When Jim Sr. was a young boy, his brother accidentally shot him with a .22, and the slug remained in his back. As a result of the wound, one of his legs was two inches shorter than the other and he walked with a limp. But whatever game Boeheim's father played, he played with a ferocious, even nasty, competitiveness. Golf, Ping-Pong, pool, cards. Those were the games he played against his son, and never did he back down for one second, even when Boeheim was a young boy. "He beat me every way he could, every time he could," Boeheim recalls. "It took a long time before I could beat him—well, never in cards, but in everything else—and when I did, he never took it well."
Elaine remembers more than one family gathering ruined by a father-son argument over a game of pool, when "one or the other came storming out of the room." Dick Blackwell, Boeheim's basketball coach at Lyons Central High and the former golf pro at Wayne Hills Country Club, used to bet anyone that the Boeheims could not complete nine holes without an argument—and he would usually collect. Boeheim loved his father and felt the loss intensely when Jim Sr. died of cancer at 68 in 1986. But he describes their relationship as "prickly at best" and admits that his father's critical nature and his all-out drive to win rubbed off on him. "The best way to describe Jim's father," says Santelli, "is that he wasn't a whole lot different than his son is today."
Boeheim actually got his athletic genes from his mother, Janet, an outstanding golfer and a gentle woman who tried to referee the father-son arguments until her death from leukemia at age 58 in 1977. But it was that all-consuming competitiveness inherited from his father that made Boeheim a success in sports. He wanted to be better than everyone else, so he chopped ice off the rims at the playground and shot baskets during school vacations. From the moment he and Santelli started playing golf as kids, they played for money, starting with nickels and graduating to dollars. And they were nasty kids too, club throwers and cursers. On more than one occasion Blackwell banished them from the course for, as Santelli puts it, "not behaving like gentlemen."
Boeheim looked more nerdy than nasty. The gangliness, the thin hair, the studious-looking glasses—the whole exterior package suggested (and still does) the know-it-all captain of the debate team. "He didn't look like an athlete," says Santelli. "Hey, he didn't look like anything." But aside from an inability to escape earth's gravity, Boeheim was, in fact, a terrific athlete blessed with good hand-eye coordination, quickness and (need it be said) desire. He also had that steel-trap mind, a gift for instant analysis and a refusal to make the same mistake twice. Credit his dad for that too. Santelli remembers sitting at the card table with Jim's parents, both master bridge players, when the father would suddenly bring up a hand from 15 years earlier and go over which card everyone played. "I think the mind was as important as anything in making Jim a great athlete," says Santelli. Boeheim puts his own acerbic spin on his heady style. "It's funny that I was always considered one of the smartest players," says Boeheim, "and now I'm considered one of the dumbest coaches."
Boeheim's arrival at Syracuse as a walk-on in 1962 was one of those fortunate convergences of circumstance that stamp a man's life forever. That same year Fred Lewis arrived as coach and Dave Bing, a star guard from Washington, D.C., arrived as savior. "Those two guys," says Boeheim, "made Syracuse basketball." The Orange, who had won only 14 games in the three seasons before Bing joined the team, won 52 in the next three seasons. And there beside Bing, slipping into open spots to shoot jumpers when defenses ganged up on the star, was the bespectacled, bookish-looking guy from Lyons who eventually earned his scholarship. The Orangemen didn't win a national championship during the Bing era—the farthest they got was a 91-81 loss to Duke in the East Regional final in '66. But Syracuse became a big-time power (with a home-court pit called Manley Field House that terrified opponents) and started to attract a national following.
Boeheim knew he had found a home. After graduating in '66 with a degree in history, he served as the Syracuse varsity golf coach and assistant basketball coach, and also journeyed away from campus each winter weekend to play for the Scranton Miners of the old Eastern League. Eventually, Paul Seymour, his Scranton coach, became head scout for the Detroit Pistons and invited Boeheim to try out for the fourth guard spot behind Bing, Jimmy Walker and Howie Komives. Boeheim weighed his options and said no. "I don't know if I could've made it as an NBA player," he says, "but I knew I could make it as a coach."
Boeheim moved decisively toward that goal in 76 when Danforth, who had taken over for Lewis in '68, decided to return to Tulane, his alma mater. Syracuse was going to open the job to a national search when Boeheim. still an assistant, paid a visit to then vice chancellor Cliff Winters and said, "I want this job because I'm the best man for it. If you decide to open it up, that's fine, but I want to let you know that if you do, I'm leaving. I need the job now because there are some things I have to do." Winters gave him the job, and Boeheim did the things he had to do. He interrupted Pitino's honeymoon to interview him for a job, hired him and dispatched him to Cincinnati to sign a skinny high school star named Louis Orr. Then Boeheim drove to Rochester to firm up the commitment of a formidable big man named Roosevelt Bouie. In four seasons the Louie and Bouie Show won 100 games and lost only 18. And Jim Boeheim became the Man Who Never Left.
"It all seemed pretty easy at first." Elaine Boeheim says. "Jim would go 26-4 or 24-5, and everything would be fine." She is sitting in the kitchen of her comfortable home in DeWitt, a few miles east of Syracuse and just a quarter mile from the development where her ex-husband lives. They met at an oral surgeon's office where Elaine was working as an assistant. He would bring the players over for exams, and eventually he asked her out. They married in June 1976, two months after Boeheim got the head job.
Well, it didn't turn out to be so easy. The wins always came, but never the Big Win. They lived in a fishbowl. Her husband agonized over each loss, never fully enjoyed the wins. She suggested that he lighten his sarcastic tone with the press, but he never listened. The only constant in their life was the film projector that whirred deep into the night. "He'd come home after two losses in a row and tell me, All right, curtail your spending. I'm going to be getting out of coaching,' " says Elaine. "Of course, he knew and I knew he wouldn't."
Yes, Boeheim was a lifer and, beyond that, a lifer who walked the same Syracuse ground year after year, hearing the same criticism over and over again. The pressure to win grew intense. In the mid-'80s, the Boeheims separated briefly, got back together, separated again. The '87 championship game loss to Indiana took an enormous toll. To this day the inveterate tape watcher has never seen a tape of that game, although he has been unable to avoid seeing the replay on TV of the Smart baseline jumper that certified Knight as a genius (once again) and turned Boeheim into Boobheim. "If Keith Smart doesn't make that shot and we win, does that mean I'm a great coach?" Boeheim asked himself—and still asks himself—repeatedly.