NASSAU, Bahamas — Welcome to part two of the Syracuse basketball road trip chronicles from the Bahamas! By the time you read this, I’ll already be back in Syracuse getting ready for Indiana on Tuesday. Before diving into the action from Atlantis, let me say one thing:
This isn’t a groundbreaking thought, but one of the greatest aspects of sports is its unique ability to unite people of different backgrounds. Nothing quite accomplishes this in the way sports does. Before we left Exuma and flew to Atlantis, we went on a boat tour where, among other things, folks island hop to feed iguanas, swim with pigs and float with sharks, which is really like any other day in upstate New York, right?
After spending a lot of time working remote and remaining indoors the last 20 months, I had an experience that day that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise appreciated. What would a white kid from rural central New York have in common with a Bahamian of a another generation, race, upbringing and presumably, different overall worldview? Yet, there we were sitting on a sandbar talking for over a half hour about basketball and Buddy Hield. Amazing! It was one of the better moments on the trip and I was grateful for it. Hield, according to locals, is something of an inspiration in the Bahamas. He’s a role model, as sports stars tend to be for young people.
Of course, sometimes sports are just that; sports. We learned that in March of 2020. But following the pandemic and recent years of political turmoil, I think they’ll have an important role to play in this country’s — and hopefully the word’s — healing, if we allow it. I hope we do.
Anyway, I just wanted to share that first before recapping my time in Atlantis, but let me segue.
First, we flew to Nassau on Tuesday (which coincided with my birthday, which is otherwise insignificant but wait until you get a load of this) one day before the tournament began. We landed, we were greeted at the airport with goombay smash. We were driven to Paradise Island where the Atlantis resort is located.
“You can’t get lost on Paradise Island but you can get lost at Atlantis.” Our taxi driver said en route. Fitting.
And so true. Atlantis is massive and there’s way more to the resort than you initially realize. Upon walking into the hotel, you’re immediately hit with conference tournament vibes. Various teams, players and fans are dressed in school apparel with logos. Syracuse fans were everywhere. The only thing missing was the bands.
We checked into our room and had to rough it with a terrible view.
Later, we explored the resort and saw various players pass by. The first I recognized was Baylor’s Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and if you told me he was 7-foot-3, 285 lbs I would’ve believed you. Somewhere, Seth Greenberg is saying he’s a mountain masquerading as a man.
Shortly after, seeing a different Baylor player walk across the casino floor wearing his mask on his head was the least surprising thing of all-time. I don’t want to name names or put anyone on blast but if you’re wondering who it was, it was Matthew Mayer.
Also, Bruce Pearl must not give a damn what his players do because Auburn players were out on the casino floor late the first night. Well beyond the time other players disappeared and they played UConn at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
“Well, Auburn’s going 0-3,” I thought to myself. They went 2-1, just like I predicted.
Earlier in the night on that same casino floor but at a much more reasonable hour, (and if I sound like a degenerate gambler who stayed at the casino all week, I’ll have you know I lost $100 on blackjack in 10 minutes and tapped out for the week), Joe Girard crossed my path with his family. I totally intended to ignore him if for no other reason than there’s usually a sort of chinese wall between players and media and those encounters can be awkward. Usually in those scenarios I’ll engage in healthy self-talk: Oh no, these guys must hate what I write about them. Did I write anything bad about him? Should I pretend not to see them? Yep. These guys hate me for sure.
But Girard walked by and I’m not sure if he was trying to make me look more credible than I am in front of my mom or if he was just being nice, but he gave me the head nod as he passed by which was the most anyone could do in that situation. I appreciated it.
Earlier in the day there was a Syracuse press conference. They made it known that there would be no fun and games or tomfoolery on the waterslides. It was a business trip for them.
I couldn’t say the same, as evidenced by the photo on the right.
At said presser, I finally decided to grow a backbone and ask a real question. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
“Jim, have all scholarship players made the trip and will they be available tomorrow against VCU?” I asked.
Boeheim looked caught off guard. He paused.
“Yeah, everyone’s here,” before muttering, “... Jesus,” that was picked up by the mic.
Oh ok, sorry for being an idiot. Guess that was an illegitimate question with four international players on the roster and covid tests required to gain entry into the country. Guess we can just ignore the fact that Chaz Owens is a scholarship player who didn’t make the trip. Cools.
Anyway, after being hit with my first Boeheim snark (my days were indeed numbered), the birthday was mostly enjoyable until I glanced down at my phone later with a buzzing group text. Wtf is this?
I see some nonsense about a birthday and Boeheim and one friend text, “I like how he points out that he doesn’t agree with all James’ articles.”
Oh no. I watch the video. I hear Boeheim: “I know you write a lot of stories about us and most of them are pretty good. I don’t agree with all of them but that’s normal for any coach and writer.”
First of all, Jim, thank you. Second of all, you’re probably giving me way too much credit.
I come to realize my friend unironically requested a Boeheim cameo wishing me a happy birthday. I immediately went into a downward spiral of embarrassment, not due to Jim but because my friend is an ignoramus. Why would he request this? I am no longer a fanboy! I am an objective journalist, impartial to who wins and who loses. We can’t have this! Give me my respect!
Now that we got the jokes out of the way, let me explain the whole fandom thing. Yes, I grew up a huge Syracuse fan. Outside of friends and family influences, the 2003 National Championship was the single most important intervention of my life. It was something, a standard, to live up to — a source of pride and inspiration for a generation of Syracuse kids like me. There simply wasn’t much else around us that suggested we had to accomplish anything.
The first time I visited New York City I watched Gerry McNamara make a 3-point runner to beat Cincinnati and keep Syracuse’s NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The next day we watched him bury a 26-foot bomb against UConn to send the game into overtime and eventually win, followed by victories over Georgetown and Pittsburgh to win the whole thing. Years later, I was in the house for the six overtime game as a high school junior. Those moments made NYC magic to me.
As someone who was born into the working class and spent the early potion of his life being raised by a single mom without a college degree — in a society that’s so quick to shame you for being lower- or middle-class (you are just not working hard or doing enough!) — there’s no way I ever believe in my situation or myself enough to take on New York finance, walk down Wall Street and eventually get into a role where I’m responsible for trading billions of dollars on a daily basis without the inspiration from 2003 or the magical Big East Tournament run of 2006. (Yes, that’s billions with a B. Full flex, but you have to understand my overcompensation is due to my insecurities and caring way too much about what you think of me.)
Syracuse basketball has had a profound influence on my life and I’d never fade that sentiment. But, since writing for this website I’ve no longer experienced it by proxy. I’ve seen this team from the inside (whatever that means) and I’m not as ballyhooed fanatical over this whole thing in the same way anymore. Once you cross over the bridge, it becomes impossible to see it in the misty-eyed way you once did. That, and I just turned 30 which as anyone who reaches this age knows this is the time in your life where your illusions are shaken, hard truths are accepted, you feel disenchanted with nearly everything and acid reflux and joint pain become crazy.
As for being a fan, I’d put it like this: Once you get a peak behind the curtain and see how the sausage gets made, it makes you no longer have an appetite for sausage. Now, I don’t think I’m fooling anyone into believing I’m a big J. I’m a dilettante journalist at best, or at worst, an idiot with media credentials. But once you open pandora’s box it can’t be undone. You experience the loss of your own innocence, naïveté or more accurately in this case, fandom. I won’t go as far as to say I don’t care whether Syracuse wins or loses. I mean, ~maybe~ in March you get a little hungry and decide, “Agh, what the hell? It’s only sausage.” But I can’t see it in quite the same way anymore. I’m still enthused to some degree and passionate about college basketball, but on my way to jadedness, I guess?
That’s my honest experience. Ask the capital Js, they’ll likely tell you how they’re totally objective and have no skin in the game or something along those lines.
Anyway, I spent the remainder of Tuesday on the casino floor listening to my mom knowingly and sarcastically scream “BIG MONEY!” on the slots. She did not make big money.
That night. In fact, she actually misplaced $1,300 as we were shuffling hotel rooms, which is kind of amazing. On a different day, she won $800 back playing those slots. Makes total sense.
We want back to the room and I decided to deflect against whatever lingering embarrassment remained.
“Am I overreacting to this?” I asked my step-dad.
“Yes,” He replied immediately.
That’s right! Why do I care? What credibility do I have anyway?
Okay, time for another rum and coke.
I bet you’re wondering how I got in this situation.
Oh, you’re not? Well that’s me in that photo in the white. No, not Cole Swider. In the middle.
Before I sat my a** in that back-breaking chair, I went to rightfully claim my media credentials only to find out my name was not on the list. Shocking. I wish I could say this was the first time that’s happened, but it’s not. After threatening the person handing out credentials (and by that I mean sheepishly showing her an email chain I was on), she gave into my demands and awarded me with a piece of plastic on a lanyard. What a fool!
When you write for Nunes Magician dot com you’re a complete afterthought at these events. Actually, you’re really not a thought at all because you don’t even have a designated seat. That’s the way it is at these events, same with the ACC Tournament. Instead you’re left to fend for yourself. Maybe if you’re lucky they’ll allow you to eat and drink! You don’t have to have great social awareness to realize where you are in the pecking order. You just come to realize you have to take the seat of an organization that isn’t covering the same game you are, so for the first two that was the Detroit Free Press (thanks, folks).
The media room was tucked away behind the press conference room, both adjacent to the Imperial Ballroom where the games were held. Players didn’t have designated locker rooms as the event space probably didn’t have college basketball teams in mind during construction. That’s fine, but I’d bet players were annoyed having to share bathrooms with everyone else at the event. There were times when they had to cross a sea of people to use the lavatory.
Beverage choices were plentiful: water, soda, energy drinks, juice, you name it. Food of choice? Chips and Oreos. The Battle 4 Atlantis folks were definitely concerned with proper nutrition.
Syracuse tipped off against VCU on Wednesday and that was a mixed bag. I think anyone reading this knows how the games went, so I won’t rehash that here.
During the Syracuse vs. Arizona State game, a boisterous and burly man sat to my left. After deciding I hated him within two seconds, I didn’t pay him any mind until midway through the first half. He was doing some scouting. As I glanced over, it turned out it was Bruce Pearl.
Pearl actually came to speak in a large auditorium at Marist — my alma mater — when I was still an undergrad in 2013-14. I asked him what he thought of Syracuse that season (the 25-0 year) and he said something like: “They’ve overachieved. I think teams have finally started to figure them out. If they just stay home on Trevor Cooney and pack it in and keep CJ Fair and Jerami Grant off the glass they can be beat.”
It seemed like an accurate take then so I figured I’d ask him what he was seeing from Syracuse this time around. I decided to wait until halftime as to not interrupt his scouting, but he got up and left before the break and didn’t return. Opportunity missed.
After Syracuse bounced back in the second game against Arizona State, Syracuse fans waited for Jesse Edwards outside after his big game. When he crossed over from the makeshift locker room into the press conference room, he was greeted with loud plaudits. When the press conference wrapped, he crossed back and signed autographs and posed for photos. It’s always great to see players get those moments especially when you come to learn that they appreciate it as much as fans do.
Speaking of, Syracuse fans were excellent all weekend. When the team was down and needed a boost, ‘Let’s go Orange!’ chants broke out. They had every reason not to cheer down double-digits but they did anyway. On another occasion in the third game, when an Auburn player stepped to the free throw line, a group of Syracuse fans shouted at the refs, “He’s over the line! His toe is over the line!” meant to distract the shooter more than anything. He was not over the line.
When Frank Anselem was called for a five second violation (closely guarded within six feet without dribbling, passing or shooting), against Auburn, Syracuse fans shouted at the official, “Is that a four second call!? We’re on island time, sir!”
You guys (and gals) are hilarious.
On the final day as the tournament wrapped, Boeheim walked out of the Auburn press conference coaching up Swider, who replied with yes sirs. Before Boeheim left, he had a moment of thoughtfulness and decided to leave his water from the press conference for me.
Looks like Jim Boeheim didn’t want his water after the press conference so… I mean, you’d hate to see it go to waste, right? pic.twitter.com/VeVOyeE3L4— James Szuba (@JamesSzuba) November 27, 2021
Thanks for thinking of me, Jim.