Ed Pinckney stepped away from his scouting duties at the Big East tournament last week to go back in time 40 years.
The Villanova legend picked up the phone to talk about Jim Boeheim, a kingpin in the glory days of the Big East Conference who had just ended his reign as Syracuse men’s basketball coach.
It wasn’t until the Wildcat great and the Syracuse staple put a cease-fire to their Big East rivalry that Pinckney learned to truly appreciate the Orange’s irascible leader.
It was the summer of 1982, three years before Pinckney would lead Nova to its first NCAA title, and he was participating in the National Sports Festival in Indianapolis. And the East Region team he was on was being coached by Boeheim, rather than Rollie Massimino, his coach back at college.
“He just let me play,” Pinckney, now a scout for the Houston Rockets, told ESPN. “Rollie had stuck me in the post. [Boeheim] was like, ‘I saw you play in high school, I just want you to play.’
“And I was handling the ball and dribbling and it was unbelievable. I always loved him for that.”
Love isn’t necessarily the first word associated with Boeheim over the years. His 2-3 zone confounded opponents as Syracuse piled up 20-win seasons, but Boeheim’s sarcastic, sometimes combative and constantly curmudgeonly demeanor didn’t exactly make him the sweetheart of college hoops.
But it made him one of the game’s true characters and most visible ambassadors of the sport, first as one of the OGs of the Big East men’s basketball conference — along with coaches John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, P.J. Carlesimo, Jim Calhoun and Massimino — and then in the Atlantic Coast Conference with Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
Boeheim was the last man standing.
“It’s a huge loss for college basketball, man,” Pinckney said. “As far as lifers in the sport, there aren’t very many of them left.”
After 47 years as coach and a 61-year relationship with Syracuse University, Boeheim was out as the longtime leader of the basketball program following a last-second loss to Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC tournament and Adrian “Red” Autry would be his successor.
It was a fourth straight sub-20-win season for Syracuse after the Orange failed to reach the 20-win plateau only four seasons out of Boeheim’s first 43 years leading the team.
But it wasn’t bottoming out. The Cuse went 10-10 in the ACC, unlike perennial powers Louisville (2-18) or Notre Dame (3-17). Look to old Big East rival Georgetown, 7-25 overall this season, if you want to see bottoming out.
There were the expected ups and downs that come with putting the ball in the hands of a talented freshman point guard in Judah Mintz. Because that’s the cost of admission to land a blue-chip player like him, and not all freshmen can be like Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara.
To focus too much on how the administration bungled last week’s exit or how Boeheim’s postgame comments might have forced their hand to act that way is missing the point.
As Syracuse native Tom Cruise is credited as saying (and where else would that factoid be relevant but in this story): “Nothing ends nicely; that’s why it ends.”
The majority of Boeheim’s Syracuse story arc — spanning as long and as proud as the old Carrier Dome roof — was, to borrow a favorite Boeheim adjective, “tremendous.”
More than 1,000 wins — basically coming out victorious in 11 out of every 15 games for half a century straight.
Five Final Four appearances in 1987, 1996, 2003, 2013 and 2016.
He produced 47 NBA players in those 47 seasons.
When it was time for Mike Krzyzewski to build his staff to get USA Basketball back to the gold standard, he brought in Boeheim as an assistant coach, and they were the best team in the world in three Olympics.
It wasn’t all pretty, of course.
There were upset losses, notably to Richmond and Vermont. There were NCAA rules violations and vacated wins — 101 to be exact. There was scandal and tragedy, too.
Maybe he hung on too long — Syracuse’s powers that be certainly seemed to think so — but his longevity is part of his legacy. To say he outlasted his peers is an understatement.
Among the sport’s coaching greats, he might have merely edged Krzyzewski, who retired last year, and Williams, the year before that. How about Calhoun, who has been gone from Connecticut since 2012? Or Thompson, who hung it up with the Hoyas in 1999? Or Bobby Knight, out of coaching since 2008?
It’s only a testament to Boeheim’s brilliant run that he’s still associated with the Big East, a decade removed from joining the ACC.
College basketball has changed dramatically in that time, from name, image and likeness (NIL) deals; to the transfer portal creating far more roster turnover; to alternative avenues for players out of high school to receive training and exposure, such as the G League Ignite or Overtime Elite, taking some of the top prospects out of college basketball.
Jason Hart, the coach of the Ignite who played point guard for Boeheim at Syracuse in the 1990s, appreciated him for many of the same reasons that Pinckney did.
“He treated us all as grown men,'” Hart told ESPN. “He kind of let you grow. If you made mistakes, you made mistakes, but he let you grow as a man and he allowed you to play your game. He didn’t ever have a complicated system to make you think. So what he was trying to do, looking back at it now, he wanted to get everybody’s best offensive and defensive feel on their own. I think that’s what makes him great. … He always wanted our minds to be free. And that’s unique.”
College basketball’s coaching tree might have been given a shake-up, but the game will grow the same way Boeheim would want one of his players to.
“Fortunately, they came and gave their time,” Hart said. “No different from Michael Jordan leaving the NBA, Shaquille O’Neal. There’s always going to be some good basketball players. There’s always going to be some up-and-coming coaches. So long as the ball keeps bouncing, there’s going to be new characters in it. That’s how the game goes.”
The curtain has fallen on that generation and an entire era. But change can also bring progress.
In Autry, Syracuse hired someone whom Boeheim endorsed and who played for the Orange, too. But, as Hart sees it, Autry being handed the torch could have a ripple effect through the entire sport for Black head coaches in the future.
“The most important thing is that Red Autry’s first job is at a high major,” Hart said. “I left college because I couldn’t get a low-major job. So the fact that the school was up to date and said, ‘We’re going to hire an African American coach whose first job would be a high major institution,’ that’s great. That is a great thing.”
Through it all, Boeheim remained loyal to the city of Syracuse, loyal to his people and loyal to the sport.
The night before his last home game, Boeheim gathered members of his 2003 team in a back room at the new National Veterans Resource Center on campus.
They had just shared the stage for a watch party of their 81-78 championship win over Kansas, exchanging stories and cracking jokes.
Anthony, pouring red wine from his budding vineyard label, toasted the room. So did McNamara and Hakim Warrick, whose jerseys were going to be retired after the Wake Forest game.
Boeheim closed the night. He couldn’t help but mention the critics, estimating the 2% of the Syracuse fan base who are disappointed will never have the power or perspective of the other 98% of Cuse Nation who celebrate and cherish the Orange.
Then he told the room that as great of a run he had with Syracuse — all of the wins and tournaments and trophies and accolades and All-Americans — none of it would have felt complete without what that team accomplished in New Orleans in 2003.
There were cheers and hugs and photos and laughs, and even some tears.
And on March 4, in front of more than 24,000 fans — a tacit endorsement of the state of the program if there ever was one — Syracuse won one last time for Boeheim.
Maybe Boeheim didn’t feel finished. But he does feel complete. And that’s not a bad way to exit.