In the lead-up to October's preseason game between the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks, Sixers.com's Max Rappaport chatted with former Syracuse National (and hall of famer) Dolph Schayes about the city, the Nats and its history with basketball. For those who didn't know, Schayes spent 14 years with the NBA's Nats (winning a league title), before leaving with the team for Philadelphia for another three years after. Schayes still works and lives in Syracuse, which gives him an interesting perspective on the city over time.
Definitely check out the full interview at the link above, but the one bit of it you'll definitely be interested in (from Dolph, himself):
Syracuse is one of the great basketball cities in America, or the world really. The pros did well here but when the league went to the West Coast and expenses rose, the players’ salaries rose. Syracuse was the 40th-biggest TV market in the country, so the NBA looked at Syracuse and said, ‘We would like to move you guys to a bigger city.’
Syracuse University basketball dominates the sports pages, and they have been tremendously successful, they average between 20 and 30 thousand people a game and are probably top five in the country in on-campus facilities. Now that they joined the ACC they will get even bigger because they get the Dukes and North Carolina’s into it. For a basketball, junkie Syracuse is still a great place to be.
I mean, we obviously agree Syracuse is a great basketball city. But is it one of the greatest in the world? Considering that list is largely comprised of U.S. cities... I don't know. Possibly?
(Cue #disloyalidiot and #NotTrueFan posts in the comments)
There's no way to prove this, however, so we'll take it! Thanks, Dolph! It does bring up another fun question, however:
What if the Nationals had never left? How would that have impacted the university's basketball team, and what would things look like now?
Of course, this is a huge hypothetical question and I am just basically shooting down the idea that professional basketball ever being able to exist in Syracuse. So, I guess that's my answer: This is a cool topic to bring up and discuss, but there's zero chance a NBA basketball team could survive in Syracuse, even though, I believe sports fans around the area would like it. There's just not enough money to go around with the population and money.
Jared's right that this is a huge hypothetical -- because it certainly is. But if we're assuming that the NBA wanted to invest in keeping the Nationals in Syracuse long-term and that the Nats had the ability to financially keep up with the rest of the league, I'm not so sure our Orange are all that relevant.
Of course the university would still be an enormous presence in the city and the region, but perhaps with a pro basketball team to watch and support for the past 50-plus, it becomes incredibly difficult for fans to get behind both on a regular basis. Look at New York City's relationship with St. John's and the Knicks. Or on a much more comparable (though still imperfect) scale, support for Milwaukee Bucks vs. Marquette basketball. These teams that share cities between pro and college don't have an easy sell to fans (on either end).
For the Orange, perhaps they'd have taken longer to really establish themselves as an ECAC power. Maybe they struggle to get the Jim Boeheim and Dave Bing types in the door. Maybe the Dome is never fitted for basketball and they stay in Manley Fieldhouse... and worst-still, maybe they never join the Big East (and subsequently, the ACC). They could end up being St. Bonaventure or Niagara, rather than a program largely considered one of the 10 greatest of all-time.
On the other hand, the NBA's investment in the Nats could have also backfired. They could've become a financial pit for the league, stifled its growth and been a constant headache for relocation rumors, similar to what we've seen recently with the Bucks, Kings and others. If the team couldn't win games, they'd be a perennial bottom-feeder that failed to draw a national or regional audience and was simply hanging onto its city by way of "they've always been there, so they can't leave." Even if they did relocate much later, the longer they'd stayed, the more harm they could've done to the growth of SU basketball, which we can all agree would've been very, VERY bad.
Any Nats loyalists out there? Anyone think the city of Syracuse would be able to support both a college and pro team today? How could it altered the course of history if they'd tried to do so 50 years ago?