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SYRACUSE, N.Y. – In this tight-knit community, where the winters are long and daylight hours short, basketball games double as defining events. They are the communal gatherings, celebrations and indelible beacons of the region’s identity. The big games loom on the calendar with the same anticipation as birthdays and anniversaries, reunions for friends and family and commemorated by an array of commemorative T-shirts. In many ways, a high-profile game like No. 1 Duke visiting Syracuse allows the city and university to celebrate itself.
By tipoff on Saturday, the game itself was secondary, shrouded by emotion, awkwardness and some levels of discomfort. On Wednesday night, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was driving home after Syracuse’s game against Louisville and struck and killed a pedestrian on a local highway. Law enforcement officials stressed that Boeheim did nothing wrong, terming the collision as a tragic accident and praising Boeheim’s actions – calling 911 and using his cellphone flashlight to wave down cars – in the aftermath.
The university decided on Friday to allow Boeheim to coach, and what proceeded was an emotional day where the drama and tragedy of the week overshadowed the game on the floor. ESPN wisely canceled its “College GameDay” program. Prior to the game, the university had a tribute to the accident victim, 51-year-old Jorge Jimenez, that was read in both English and Spanish. That was followed by a moment of silence.
It set the tone for a somber day amid celebratory trappings that began with a supportive ovation for Boeheim when he walked on the court and ended with a pair of emotional press conferences by Boeheim and his close friend, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. No. 1 Duke won, 75-65, but the game proved secondary to the emotions of the tragedy shrouding it.
Boeheim started his press conference by reading from a prepared statement that stressed he and his family’s sympathies for the Jimenez family: “The grief and pain his family is feeling at this time is, simply put, unimaginable.”
He later veered off script and gave a glimpse into the emotion of his past 72 hours, his voice catching multiple times as he attempted to convey his feelings.
“I don’t think I can make anybody understand who hasn’t been there,” Boeheim said. “This is something that’s there forever for me. I’ve always felt in life, you get a lot of things you have to overcome. I started here with nothing and been here a long time, and there’s a lot of things you have to overcome. There’s nothing like this when a human life is lost and you are there. I can’t describe it to you.”
Boeheim attempted to balance his sympathy for the Jimenez family with giving insight into the pain that’s accompanied his role in the accident.
“This is never going away, like I said,” he said. “Tuesday it’s not going to be better. It’s not going to be any better next week. It’s not going to be any better next month. It’s not going to be any better next year. We’ve reached out to the family, and I intend to try and do that as I can in the future. This is isn’t about me, it doesn’t matter how I feel. It’s about how they feel and what’s happened to them. There’s just nothing I can say about it.”
A debate rose whether Boeheim should coach in the game. He said he did because of his “responsibility and obligation” to his players, and the university formally announced he’d be coaching on Friday afternoon. (Boeheim missed practice on Thursday.)
To those around Boeheim, there really wasn’t much of a chance he’d decide to skip the game. For 43 years, he’s coached through everything from cancer and scandal. It’s as much who he is as his occupation. That notion was summed up tersely but accurately by Krzyzewski, who said: “I’m glad he coached. What the hell else is he supposed to do? That’s what he does.”
That meant the most anticipated moment of the Saturday would be Boeheim’s walk onto the court. At 5:58 p.m. ET, Boeheim entered the Carrier Dome with his head bowed down. The largest on-campus crowd to ever witness a college basketball game (35,642) rose to their feet and delivered a rousing ovation, which Boeheim acknowledged by quickly raising his right hand.
Boeheim crossed the court named after him to the opposite end, where Krzyzewski was clapping with the orange-clad masses. The two embraced in a long hug – “He’s not a hugger,” Coach K observed afterward – and exchanged a few words.
“It was such a sincere showing of emotion,” Krzyzewski said. “It was really beautiful. I commend the Syracuse community and fans.”
With that, Boehiem walked back to the Syracuse bench, peeked to the far corners of the Carrier Dome and stood in his familiar position.
“I’ve been here all my life,” Boeheim said. “[The fans have] always been supportive. I think they know how bad I feel, what I feel. I just thought they were there to support our team and me. It’s an unimaginable situation. I can’t, I just can’t describe the feeling I have and have had since Wednesday night.”
The game unfolded with little drama. Duke figured out a way to win without Zion Williamson, as RJ Barrett scored 30 points and Alex O’Connell added a career-high 20. Rob Gronkowski cheered behind the Syracuse bench, but the Orange had little chance with star guard Tyus Battle shooting only 4-for-17.
After the game ended, Boeheim finished his remarks and headed off to his new normal.
“I did this feeling fully the weight of the tragic accident and its impact on the Jimenez family,” Boeheim said. “This is something that will be with me for the rest of my life.”
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