From the outside looking in, it might not make much sense. Why do Central New Yorkers who seemingly have no affiliation other than geographic proximity go nuts over the local university’s basketball team? This isn’t the NBA, why do Syracuse denizens treat and follow the Syracuse Orange basketball team as if it were an NBA franchise and show up in (at times) sub-zero temperature only to fill a giant aircraft hanger with people in the middle of winter?
It’s suffice to say that there aren’t any professional sports teams in Syracuse. To find the closest, you’d have to travel over two hours west to Buffalo, which is home to the Buffalo Bills. You’d have to travel even further to find the closest NBA franchise, which happens to be across the border in the Great White North. The Toronto Raptors are actually the closest team geographically speaking, but the New York Knicks are just about equidistant from the Salt City.
In large part, there isn’t anything else in the sports realm to care about locally so this is why Syracuse fans are so obsessively passionate about Jim Boeheim and Syracuse basketball. But to find deeper meaning to that question we have to dig a little further.
While there aren’t any professional sports in Syracuse, that wasn’t always the case. The Syracuse Nationals began its inaugural season in the National Basketball League in 1946. The NBL later merged with the Basketball Association of America in 1949 to form the National Basketball Association (Hey, the NBA!) and the Syracuse Nats went with it. The league was shaky back then, but in 1955 Syracuse brought home its first banner in the form of an NBA Championship. That banner still hangs in the rafters of the War Memorial where the Syracuse Crunch play, otherwise known as the AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Just before the Syracuse Nationals won its title in 1955, there was an athlete up on the hill at Syracuse University that was garnering the city’s attention. Jim Brown was a four-sport athlete at Syracuse (football, basketball, lacrosse, track) but started to lay the foundation by creating a path for illustrious running backs in the Syracuse football program. Brown put the building blocks in place for Syracuse football’s 1959 national title, a team that produced Heisman Trophy winner, Ernie Davis. Soon thereafter other high profile athletes would follow suit.
While Syracuse University was built into a national football power, things started to shift at the university. In the early 1960’s, the basketball program was incredibly mediocre and largely irrelevant, but that began to change when Jim Boeheim walked on campus.
That’s because Dave Bing enrolled at SU along with Boeheim and while those two future Syracuse legends were on campus, the Syracuse Nationals were sold and shipped off to Philadelphia. Central New York was too small of a market to hold a professional team, so the team relocated to a larger city under new ownership and became the 76ers, an important harbinger of how things would eventually play out for the city of Syracuse.
While Syracuse was without a professional basketball team, Boeheim was working his ass off to earn some respect as a player and Bing was taking things over on the hill. In their senior year Bing and Boeheim willed Syracuse to the 1966 Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament and soon thereafter things would start to change.
Boeheim later moved up to a Syracuse basketball assistant and in that role he helped coach Syracuse to the 1975 Final Four. He eventually took the keys to the Syracuse basketball kingdom in 1976 after Roy Danforth left to take the Tulane job.
After World War II, the United States started to experience rapid manufacturing expansion and the city of Syracuse was able to ride that wave and reap the benefits. Nationally, the economy was thriving and locally some of the biggest names in the automotive industry started moving production to Syracuse. General Electric had a sizeable presence in Central New York, employing over 17,000 people at one point. We’d be remiss not to mention Carrier Corporation, which was headquartered in Syracuse and served as the proud and preeminent company of the city. Carrier would go on to sign one of sport’s ultimate naming rights deals, slapping its name on the Carrier Dome in 1980 into perpetuity.
But before all of that, things began began to change in the 1970’s just before the time that Boeheim took over as coach. He of course had nothing to do with the city’s economic downturn, but the U.S. started to face a recession following the 1973 oil crisis. Business started to outsource and Syracuse as a city was beginning to wither.
Companies started to downsize and the jobs that were outsourced didn’t exactly involve skilled labor. That’s not a knock on anyone who worked for these companies, it’s just that back then you grew up in your area, took the opportunities that were given to you and if you were lucky, that happened to be going to work for the bigger corporations in town.
You don’t have to be an economist to understand what happens when those jobs are outsourced. People lack the skills necessary to gain employment, but there aren’t any jobs to begin with. Unemployment rises and people can’t gather resources or spend money and all of a sudden this catch-22 spins out of control in a downward spiral that creates a slew of other problems.
It’s a powder keg waiting to explode and frankly a problem that no politician or wealth manager in Central New York could solve. The people of Syracuse were shit out of luck and nothing could be done short of the government figuratively flying above and dropping in helicopter money.
Put more eloquently by Carl Schramm, by forgetting its proud economic history, Syracuse loses its future:
It appears that its future is no longer dependent on the genius of its people but the largesse of higher order governments both state and federal. It has lost its ability to determine its own fate. Poverty is the city’s overwhelming social characteristic – over 50 percent of school students come from families that are officially “poor.” When a metropolis no longer generates the wealth to sustain itself it has no choice but to become a supplicant city whose future is guided by federal and state politicians and bureaucrats whose visions of what to do with places like Syracuse are likely not sensitive to its history or what its destiny might be.
Syracuse was left for dead, tucked away in upstate New York and relegated to nothing but a northeastern wasteland where it does nothing but snow for 365 days a year. Soon Syracuse would be all but forgotten and its inhabitants would perish in the depths of winter.
Enter Jim Boeheim.
It’s not like Boeheim intentionally came in to be the hero of the city and save the day. All the guy ever really wanted to do was coach his basketball team and be left alone. But it is hard to ignore the ironic timing of this thing. Boeheim took over in 1976 and Syracuse moved into the Carrier Dome and Big East conference not long thereafter. Through its conference affiliate, Syracuse signed a television deal with the lowly television station that was ESPN. It turned out to be a marriage made in heaven.
The Big East went from startup to Fortune 500 in the blink of an eye and its founding members were appearing in the Final Four just years after its formation. All of a sudden Syracuse was on national television and quickly became one of the conference’s power brokers. Then, in 1987 Syracuse and Boeheim vaulted all the way to the National Championship game before losing to Indiana on a last-second buzzer beater.
The city of Syracuse was relevant again and Boeheim was becoming the face of not only the basketball team but the city of Syracuse too. But during that time, the city was dealing with loss in the form of an unsustainable economic imbroglio and the people of Syracuse were left to grieve in its wake. They say that grief is just love with nowhere to go, and in the case of Syracuse, all that grief-turned-love funneled itself into Syracuse basketball.
Short of each other and the local university, the city had next to nothing. Everybody and everything else abandoned it. Syracuse was left to die on the vine and anything that was worth having slipped right through Syracuse’s hands just like the 1987 National Championship. Except for Boeheim.
Boeheim — while he flirted with the Ohio State basketball job in 1986 — never seriously considered leaving. He enrolled at Syracuse as a teenager and never truly left and in the process he gave credibility to an institution. When Syracuse finally won the championship in 2003 he vindicated the city from obsoleteness and validated people in the process.
Everybody needs someone to believe in and people love to be a part of something larger than themselves. People in Syracuse took to the basketball program and willed it to become the biggest — if at times the only — show in town.
Boeheim (along with some brilliant behind the scenes folk) just happened to be the one to take the university and in turn the city to new heights that nobody or nothing else could. It provided a sense of pride for a city that so desperately needed it and Syracuse is better for it.
When considering all this, it might make sense that people go nuts over Syracuse basketball.