Our Teams, Ourselves: Orange Crush

My undying allegiance to Syracuse basketball is the last vestige of childhood, something I enjoy now exactly the same way I enjoyed it half a century ago

I asked my wife to record the Syracuse University basketball game on television.

When I got home to watch the game, I reminded her about it, assuming she had set the DVR. Her eyes widened, and she said she forgot.

Ha. Ha. Very funny. She was kidding, right?

No, she wasn't. She really did forget.

Then it happened. I saw it coming, knew what I was about to do was ridiculous — but I couldn't stop.

I screamed, I yelled, I kicked furniture. I threw a tantrum. Just like a little kid.

But maybe that's the point. Why, exactly, do I care so much about a college basketball team?

I think a lot of it is that this undying allegiance is the last vestige of childhood, something I enjoy now exactly the same way I enjoyed it half a century ago.

Obviously, my love of the game underlies my continuing loyalty to SU basketball. I've played since I was a kid, and I still play today. But the only time I'll watch a college game that Syracuse isn't in is the final rounds of the NCAA tournament.

If the Orangemen are playing the Little Sisters of the Poor, however, I'm there. Every December, I'll tape Syracuse's new season schedule to the bookshelf in my office and dutifully mark off the Ws and Ls after each game. If the team plays a game in New York, I'll go. If they're playing on TV on a Saturday or Sunday, I'll organize my day around the game.

When I watch them play, I get completely wrapped up in the game. Nothing else matters. I leap in ecstasy after a good play and slump in misery if they screw up. I yell at the players to do this or that. I berate the coach for not doing what he obviously should have done. When Syracuse lost the national championship to Indiana in the final seconds in 1987, a friend said, "I really thought you were going to jump out the window." (Conversely, when Syracuse finally won the national championship in 2003, I had a brief taste of nirvana.)

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I didn't even go to Syracuse University. But I grew up in Syracuse, which is a basketball-crazy town, maybe because it was a good way to get through the long, dark and cold winters in upstate New York. Syracuse even had a NBA team, the Syracuse Nats, until the early '60s, before they moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers.

Once the Nats left, SU took center stage, and the timing was perfect — they started to get really good, thanks in large part to their star guard Dave Bing, who would go on to the NBA and the Basketball Hall of Fame.

That's when I started going to games with my friends in the old Manley Field House, which was seeped in the smell of sawdust sprinkled around the track which ringed the court.

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Compounding those wonderful memories is the fact that Jim Boeheim, the gangly, bespectacled local kid who played next to Bing as a walk-on, has been, incredibly, the coach of his alma mater for nearly four decades now.

Maybe that's part of the childhood thing — the same guy I watched as a kid has been coaching the team nearly my entire adult life!

And because so few games were televised in the '60s, I listened to the away games on the radio. It seems quaint now, but I think listening on the radio proved crucial in cementing the bond I felt with the team, because I was creating this indelible image of the players in my own imagination.

The other bond came from my father, who moved to the United States from Hungary when he was 45 years old after World War II. Baseball and football baffled him, but basketball he got, especially college basketball.

It wasn't easy for someone from the Old World to relate to an American child of the '60s who was 50 years younger. But when we went to games on those freezing cold winter nights in Syracuse and walked into the warm, brightly lit field house on campus, buzzing with excitement and anticipation as the basketball game was about to begin, we were totally in synch.

Tags: memoirs