential. Heartbreaking losses. Worse yet, the expression on the players’ faces when they realize they are about to succumb to a heartbreaking loss.
That would be awful. I have a hard enough time witnessing those defeated expressions as a fan, much less as their coach and mentor.
Besides, I still have things to accomplish in this life, with the path I’ve chosen, the skills I have and the gifts I’ve been given. When it comes to basketball, I’m okay with being a spectator. But not when it comes to life.
So as I don my orange S.U. sweatshirt and get ready for the next game, I am totally aware of and fine with my role on the team—that is, to send them positive energy, be proud of how far they’ve come, and to hope they end up victorious.
And continue to marvel at the kind of team and level of play that Coach Boeheim and his assistants have been able to mold again this year.
*Late breaking: both teams have advanced to the Elite Eight. First. Time. Ever.