SI Vault
Jack McCallum
December 02, 1996
Let's pretend that you are a cosmetologist with supernatural powers and have been assigned the herculean task of making over Jim Boeheim, whose reclusive-cleric aspect and grumpy demeanor have turned him over the years into a kind of Mr. Wilson, the crotchety neighbor who's constantly peering out the window to catch Dennis the Menace trampling the flower beds. Where on earth do you begin?
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December 02, 1996

If You Think You Know Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim Guess Again!

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In 1990 a series of articles in the Syracuse Post-Standard led the university to conduct an intensive 13-month investigation of its men's basketball program. It was a terrible time to be Boeheim and, for Elaine, a terrible time to be around him. No major abuses were uncovered, but in his desire to win the Big One, Boeheim had undeniably made some mistakes. He had forged a relationship with a New York City street agent named Rob Johnson, who steered several players to Syracuse, most notably Conrad McCrae. Boeheim had let his close friend Bill Rapp Jr., a Syracuse car dealer, into the Orangemen's inner circle, and Rapp was accused of slipping $50 bills into the Christmas cards of several players. (Rapp denied the allegation.) A couple of other boosters had committed various indiscretions, too, and one of them, restaurateur Fred Grimaldi, was forced to disassociate himself from the program. The result was two years' probation, including a one-year ban from the NCAA tournament, for "lack of institutional control."

Also, it was around this time that the Boeheim-can't-coach charge picked up steam. His underachieving '89-90 team, which featured Coleman, Sherman Douglas, Billy Owens and Stevie Thompson, was widely considered the most talented in the school's history, yet it didn't get out of the Sweet 16. The following year another powerhouse Syracuse team lost to Richmond in the first round of the East Regional—the first time a No. 2 seed had lost to a No. 15. It was a dark period for Boeheim personally, and his less-than-ebullient personality made it even darker for those around him. He and Elaine separated again in '93 and finally divorced.

By then, though, they had adopted Elizabeth. It was Elaine who had pushed for the adoption in 1985 even when Jim resisted, and it was Elaine who made it easy for Jim to see Elizabeth whenever he wanted. It's still that way. If Boeheim returns from a road trip by 9 p.m.. he drives by Elaine's house and, if the light is on in Elizabeth's room, he can stop in and kiss her goodnight. "Actually," says Elaine, "sometimes he does it at 11 o'clock."

One day recently. Boeheim. a man who is guarded with his feelings, leaned back in his office chair, crossed his bony fingers and unburdened himself to some degree. "When you go through a divorce and you're in the public eye, it's very tough," he says. "But my ex-wife has been extraordinary. To enable me to see my daughter, to keep that most important part of my life intact, means more to me than I could ever describe. Elaine knew that everyone should have someone to love without reservation, and that's what Elizabeth is to me. I can never thank Elaine enough for allowing that."

And now there is Juli, whom Boeheim met at a party in Lexington on Derby Day in '94. After Juli came to live in Syracuse last year, Elaine went out of her way to share Elizabeth with her, too. "Juli's a wonderful person." says Elaine. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather have Elizabeth be with." A recent call to Elaine's house found Juli paying a visit. What do they talk about? "Well, not about Jim," says Elaine. She admits there are moments when she feels resentment toward Boeheim for the divorce, the awkwardness of sharing their daughter with another woman and the general anxiety of being the ex-wife of the basketball coach in a town where he is the most public of figures. But she has come to grips with all that. She takes a newspaper clipping off the refrigerator door, a short article about a memorial service for a young boy who was accidentally shot and killed by his friend. Throughout the service, the dead child's parents each sat with an arm around the boy who fired the shot. She has one passage underlined, a quote from the minister that says, "Forgiveness frees you." Elaine smooths out the clipping. "I love that quote," she says. "I try never to forget it."

Hubie Brown, a onetime coach and now a TV commentator, once asked Pitino what he was going to do on his vacation. "Oh, my wife and I are going to Bermuda with Jim Boeheim and his wife," answered Pitino.

Brown looked authentically puzzled. "Why?" he said finally.

Boeheim tells this story about himself and laughs ruefully. "That's my image," he says. "No fun, no personality, no nothing."

That's not what Juli Greene saw when she was introduced to Boeheim. They began playing backgammon and chatting and laughing, and pretty soon everyone else at the party had left for dinner. There they were, the thirtysomething young woman from Lexington who looks like a beauty queen and the fiftyish man who looks like a harried headmaster. "What did I see in him?" Juli ponders the question. "I saw someone who is bright and funny and well-read and mature and realistic. But I see someone who can be playful, too. The other night we were running around his house chasing each other like a couple of 12-year-olds. All I know is that the attraction was instant!"

Boeheim rejects the notion that Juli is responsible for "the new Jim Boeheim" who seems to have surfaced over the past year. Well, he can reject it all he wants, but virtually everyone around him thinks it's true. She seems to be the antidote to all his negative qualities. He is grumpy, she is relentlessly sunny. He hides his feelings, she is open, "much too open to suit Jim," she says. He is set in his ways and stodgy, she likes change. Her biggest success has been getting Boeheim to retire what they jokingly call his "uniform"—a blue blazer and gray slacks. And people have noticed. "He once showed up in a bad gray suit and a pair of high-waters," remembers former Orangemen guard Dwayne (Pearl) Washington. "Man, that was the worst. But now? The man looks good, real good."

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