PHILADELPHIA – Jim Boeheim was right. He is “not Joe Paterno.” Unlike the Penn State football icon, the Syracuse basketball legend survived (so far) having a longtime assistant accused of using his program to ensnare and molest underage boys.
Boeheim even survived his own big mouth. His public remarks – implying Paterno knew what Jerry Sandusky was up to and suggesting Bernie Fine’s accusers were in it for money – made an ugly situation even uglier. Boeheim apologized, and the Syracuse basketball program went about its business.
Some business. The Orange destroyed Villanova on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center. Boeheim’s team is 18-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Judging by the number of orange-and- blue shirts and caps in the crowd, going undefeated is a pretty good way to paper over even the most disturbing scandal.
There was serious soul-searching and debate about whether Penn State’s football team should have participated in a postseason bowl game, even with Paterno and Mike McQueary gone from the sideline. There will be no such discussion here. Boeheim will be coaching in the NCAA tournament and, judging by the looks of his team, very possibly in the Final Four.
As with Penn State, Syracuse’s players are blameless in all this. Indeed, their perfect season looks even more remarkable when you factor in the distractions and turmoil created by the accusations against Fine. The veteran assistant was fired last month after initially taking a leave of absence.
“We know we can’t worry about those types of things because there’s nothing we can do,” Syracuse’s Dion Waiters said. “We just had to stick together. It made the family bond that much tighter with each other, focusing on Syracuse basketball and not the other stuff.”
Even without the Fine mess, Syracuse’s dominance would be bittersweet for Philadelphia hoops fans. Long before this game, the Orange had a 3-2 edge on Big East rival Villanova. That is, Boeheim has three Philadelphia players on his roster to Jay Wright’s two.
Sporting even orange shoes and socks with “SU” stitched in bold blue, Waiters unleashed a furious display of skill in his South Philly homecoming. He scored 14 points before twisting his ankle near the end of the first half, then returned in the second to punctuate the blowout with some Dwyane Wade-style drives and a thunderous dunk.
Waiters finished with 20 in a 13-point win.
So why is a Philly kid way up near Canada instead of staying in one of the great basketball cities in America?
“If I could do it all over again,” Waiters began, before stopping that train of thought in its tracks. “I’m happy where I’m at. I committed to Syracuse when I was in eighth, ninth grade. It happened so fast. It’s always good to play for your city, to try to put your city on the map. Syracuse was my pick, and I’m happy with the choice I went with.”
Waiters followed Scoop Jardine, who chose Syracuse in order to play with Rick Jackson, a Philadelphia high school teammate. Wright recruited Jardine but not Jackson. Boeheim, with help from assistant coach Mike Hopkins, offered scholarships to both.
Now a fifth-year senior, with his degree in hand, Jardine gives Syracuse the kind of calm leadership at guard that Wright once upon a time got from Randy Foye and Allen Ray. Jardine counts himself a fan of Philadelphia basketball both college and pro. As the Orange’s team bus pulled in Wednesday, he looked up to the concourse where he used to stand as a kid.
“I used to sit up there and wait for Allen Iverson to come out and get into his car in the same parking lot,” Jardine said. “The kids who stand out there and say hello to all of (the players), that used to be me.”
It’s hard to believe someone so immersed in Philadelphia hoops could leave town without a look back. Like Waiters, Jardine is more than happy with his decision and at peace with what might have been.
“It’s been a great home for us,” Jardine said. “They welcomed us with open arms. Not only did we go up there and play for them, but Rick and me, we graduated. Villanova is a great school, too. I’m sure if I’d gone there, I would have had a great career.”
Philadelphia basketball would have been that much richer if he and Waiters and Christmas had stayed. Instead, they are pursuing perfection in a terribly imperfect situation up in Syracuse.