This excerpt appears in "Bleeding Orange: Fifty Years of Blind Referees, Screaming Fans, Beasts of the East, and Syracuse Basketball" by Jim Boeheim with Jack McCallum, published by Harper. The author also joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. See our interview and book review.
No one is leaving. There are 35,000 people in the Carrier Dome, the scoreboard clock reads 00:00, and no one is leaving. Normally, the end of a game initiates a full-scale dash to the parking lots surrounding the Dome. Only so many ways out of our building and so many ways home.
But no dash tonight. Tonight we beat Duke. And no one is going anywhere. In fact, they’re standing.
Within hours, our 91–89 overtime win will be rewound as an ESPN “Instant Classic,” and I have no argument with that. There’s a long way to go in this season, but this night had the feel of living history.
Yet as a coach, you can never celebrate for very long. There is always the next game, always another test right around the corner. Your decisions are endlessly debated, especially the ones that may have cost you a win, the ones that make your guts roil for days. But . . .
What you get in return—sometimes—is beyond calculation. This is one of those times. So as I start to walk off the court, I stop and stare up at the crowd, soak in the noise, bask in the moment, something I don’t usually do. Since this is one of those special days, I want to share something small and sincere with the fans who stuck around to show how much the win meant to them.
I’ll stand here a minute and maybe figure out what I’m feeling. Scribble some stray notes in my head. I’ve been doing it all season, from the first day of practice until now—the first time I’ve attempted to chronicle my life in coaching and my life at Syracuse.
So I wave to the crowd, turning around like a governor at a political rally. It’s a small gesture, but they respond in kind.
“Mom’s crying,” Jamie, my daughter, tells me when I get to the pressroom.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because she never saw you stop and wave like that,” she tells me. “She never saw you so happy.”
IT’S EXTREMELY HARD for those of us in sports to use the F-word.
No, not that one.
I’m talking about “fear.” It is with me most of the time. It was with me when I first stepped onto the Syracuse campus 50 years ago, an unknown, unsculpted walk-on, the hick from Lyons, New York. And it’s with me now as I contemplate the 2014–15 season, one with many unknowns, like all seasons. It’s with me as I look back on the most recent season of consummate highs and soul-crushing lows, two solid months of being ranked either number one or number two before a bitter disappointment in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
I have a fear of failing every day. You would think that the more tests you’ve passed—and
I’ve passed more than a few during six decades of playing, coaching, watching and loving this game—the more it would go away. But it doesn’t. It’s not so simple as calling fear a “motivating factor.” I’d be motivated to succeed even if I didn’t have the fear. I wish I didn’t have it. But it goes back a long way, back to my first days at Syracuse.
I’m 17 years old, a walk-on at a time in college basketball when there are 20 scholarship players. I’m in a regular dorm with a non-basketball-playing roommate from Philadelphia, while the recruited players all live together in athletic housing, a team even away from the court. Me? I can’t even get a locker. I’m racked with doubt. Will I make it? Will I have to transfer to a smaller school? Will I have to crawl back to Lyons, where a lot of people believed I wouldn’t make it in the first place?
I’m not claiming that my experience was—is—unique. Actors experience stage fright, writers get blocked, teachers lie awake at night and composers—well, I haven’t known too many happy composers. Most athletes, too, experience fear to one degree or another, even the superstars. LeBron James knew he was a great player, probably from the time he was ten years old, but he had a fear that he wasn’t going to win a championship. You’re not immune to fear just because you’re great.
But what do you do with that fear? Do you get paralyzed by it? Run from it? Or do you treat it as part of the process, something you have to overcome to move from point A to point B? That’s what you have to do. You overcome fear by going out every day and performing, understanding that, just as fear is natural, so is the idea that you can overcome it.
Fear shouldn’t hurt or hinder. My players should have a fear of taking a test, a fear of failing to do the things they need to do to stay in school and be productive members of this team. If you don’t have that kind of fear, you start taking things for granted.
The fear I experience as a coach is much worse than what I felt as a player. Believing that you’re prepared is not necessarily a remedy for alleviating fear. When I got the Syracuse head job in 1976, I felt I was ready. But the first time I sat down as the head man, I wondered, Am I ever going to win one game? And still, now that I’m inching toward 1,000 wins—a goal I don’t know that I’ll be able to reach—I wonder, Will I ever win another?
As a coach, you’re responsible for everybody. If you have a supersize ego, you can blame failure on the players, but in point of fact it’s your job to get your charges to do the right things. That doubles or triples the fear factor. Every day you wake up, you’re worrying about a whole bunch of people, not just yourself.
If you look at it logically (though it’s difficult to look at anything in sports logically), 40 years of doing anything should make you better at it, and that should help allay the fear. The writer Malcolm Gladwell says that 10,000 hours of practice is “the magic number of greatness,” and I’ve logged many more hours than that as a coach. What you might lose in energy as you get older is outweighed by what you learn with experience, the skills you developed that hardly seemed important once upon a time. I delegate responsibility more now, for example, and I believe that helps both the players (since I’m not the one in their face all the time) and my assistant coaches (who become better at their jobs and buy into the fact that they are important). I think I have a better handle on which plays will work at which points in the game. I’m not sure why. One answer is that, without even knowing it, your brain cycles through dozens of past situations in a split second, enabling you to seize upon one: Okay, this will be best. Of course, you’re not always going to be right. But you’d better be right more than you’re wrong.
One thing that experience doesn’t bring you, though, is peace of mind. You don’t get happy with winning; you just get sad with losing. My wife, Juli, says that losing for me is like “a temporary death,” and I suspect that is true for most coaches. That is the curse of coaching. Losing crushes you.
This excerpt appears in "Bleeding Orange: Fifty Years of Blind Referees, Screaming Fans, Beasts of the East, and Syracuse Basketball" by Jim Boeheim with Jack McCallum, published by Harper.