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Jeff Eisenberg

Syracuse's citizen of the year is .... John Thompson?!?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Of all the people for Joanne Mahoney to introduce as Syracuse's citizen of the year on Wednesday night, former Georgetown coach John Thompson may have been the most improbable choice.

Some of Mahoney's favorite memories from her six years as a Syracuse undergrad and law student were of sitting in the student section at the Carrier Dome rooting for the Orange against Thompson's hated Georgetown teams. Now Mahoney was standing at a podium at Syracuse's Temple Adath Yeshurun championing the achievements of a man she once reviled.

"I just can't imagine how I would have felt when I was a student if you had told me that the future Joanne Mahoney was welcoming John Thompson as citizen of the year in Syracuse," said Mahoney, county executive for Onondaga County. "John Thompson was the most polarizing basketball coach that has ever been here. The rivalry between Georgetown and Syracuse was all-consuming."

Officials from Temple Adath Yeshurun have awarded local and national citizen of the year honors at a special dinner ceremony for the past 21 years. Previous winners of the national award include Bob Costas and Hilary Clinton, deserving honorees to be sure yet not nearly as compelling choices as Thompson.

Although Syracuse fans can surely respect Thompson's efforts to help improve the quality of life for disadvantaged children, it's not easy for them to forget that he's the man responsible for their hatred of all things Georgetown.

After the Hoyas snapped Syracuse's 57-game home winning streak in 1980 in the final game played at the school's former arena, Thompson brazenly declared, "Manley Field House is officially closed." That spark ignited a rivalry that has lasted for three decades and helped give birth to the modern-day Big East conference.

Unlike previous citizen of the year ceremonies in Syracuse, Wednesday night's dinner in Thompson's honor was as much a roast as a toast. Mahoney, Boeheim and other Syracuse-area dignitaries made light of the grudge Orange fans still hold against Thompson, and the former Georgetown coach dished the good-natured ribbing right back.

As he neared the end of his lengthy speech, Thompson decided to revel in the irony for a few more minutes.

"I know how to get back at Syracuse," he said, gazing into the crowd. "I stand up here."

Thompson may not have won over every Orange fan with his speech, but he turned Mahoney into a supporter.

"We do get over things in this community," she said, chuckling. "As the next few decades go by, we will get over what happened at Manley Field House."

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