Tuesday, April 8, 2003
Updated: April 10, 4:33 PM ET
Boeheim's time is now ... Williams' will come
By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN The Magazine
NEW ORLEANS -- The Road Ends Here. That's what the huge, rain-battered sign on the side of the Superdome read. And after 27 long seasons of driving through the backroads of NCAA Tournament brackets, of enduring the not-so-whispered criticism that he simply couldn't win the Big One at the Big Dance, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim finally parked himself next to a national championship trophy.
All it took was 879 games, three visits to the Final Four and a victory so sweet against Kansas that it should come with a warning label for high sugar content. But if Boeheim minded the wait, he didn't show it. He wore a white national championship T-shirt, but also the weary look of someone worn down by 40 minutes of flashbacks and KU comebacks. So spent was Boeheim that his wife forced him to stay on the court and watch the "One Shining Moment" video segment on the stadium big screen.
|Jim Boeheim's 27-year title wait is finally over ...|
"I was tired," Boeheim said. "I was ready to go after we won the game."
Boeheim nearly won this thing in 1987, but Keith Smart ended all that with a game-winning baseline jumper that guaranteed him free meals and drinks in the state of Indiana for decades to come. It happened in this same concrete eyesore and afterward, then-Hoosiers coach Bob Knight told Boeheim, "You'll be back."
He was, first in 1996 and then again this season, with a team so young that it gets carded going into arenas. But one of his freshmen starters is Carmelo Anthony, who left the Superdome floor with a nylon net around his neck and the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player award.
"Probably the most talented player in the nation," said Kansas all-America Nick Collison, who chooses his words and compliments carefully.
Anthony followed his 33-point night against Texas in the semis with a 20-point, 10-rebound evening against the Jayhawks. Keith Langford, perhaps KU's best defender -- but four inches shorter than Anthony -- eventually fouled out trying to check the 6-foot-8 freshman.
Anthony likely played his final game at Syracuse. He'll make someone a lovely NBA lottery pick. Fellow freshman starter Gerry McNamara will be back, though he shot like a pro against Kansas. McNamara, who was playing for the Pennsylvania state high school championship a year ago, hit six of 10 3-pointers, all in the first half. It didn't matter if Kirk Hinrich and the entire KU pep band were on him, McNamara was unstoppable.
Josh Pace came off the bench and added eight points and eight rebounds ... Kueth Duany, the only senior starter on the team, hit two key 3-pointers ... Kansas missed 12 of 30 free throws and four of 20 from the arc. There are 100 reasons -- some tiny, some the size of Anthony's Nikes -- why Boeheim got a postgame smooch from wife Juli and countless hugs from his players. But maybe it was as simple as this: it was his time.
"I guess he has a supposed monkey on his back," said Duany. "I guess you can take that off now."
Boeheim has his elusive national championship, but there was no gloating, no lectures to his critics. That's not his style. He was a walk-on at Syracuse who half-lucked into a scholarship because someone got kicked off the team. His post-playing career included a 5-year stop as SU's volunteer assistant golf coach. He became the Orangemen's hoops coach, he said, "by default." So when he gives one of his signature shrugs when asked about winning the Final Four, he means it.
"I don't feel any smarter ... yet," he said. "Maybe tomorrow.
"Am I happy that I won? Yeah, I'm happy, sure. I mean, I'm not stupid."
|... while Roy Williams' quest may continue on Tobacco Road.|
Either is Kansas coach Roy Williams, whose team still had a chance to tie the game at the buzzer, despite the Jayhawks' yips at the foul line and their Greenland-cold shooting from the 3-point line. Williams coached the pinstripes off his pricey suit Monday evening. He found holes in Boeheim's vaunted 2-3 zone (points in the paint: KU 54, SU 32), but there wasn't much he could do about the Jayhawks' missed free throws and perimeter problems.
Once again Williams leaves a March/April Madness with no NCAA hardware. He is the tournament's winningest active coach, but he's 0-for-Final Fours. Two title games, two losses.
Moments after Hinrich's desperation 3 at the buzzer missed everything, Williams made a beeline for Boeheim. The two men aren't close friends, but they share a mutual respect and a mutual appreciation of exactly how hard it is to win it all.
So they met near midcourt. Superdome workers brushed past carrying parts of a stage. Syracuse players rushed toward an open cardboard box and began modeling championship hats and shirts. But Boeheim and Williams stayed put, longer than most coaches do after a game like this.
"I told him, and I meant it -- as much as anything I've ever meant in my life -- that I was really happy for him," Williams said. "I hurt. I hurt for my team, but I was really happy for him."
And Boeheim, remembering what Knight had told him in New Orleans 16 years ago, tried to ease the hurt.
"I told Roy that I firmly believe he will win a national championship, without any doubt," Boeheim said. "There is no doubt in my mind that he will win a national championship. He's got a lot of coaching left in him."
But where? Will Williams crank the ignition on the Dadgummitmobile and steer it toward Tobacco Road and his beloved North Carolina? The chatter among gossipy coaches here is that Williams is indeed going back to Mayberry. Done deal, that's the word.
But until Williams is the one who says that word, anything is possible. Three years ago he was faced with the same decision and chose to stay. Williams didn't exactly hang the peach basket at KU, but he's put in 15 extraordinary seasons there.
Afterward, someone asked Williams about the North Carolina job one too many times.
"I could give a s--- about North Carolina," said Williams, who rarely drops any four-letter bombs.
Williams was a team picture of class after the handshake with Boeheim. He sought out every Syracuse player and coach he could find and congratulated them. Then he returned to the Kansas locker room and shed a few well-earned tears. He wiped away a few more when Collison (19 points, 21 rebounds) offered a testimonial for the ages.
"I wouldn't give a million dollars to be on Syracuse right now," Collison said. "They have a ring, but my experience here has been unbelievable. You're playing for the best man in college basketball. Regardless of whether we lost. I swear we could have made the NIT and I still would have felt the same way."
Boeheim at last gets his victory parade. Williams gets another offseason of what-ifs. The road to these Final Fours is fickle that way.
Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine