In the summer of 1995, I sat on the floor of the Carrier Dome during a lecture at my one and only trip to the Big Orange Basketball Camp. My brother, myself, and my best friend Dan had all traveled from Vermont to attend, and it turned out to be an experience that changed my fandom forever. Little did I know during that lecture, when I glanced over toward the player entrance and saw John Wallace stretched out in the doorway with Jim Boeheim lazily walking over to see him, that what I can only assume was the ensuing discussion would help shape the course of Orange basketball forever.
I’ve been a lifelong Syracuse fan. My father was born in Syracuse and grew up in Marcellus. My uncle, Mike, used to write for the Post-Standard, after attaining his degree from Newhouse. His freshman year on the Hill, he roomed with a guy named Bob Gilbert, who long time Syracuse fans would recognize as “that dark haired, middle aged guy who used to sit behind the bench and hand out towels to the players.” My parents always enjoyed pointing out Uncle Mike’s former roommate anytime the Orangemen were on television up in the sticks of Vermont.
I’m not even kidding when I say that, when I was in first or second grade, any time the teacher mentioned “Washington” I immediately thought of the Pearl, rather than the father of our country. This is all a long way of saying that I’ve had orange running through my blood basically since conception.
So to say that one trip to the Big Orange camp could have changed my fandom is saying something. Only, it wasn’t really the trip itself, it really was the conversation I like to imagine happened between Wallace and Boeheim back in the tunnels of the Carrier Dome, away from the prying eyes of hundreds of mediocre basketball players who paid way too much money to be sitting there, listening to some coach from New Jersey tell us about life and hoops. I can’t say for sure, but I have always firmly believed that was the conversation in which John Wallace let Jim Boeheim know he would be returning for his senior season.
Before that day, Wallace’s name was still in the NBA Draft. The draft would actually be held later that week (during which we’d all gather around a TV and cheer when Lawrence Moten was taken by the Grizzlies in the second round), and the next day it became public knowledge that Wallace had taken his name out of the draft pool. If that wasn’t what he and the coach had talked about that day in the Carrier Dome, I can’t imagine what the conversation could possibly have been about. Maybe they were talking about their favorite places to eat in Clemson, South Carolina.
That was the summer before my freshman year of high school, and the upcoming Syracuse hoops season would be the one that took me from being a fan, to being a superfan. I already loved the Orangemen, but after that 1995-96 season, I bled Syracuse orange more than ever before. It helped that the team not only boasted my favorite Syracuse basketball player of all-time (Lazarus Sims), but also my favorite SU football player in a walk-on role (Donovan McNabb). It obviously also helped that the team went on an improbable run to the national title game, winning in dramatic fashion against Kansas and Georgia, and in my mind being a Sims wrist injury away from at least having realistic shot at capturing the crown. Seriously, go back and watch the game.
As soon as Lazarus went down with a wrist injury, the Orangemen – being without a true backup point guard since we should never speak of David Patrick – turned the ball over on five of the next six possessions with Jason Cipolla trying to bring the ball up the court against the smothering Kentucky pressure.
And it all came back to John Wallace’s decision to return to the Hill, and before that, his decision to choose Syracuse in the first place. These days, it seems like a no-brainer for a high school star from Rochester to decide to play for Jim Boeheim (you hearing me, Thomas Bryant?). Back then, however, Wallace was taking one hell of a risk.
A lot of Syracuse fans these days are probably too young to remember this, and basically no one currently attending SU was even born at the time, but in 1990 word came down that the Orangemen had broken some pretty major NCAA rules, with players receiving “merchandise, discounts, and cash from boosters.” Most notable were the yearly gifts from Syracuse area car czar Bill Rapp. The infractions landed Syracuse in hot water, and Jalen Rose has even said that the primary reason he chose Michigan over the Orangemen was the probation that followed.
Syracuse faced some difficult times in the early 1990’s, and there was no guarantee the Orangemen would ever bounce back to be the dominant force they were throughout the 1980’s. And then Wallace, a McDonald’s All-American from Greece Athena in Rochester, decided to shirk what could have been conceived as conventional wisdom and stayed in-state to play for Boeheim. He would go on to become one of the best and most beloved players in Syracuse history.
So why do I bring all of this up now? Well, for starters there’s the impending NCAA decision on alleged Syracuse improprieties. Syracuse could suddenly find itself in a very similar situation to those teams before Wallace committed to wear orange. It seems strangely fitting that, in the wake of these allegations and the probable penalties that Syracuse will be facing, another Rochester standout is waiting in the wings, seemingly ready to announce for the Orange as soon as another scholarship can be freed up.
But mostly, to appreciate the present you really have to reflect on the past. So many things could have been different for so many of us, were it not for the decisions of a few people.
In my own case, that summer at the Big Orange camp was the last time I really got to play basketball with or against my best friend Dan, as we went to different high schools the following year. That decision was made entirely because of how my brother, who was two grades ahead of me, was treated during his freshman season at the high school in our small Vermont town. My brother had been the first freshman to make the varsity, and the parents of some seniors were not shy about verbalizing – loudly, and profanely, and during games – what they thought about a freshman not only playing, but starting at point guard.
Had that not happened, my brother likely would have stayed at that school, where his coach was a former player for my father (a former college coach himself), and I would have followed. Instead, my brother transferred to the high school in the neighboring town, so that’s where I went as well, leaving behind my friends because I couldn’t stomach how poorly the families of my brother’s teammates had treated him. When it came time for me to decide which high school to attend, my junior high teachers left my name off a list of eighth graders who would be visiting the local high school one day because they just assumed it was a foregone conclusion that I would be following my brother to the rival school.
When it came time for the school board to approve paying for kids from my town to attend that rival high school, I became the first – and to my knowledge, still the only – kid to ever be denied, out of what I can only assume to be spite. There were other kids from my town who wanted to attend the rival high school, and they were all approved. Somehow, mysteriously, mine was the only one denied. My family ultimately had to move to the neighboring town so that I’d be able to attend the same school as my brother.
The high school that had treated my family so poorly went on to struggle, while my brother went on to co-captain one of the best teams in Vermont state history, winning the state championship as a senior alongside future America East Player of the Year, Tony Orciari. I myself would wind up teaming with another America East legend, Taylor Coppenrath, who Syracuse fans despise to this day for his part in that 2005 fiasco in Worcester.
And in terms of Syracuse, imagine how differently things may have played out? Imagine if Jim Boeheim had chosen to transfer, as he claims nearly happened during his freshman season because he was tired of getting run out of the gym by Dave Bing.
Imagine if Syracuse had never faced probation, and Jalen Rose had decided to play for his childhood favorites. Imagine if John Wallace had decided that playing for a team on probation by the NCAA simply wasn’t worth it.
There’s no moral to this story, only life’s biggest question of “if.” If Jim Boeheim had left Syracuse either as a player or as a coach. If John Wallace hadn’t chosen to attend Syracuse, or had left after his junior year. If Lazarus Sims had grown frustrated with his role as a former local playground legend turned benchwarmer. If Jason Cipolla hadn’t buried that baseline jumper against Georgia. Well, at the very least we’d never have been blessed with seeing Al Maguire dancing with the Orangemen, chanting “The ‘Cuse is in the house, oh my God!”
And I think I speak for a lot of Syracuse fans who grew up during that era when I say that there’s a very real chance that our diehard fandom may not have been cemented in quite the same way.
Thanks, John Wallace. And Thomas Bryant – you’re on the clock.