PITTSBURGH – This was Jim Boeheim on Wednesday afternoon in the middle of another ordeal: jovial, sarcastic, condescending and annoyed.
Which is pretty much how he's been for 35 years.
It always has been hard to define the Syracuse coach, who is at the same time sympathetic and unlikeable. Just when the eye-rolling and arm waving and hints of recruiting improprieties become too much, he will charm in a way you never imagined possible. And so it was on the day after everyone learned Orange center Fab Melo suddenly was ineligible for the NCAA tournament, effectively ending his college career, that Boeheim didn't appear to know just how to respond.
He sat on a podium, behind a microphone and sighed during Syracuse's NCAA tourney media availability. He looked at the ceiling. He gave a demeaning smile. He welcomed the safe, soft questions from an interview moderator by saying, "I'm glad you took over because you ask great questions; they [the media] don't ask great questions." He looked every bit like a coach who wanted nothing to do with talking about this team, this season and the unannounced reason Melo isn't with the team.
Then he did.
"I have not seen a bigger improvement from a player that I've ever coached in one year and a player I respect a lot, who I think works as hard as he can work every day, who I think is a great kid," Boeheim said of the departed Melo. "I feel bad for him. I feel bad for the rest of the players on the team because you don't want to lose a teammate in this situation at this time."
At some point, coaches must tire of managing the crises that come with being in the big time. Syracuse refuses to reveal the nature of Melo's tournament ban. Media reports say the problem is academics, but the silence makes it difficult to know anything for sure. After all, a Yahoo! Sports investigation showed the program had been ignoring university policy when players failed drug tests. By sitting silent, Boeheim and Syracuse only leave a cloud of suspicion: Was this really academics? Drugs? Broken rules? Fractured eligibility?
All of which is unfair to Melo, who may have done nothing worse than sleep through his classes. But this is the climate Boeheim has wrought, where a brilliant season on the court has been clouded by scandal away from it. And it was in that climate that he frowned Wednesday, mixing rambling answers with curt dismissals of Melo inquiries.
There was a time when Boeheim won without the flashiest players. There was a time when he was just an upstate New York guy who seemed a born coach, a former Syracuse star who built his program with players others didn't want. Nobody much longed to have Louis Orr or Roosevelt Bouie, but Boeheim won a lot of games with them. In some ways, he might have been at his happiest then, coaching players who didn't come with entourages or AAU entitlement.
Now Syracuse's postseason media guide boasts that the school is "New York's College Team" and the players talked about how they have survived a season of "adversity," then shrugged their shoulders and said they would have to do so again, starting Thursday against 16th-seeded UNC Asheville.
Because Boeheim changes moods so much, it's hard to know when his smile is sincere or if he is trying to mask something sinister. Never did he seem more endearing than the night early in the season when he struggled to comprehend the child molestation allegations made against longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine. But his haughty brush-off of inquiries in the drug-testing matter and the grumbling he has done through the Melo suspension give the impression of a man too far lost in his pursuit of titles to care much about the consequences.
That's what makes Boeheim so confounding, so impossible to grasp. At one point, he seemed to ponder the battle his team faces in replacing Melo, a big-time shot-blocker who terrified opponents into taking lazy jump shots rather than drive to the basket.
"Everything that happens affects you in some way," Boeheim said. "But life's about trying to overcome whatever has happened to you and getting yourself ready to do the next thing."
At other moments, he seemed insolent, giving mocking laughs and wondering in an exasperated tone when the next question would arrive.
Soon, his strangest season will end, whether here or in the Sweet 16 or maybe in the Final Four. Maybe Melo's absence will matter. Maybe it won't. But somehow you had to wonder, watching him talk: Just what will be the legacy Boeheim eventually leaves behind?
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- Jim Boeheim