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Szuba: Covering Syracuse basketball this season meant absolutely everything to me

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Syracuse basketball always has been and continues to be a beacon of hope in troubling times for the city. The program serves as a source of inspiration and unites us all during the dead of winter.

The above photo is nothing more than a corkboard that’s adorned on the wall of my room in Manhattan. It looks like someone just scattered a bunch of random shit together on a piece of wood and hung it up on the wall. It’s probably apropos of a third-grade art project, but hey, that’s my style!

But it also represents an important symbol. It’s a reminder.

On it, of course, are most of my media passes — as well as a few other meaningful things — that I’ve kept over the years from writing at TNIAAM. Through those media passes conveys an important message to nobody other than myself.

Even the best of us struggle with moments of self-doubt where we question our own ability and ask ourselves if we’re capable of handling certain challenges that lie ahead. This serves as a reminder to self that if you set goals, follow through and work hard, you can achieve what you’re after. It takes a lot more than that in life, that I’m sure of. But in the simplest of terms that’s the corkboard’s purpose on my wall: to serve as a reminder of what can be accomplished irrespective of circumstance.

At the end of the day I try not to take this too seriously. I understand TNIAAM’s place. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a reporter. I don’t even consider myself a writer, really. I’ve played basketball my entire life so I’m a basketball player first and I’m a college basketball fan second — I think and watch the game through that lens and stick to that.

I didn’t go to Newhouse. I’ve never sat in a journalism class and I sure as heck didn’t want to be a writer when I was growing up. So in many ways myself and Nunes have been a perfect matrimony where I can think and write like a fan of this whole thing without having to be objective or having my creativity stifled.

Basketball is just entertainment. It’s only one component of life. Albeit important to me, this isn’t open-heart surgery. It’s not a billion dollar transaction. Lives aren’t lost over who wins and who loses. It’s just Syracuse basketball and it’s just a game, but in the same breath it’s also so much more than that.

***

The first game I was lucky enough to cover this season was the Syracuse vs. UConn game at Madison Square Garden. The game itself felt like a reunion of sorts for a melange of reasons. It was the first game I had gotten to see Syracuse play in person in some time on top of it being an old Big East rivalry renewed. It was reminiscent of all those Big East Tournament matchups in the mid- to late-2000’s, including the six overtime game which I had attended in person as a junior in high-school.

Anyway, for the contest at hand, I had left my actual office in New York at 200 Park around my normal time and took the shuttle from Grand Central over to Times Square and took the subway one more stop to Penn. I arrived at MSG early to grab some food, do some exploring and prepare a bit before tip. In every venue that I’ve ever covered a basketball game in, media is well taken care of and food is provided at no charge. Perhaps the most fascinating thing of the night was when I asked for a plate in the media room and the server jokingly asked to be paid. Except he wasn’t joking.

After my jovial laughter turned into a serious nod, I took out my wallet and laughed a little bit more on the inside. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind paying, but I just found that to be absolutely astonishing.

After I cleaned my plate and plowed through some turkey and stuffing that was almost assuredly over two weeks old, I got up to check where my assignment would be for the night only to find that I’d been expectedly relegated to the self-proclaimed non-important media section. I was pumped about it — truthfully just happy to be there.

Syracuse was given the late tip that night as eventual National Champion Villanova wiped the floor with a fairly good Gonzaga team in the first game of the Jimmy V Classic. At that point in the season, Syracuse was 6-1, coming off a respectable loss to a tough Kansas team on the road. Syracuse at the time was looking for its first win away from the Carrier Dome in the early season.

Syracuse came out strong but UConn fought back and made the game interesting. Ultimately the Orange would win 72-63 even though its starting point guard had a rough night. You wouldn’t know it by his body language, but after the game Frank Howard was all smiles. He held his head high and didn’t appear as though his first bad game of the season had shaken his confidence. It was a telling harbinger of things to come and a positive sign for Syracuse.

By the end of the night, the game and the Syracuse-UConn rivalry felt like a marriage that stayed wedded for the sake of the kids, or in this case for television and for playing at a historic venue. There might be less value for Syracuse playing in these resurrected rivalry games going forward, but it is more compelling than any other run of the mill non-conference home game in the Dome.

Personally however, I felt energized. After hitting the post-game presser and the Syracuse locker room I headed out to my apartment to write, catch a couple hours of z’s and wake the next day feeling ready to go. I was so tired, running it on reserve energy but this stuff gives me extra life. Or so I thought.

***

For the next contest I’d hit the road and head down to DC to cover the Syracuse-Georgetown game at Capital One. Once again, it was an old Big East rivalry renewed and it was being billed as such. Georgetown was the subject of much criticism at that point in the season and its detractors (read: us) were relentless in ridiculing its notoriously deplorable non-conference competition. Just playing in this game was sure to be a hit to Syracuse’s RPI and SOS.

My RPI and SOS, however, was on the rise and I hit the game relatively early to get acquainted with an unfamiliar building and find my way around. I did pretty much as I always did and walked around, found my seat and eventually hit the court for warmups before stuffing my face, this time without the thanksgiving leftovers and with wallet in pocket.

The game started sloppy with both teams struggling to find rhythm — it was still early in the season after all. Georgetown went into the half with a lead as Syracuse gave up a few unconventional first half run outs. Things would only get worse in the second half for the Orange, that is until Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle led the surge late to force overtime after trailing by as many as 13-points.

From there Tyus would take the reins in extra time and lead Syracuse to victory. It was another unbelievable Syracuse come-from-behind win. Even if it was to a rather mediocre Georgetown team, the will and grit displayed was impressive.

After the game Jim Boeheim had some pretty good commentary in the post-game presser and I snagged Frank and Tyus in the locker room for interviews. Both guys handle the media pretty well but I’ve always gravitated toward Frank. He’s the first player I ever interviewed, but I’ve always been so impressed with the way he carries himself and how eloquent he is. He just has that air about him and always gives honest insight and thoughtful responses.

Once I left the arena I met up with fellow Nuneser and Syracuse alumn, Andy Pregs (great guy imo!), did some sightseeing and called it a night. Before heading back to New York I was able to write this piece on Jim Boeheim’s Big East comments, another one on Frank becoming the vocal leader of Syracuse as well as his big play down the stretch on his home turf. Those were a few of my favorites from the season and the experience down in DC is one I’ll always cherish.

***

I’m a native son in this Syracuse thing. Syracuse basketball both literally and figuratively hits so close home, because, well, I’m home grown. I grew up just north of the city where I’d graduate from Paul V. Moore high school (sounds better than saying Central Square) and to say Syracuse basketball is everything in Central New York would be a disservice to Syracuse basketball, really. It’s become our city’s identity.

As we live on a society and new generations begin to populate and carry the wave for Central New York, we deviate further and further from Syracuse’s rich history. It’s so hard to imagine Syracuse as the prosperous, thriving city as it once was not too long ago. Syracuse has since been relegated to a rust-belt city with its halcyon days well behind it. But before it was, the city experienced rapid manufacturing expansion with names like Carrier, General Electric, Chrysler and General Motors doing heavy lifting for the local economy. Those big names have since all shipped out or at best, significantly downsized. This is all admittedly well before my time, but growing up, myself and my cohort were left to reap the benefits — or lack thereof — in the wake of outsourced business.

Fast forward to present day and we’re dealing with a city that’s become reliant on state funding, simultaneously coerced to dip into reserves to fund budget deficits. This had led to some questioning the need for the city of Syracuse’s existence, calling for its abolishment vis-á-vis saving on expenses. Or if not an abolishment, a restructuring of the city’s demarcation to dissipate into county lines.

As Syracuse has been hard pressed to find organic sources of revenue growth, expenditures continue to ramp up and the city’s debt burden shows no signs of abatement. Employment figures trail both those at the state and national level while poverty rates continue to rise. These economic headwinds go hand-in-hand and tend to be perpetual by nature.

This all gives way to things like gun violence, which has sadly become a way of life for teens in Syracuse. The violence has become normalized and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. There were just three homicides over the course of three days in Syracuse. That’s not to mention the doors that open for other types of crime as well as alcohol and drug addiction. Where else are people going to turn? Not all of that is on the city, nor the local economy. But that’s where it starts.

While there’s plenty of good happening in the city to be sure, the financial statements and annual budgets don’t paint a rosy picture. The most recent budget plans for a lower than expected deficit, but the city is still facing significant fiscal challenges and budgetary gaps for the foreseeable future. Profiled in the above link (and relinked here) was a then-15-year-old who frequents the Faith Hope Community Center which sits just west of Syracuse University. You know what he hopes of doing? Playing basketball for Jim Boeheim.

The truth of the matter is just about every kid who picks up a basketball in Central New York has that same vision. It was a dream that I shared as a kid, salivating over the eventual day I could play atop the 2-3 zone and knock down shots for Jim. I wanted to be Andy Rautins.

That obviously never happened but I was sold on hope. I didn’t grow under the violent-plagued south side and I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in poverty or to not have access to the resources I need. But there are plenty in Syracuse who do live under those circumstances.

The point is that Jim Boeheim and Syracuse basketball serve as a beacon of hope in troubling times throughout the city. On a wider scale, Syracuse basketball gives us all something to be proud of and unites us all as a community. Not even annual snowfalls of over 100 inches and hypothermic temperatures can tear us apart in the dead of winter. So long as we have Syracuse basketball.

I’m not here to say what’s right or what’s wrong, but I’m not convinced that Jim Boeheim isn’t the most important figure in modern Syracuse history.

***

It kills me to see my hometown in such a dire state. All of the aforementioned enters my mind on a daily basis and while it’s always fresh, it doesn’t always quite feel as real until I’m back in Syracuse. The gravity of the circumstance isn’t fully felt until I’m back on CNY soil, so when it came time to cover a game at home this season many of the city’s shortcomings were at the top of my mind, but in the back I stay cognizant of what the program means to the city.

Eastern Michigan might have just been another non-conference opponent to pad the win column and a chance to line the pockets of a former assistant coach’s athletic department, but to me it was a personal homecoming. As I made my way up to the Carrier Dome in sub zero temperatures it was hard not to think of all the times I did the same as a youth.

I made my way up the salted steps of the Carrier Dome and headed toward Gate B, picked up my media pass and ducked underneath the concrete stairway to make my way inside. I was giddy to be back home and grateful to have the chance to cover the game.

I walked around to get reacquainted with my old home before tip and borrowed a fan’s seat parallel with center court, just below where the game would be broadcasted. I sat down, took a breath and posted on social media before the actual game began.

The game itself wasn’t exactly pretty and Eastern Michigan went into the half tied as Syracuse struggled to score against EMU’s 2-3. Things changed in the second though and Syracuse got away from EMU without much struggle. Despite not shooting well, Tyus, Frank and Oshae all had solid outings while Paschal posted an encouraging 15 point, 11 rebound performance. After the game of course was the Boeheim presser and once again I snagged Frank for an interview before talking to Marek Dolezaj for the first time. You can’t not love Doley.

After the game was finished and everyone cleared out I walked back out onto the court and soaked in the moment. I had been operating at a New York pace up until that point and for the first time in a while everything just seemed to slow down. I always try to stay present and keep my focus locked in on the moment at hand, but as I looked around the Carrier Dome I did a little bit of looking back and thought about all the games I attended over the years with friends and family and reminisced over summer basketball camp. I’ve never really forgotten, but in that moment I was reminded just how much the city and relationships I’ve built in Syracuse still mean to me.

As everything around me seemed to move in slow motion, I stayed disappointingly unaware of the message my body was telling me. I was exhausted but refused to acknowledge it.

***

You have to understand just how brutal winters can be in Syracuse. Most Central New Yorkers are so numb to inclement weather that they just go about their day as if it were sunny and 70 anyway, but at times it can be hard to leave the house. Basketball of course was everything growing up, so my love for Syracuse eventually grew into a love for the Big East which radiated to all of college basketball. It wasn’t long before winters naturally became all about basketball. When I wasn’t playing the game I was inhaling as much college basketball as I could.

Some of my earliest memories of college basketball include watching JJ Redick hunt shots off of screens at Duke and listening to Cameron Indoor erupt when he knocked them down, which was pretty damn frequently. Not long thereafter Syracuse native Greg Paulus would join JJ — he surprised a ton of people when he picked to play basketball down in Durham instead of a football career. Personally, I never took to Duke basketball, but I admired from afar and always wanted Greg to play well.

Fast forward over a decade later and Syracuse is in the ACC, I’m writing at TNIAAM and I find myself sitting press row covering the program I idolized growing up, playing in gym and environment I had a great deal of admiration for. What!?

That was one of those incredulous life moments for me. Just before the tip I looked around and took in everything at Cameron, in complete disbelief of the stage. You work so hard for moments like that, but I couldn’t help but feel extremely lucky, too.

I remember at one point in the game I looked to the crowd of Cameron Crazies behind me and I sat in disbelief over how enthralled they all seemed to be. Every single one of them was in sync with one another, locked in on the game and enjoying the moment. Not all that long ago I was once that college kid, living for the here and now. I don’t pretend to know each and every one of those kids or their respective situations, but it sure did seem that everyone was just enjoying being a kid. My actual age (26) isn’t quite as old as my soul (I’ve been 80-years-old for 26 straight years), but I sure did feel old that night.

In that moment I realized that it was time for me to slow down, a message my body was trying to tell me months back in Syracuse. Since graduating from Marist in 2015, most of my days have been spent working sun up to sun down. I’m not complaining, it’s the life I chose for myself. I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had for anything but I realized if I kept myself on the same pace I had been on that I was going to miss my entire life. I couldn’t help but feel like time had passed me by.

I don’t want to overemphasize that last bit because the overall feeling of that night was pure joy and jubilation, I was in complete awe of the once in a lifetime experience I just had. But there was an underlying tone of needing to slow down just a bit and find a more balanced life.

***

Syracuse, Syracuse basketball and writing at TNIAAM have all been so meaningful beyond measure to me. I don’t say that lightly. Family and friends come first, but those aforementioned three things do mean absolutely everything to me, and they’re all woven into each other. I never expected writing at TNIAAM to become what it has, I thought I was just coming on board to write a few Syracuse-y type things for fun and it’s blown any expectation I ever could have had out of the water.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I’ve met with Syracuse ties because of TNIAAM and Sean freaking Keeley. I can’t begin to tell you all the people I’ve met and the doors that have been opened since I started writing here over three years ago. TNIAAM has helped me do things I never thought I was capable of, talk to people I never thought I would and experience life on greater scale than I otherwise would have.

It’s my hope that everyone find some sort of value in the work that’s being done here and that we’re doing our part to cultivate a better Syracuse community and stronger culture. I want the absolute best for all of us with Syracuse ties.

So thank you all for everything. You have no idea how grateful I am for Syracuse, our city, our basketball program and our caring culture. It’s apropos of nothing else. It’s always love.

***

Last up for me was the ACC Tournament in my backyard (Brooklyn). I had covered the tournament the previous year as well but as Syracuse lost to Miami in the noon game I didn’t have the chance to cover the team (I do have an actual career). Syracuse had the late tip against Wake in its first game this go around, so needless to say I was excited to have to chance to cover the game without having to take time away from work.

After working through the day I’d take the express from Grand Central straight to Barclays, pick up my media credentials and head straight to the buffet. Whoever does the event planning for the ACC Tournament at Barclay’s does a phenomenal job and the food is always superb. Hats off!

After eating copious amounts of food and grabbing my first of seventeen zillion coffees of the week, I’d set up along the media row and find a seat I had no business sitting in. Give me an inch and I take a mile [insert shrug emoji here].

Sitting so close to the game is surreal. You’d think after a while it all becomes normal and while it slowly does sink in, I still pinch myself just to be sure.

As the game tipped off Syracuse came out strong and kept Wake at bay for most of the contest. The good guys won that game and I’ll never forget how jovial the locker room was after that one. It was the lightest atmosphere I had seen in my short glimpse of the season as guys were soaking in the moment, turning the lights out and joking amongst each other. Marek Dolezaj had a stellar performance that night, denied an interview from ESPN and then dipped off into the night with a whole pizza to himself. Syracuse would be back at it again the next night against North Carolina with most under the impression that the Orange would have to win that one to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.

The next night I decided to sit on the opposite side where I felt even closer to the game than the previous night. There’s a Spiked out, I could trip a referee rap lyric involved in here somewhere.

The game itself was abysmal for Syracuse who, spare for a late run, looked out of it for most of the contest. In the end North Carolina imposed its will and many were left thinking Syracuse was headed to the NIT for a second straight year. The locker room suggested just that.

What was just an amicable and careless setting just 24 hours prior was now a somber and dejected environment. It’s hard to not take on that feeling yourself, so I admittedly left Barclay’s feeling bad for the team but positive about my experience.

The rest of the week was a blur but I made sure to catch the rest of the tournament after skipping out on the third day to catch some sleep.

When the nights were over most members of the media exited from the post-game pressers stage left, up the elevator and out to the streets of New York through the media entrance.

As for me? I made sure I walked myself back onto the court at Barclays, up the stairs opposite the basketball stanchion to the mezzanine level and out through the fan entrance. I came into this thing as a wide-eyed, obsessive college basketball fan and want that to remain. The more I see, the more I view college basketball and people involved in the game with a great deal of side-eye but I never want that to take away from how magical this whole thing was for me as kid. So my season ended the same way that it started as a kid back in Syracuse.

I left as a fan, but most importantly, I left as myself.