A few days before testing positive for COVID-19, legendary Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and his son, Buddy Boeheim, joined me on my show (“The Rematch”) and discussed a plethora of topics.
First, he talked about his future as a coach and whether he’s planning to retire once his son leaves.
“Everyone assumes that when Buddy leaves, I’m leaving, and there never was any thought to that,” Coach Boeheim said. “I didn't stay just to coach Buddy, I stayed to coach. I wouldn't ever stay and coach here just because my son is playing here; that would be foolish. I want to coach. I want to coach the whole team. It’s nice that I get to have my son on the team and as long as he plays good, he's going to play a lot and be productive. If not, my wife is going to throw me out of the house. (laughs)
“I feel better than I have for a long time. I work out more now than I ever have before. I didn't work out from [ages] 25 to 68; I just played golf and that's it. Now, I’m working out and doing pilates at age-68 and that’s really helped me. I started swimming this last year - I swim six days a week - and that’s really good for you. As long as I feel good and I’m healthy, [I’ll be here]. I like coaching. This isn’t construction work - it’s not like I have to go work manually every day. I just have to stand on the sidelines and yell at people. My voice is good so I don’t have a problem with that! Warren Buffett is still doing pretty good and he's, what, 90?”
We also talked about the fact that 100 percent of the eligible voters on Syracuse’s basketball team and staff voted in this past election. We discussed what he and Buddy learned from visiting the #NotAgainSU protestors and how he is still learning even at 75 years old. We talked about George Floyd and how seeing that brutal murder affected him. We discussed Black Lives Matter, with Buddy sharing the importance of being an ally. We talked about Syracuse University alumni Joe Biden and Coach Boeheim’s hope that this country can work together. We discussed how much he enjoys coaching and the fact that he has no plans of retiring when Buddy leaves.
This was an interview where you saw a different side of Coach Boeheim. One that I almost didn’t get a chance to see.
Let’s go back to my playing days at Syracuse. I didn’t come into Syracuse like The Pearl or Derrick Coleman or Lawrence Moten or Billy Owens or John Wallace - all of whom were instant stars from the moment they stepped on campus. I had to be patient and wait my turn. I was playing behind a great center in Otis Hill, who had just helped Syracuse advance to the championship game the year before. I started off at the bottom of the totem pole. To be honest, I didn’t like Coach Boeheim or Syracuse during my freshman year and I wanted to transfer. I simply wasn’t vibing with Coach Boeheim. We were like oil and water.
See, Coach Boeheim had a style that was not working for me. I remember telling him that I never had a white man yell at me like that ever before in my entire life and I didn’t want to start now. And anyone who knows Coach Boeheim knows that he has always been a yeller. He actually referenced this during our interview, saying he had to figure out how to communicate with me in a way that would be effective because the yelling was just not working. But he adjusted his style and when he did, he got the results he was looking for. I always say that coaching is like being a parent, and anyone who has kids can attest to this. What works with one child isn’t necessarily going to work with the other child. You have to take the time to figure out the best way to communicate to each child. That’s what good parents and coaches do.
Now, off the court we had no issues. He always respected who I was and my passions. I remember the first weekend of my freshman year, I attended a protest on campus because the Black and Brown students were protesting the campus DPS (Department Of Public Safety) being allowed to use pepper spray. The fear was that whenever any minor infraction or mere argument occurred at any gathering of Black or Brown students, the first thing that DPS would do is pepper spray everyone. (Things have really changed since the ‘90s because now, DPS are fully armed like regular police officers, which presents plenty of new issues, but I digress...). There I am at the rally, standing next to a 6-foot-5, 275-pound tight end Roland Williams (who went on to be a Super Bowl champion in the NFL with the Rams) and the newspapers take a picture of us with all of the students at the rally. That picture was on the front page of the Daily Orange Newspaper.
I remember Coach Boeheim calling me into his office the next day to ask me about it. He asked me about my other interests and told me that he heard I was into speech and debate in high school and that I had a lot of thoughts and opinions that I liked to say publicly. Then, he told me something that would stick with me for the rest of my life. He said that he had no problem with me saying whatever I wanted to say or standing up for whatever cause I wanted to stand up for, but that I better be prepared to defend and articulate my position to the media the way I did with speech and debate because the critics were going to come for me. Then, he said to make sure I always handle my business on the basketball floor because the better I play, the more I can talk.
Coach Boeheim has always supported me using my platform and he respected my positions, even when we disagreed. He never treated me as if my voice didn’t matter. Even when we were bumping heads my freshman year on the court, he still showed that he respected my voice off the court.
In fact, when my book “We Matter: Athletes And Activism” came out and Syracuse University’s Tanner Lecture Series brought me back as a keynote speaker, Coach Boeheim introduced me.
And I always respected the way Coach Boeheim used his platform. I remember when he became just the third head coach in NCAA Division-I history to reach the milestone of 900 wins. At his press conference, he used his moment to bring attention to a much bigger issue.
It was right after the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 in Newtown, CT, where a gunman shot and killed 26 people (including 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 years old). The entire country was in shock, and Coach Boeheim used his platform to tell a packed room of reporters, “If we in this country as Americans cannot get the people that represent us to do something about firearms, we are a sad, sad society. I’m a hunter. I’ve hunted. I’m not talking about rifles. That’s fine. If one person in this world; the NRA president, anybody, can tell me why we need assault weapons with 30 shots in the thing. This is our fault. This is my fault and your fault - all of your faults - if we don’t get out and do something about this.
“If we can’t get this thing done, I’m with the mayor of New York City, if we can’t get this thing done, I don’t know what kind of country we have,’’ he continued. “This is about us. This isn’t about the President or those other people down there (in Washington D.C.). We have to make them understand somehow that this needs to get figured out. Real quick. Not six months from now.’’
This is exactly who Coach Boeheim is. He speaks from the heart and isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in.
That was more than apparent during my interview with him and Buddy, as he gave me his reaction to seeing the murder of George Floyd.
“It’s one thing to talk about it because you have to talk about it first, but the main thing is what are we doing about it? It was such a shocking thing to see,” Coach Boeheim said. “And there are other examples, George Floyd is not the only example. There are other examples, but it has to wake people up to say, ‘Okay, let’s do something about this.’ And what we said right away is, ‘Let’s vote. Let’s get everybody out to vote and get the candidates that will help with police reform.’ The only way things will change is by electing people who are willing to change those laws.”
I’ve always respected that about Coach Boeheim. He’s never afraid to use his platform to stand up for what he believes in, even if it offends some of the same fans that pack the Carrier Dome.
Now, sometimes we do disagree, and we don’t mind disagreeing. In my interview, we also discussed COVID protocols for Syracuse University and the plans moving forward for the season. I have been very vocally against any sports resuming in the midst of the current COVID crisis. I actually wrote an article about the difficult decision my wife and I had to make to hold our children out of youth sports this fall.
Coach Boeheim and I discussed COVID at length, including the fact that Syracuse University hasn’t experienced the outbreaks that other schools had (such as Notre Dame and North Carolina among others). But he also admitted that this was a very unknown area.
“Unfortunately, that can change,” he said. “You get, all of a sudden, 30 or 40 positive cases if you’re going out in big groups. We have avoided that, but things can change… We still have a lot to learn and I’m afraid that we still have a long ways to go. Hopefully, we understand now that we need to wear masks, that we need to wash our hands and we need to socially distance as much as possible.”
Coach Boeheim also expressed that he believed with the right protocols, they should be able to have a successful season.
I still don’t think it’s worth the risk, especially since we don’t even know the long-term effects of testing positive for COVID-19. But I respect the fact that Coach Boeheim and Syracuse University have been taking COVID seriously and that they seem open to adjusting if things take a turn for the worst.
That’s why it was so shocking to hear that Coach Boeheim had, in fact, tested positive for COVID a few days after this interview. Now, the entire Syracuse community anxiously awaits to hear more information on his recovery process, whether anyone else on the team tested positive, what this means for the season, etc.
I’m sure Coach Boeheim is in isolation right now, thinking about the upcoming season and strategizing, but safety should always be the top priority. Prayers for Coach Boeheim for a full recovery!