INDIANAPOLIS – Things didn’t sound good for the woman on the phone from New York.
“I’m just a mess,” she was saying. “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep.”
But wait a minute. That’s Juli Boeheim. Her husband Jim has taken a lightly-seeded Syracuse team on a ride through the NCAA Tournament to the Sweet 16 for about the umpteenth time. Her son Jackson — whom the world knows as Buddy — is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, scoring 30 points for the Orange one game and 25 another. Together, they’ve become one of the go-to stories in the second week of the tournament. For a wife and mother, this isn’t March, this is fantasyland, and she understands that.
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“We want what our kids want. We want their dreams to happen for them,” she said. “I want my husband’s blood, sweat and tears to pay off. To see it happen and have it happen is an incredible blessing.”
One problem. They’re here, she’s there, with more than 600 miles in between. Matter of fact, because of COVID attendance restrictions, Juli didn’t see her family play in one home game this season. Oh, her husband could have probably gotten her in. After all, he’s been the Syracuse coach since the Gerald Ford administration. She didn’t want to be the only mother at the game so she stayed away and was at peace about her absence.
But this is the NCAA tournament, with father and son, and those chances don’t come very often. Juli got a case of the shingles, and then the Orange were doing so well that nobody — especially her son — wanted to fool with the karma. So she’s home another week.
“I’m wrestling with it so much every day and all night, not being there. But then I think if I got there, I’d be wrestling with the other side of that coin,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic or coming out of it, and there’s so many stories of grandparents and families being separated for over a year. So I have to keep that in perspective when I go down that road. But that aside, it is very, very difficult. Our whole family in years past has been at the heart of this experience. I am now, just from a distance. But boy, does it help when you can physically be there and physically touch them and hug them.”
Her support will have to come from a few states over. “They might be able to hear me,” she said. By her own admission, being in Juli Boeheim’s company during a Syracuse game is not terribly relaxing. “I’m ridiculous,” she said. “Nobody really wants to watch it with me and I get that. I’m a maniac all through the house. There’s really no safe place away from me.”
She’ll watch and then wait for the phone, just like always. Jim invariably calls after his media session. Buddy can be a little trickier. “I always let the dust settle a little with him. If it’s a loss, it’s engulfing. He can’t take a loss. He has a hard time with it, he always has since he was about three years old.”
Syracuse is a can’t-miss plot for the public; the aging legendary coach, and the son trying to give him one more golden March. Juli sees that, of course, but also something more.
She sees a husband who has spent a lifetime in a demanding vocation, where the critics are seldom shy and never quiet. Just the other day he said in his media session, “My guidance counselor in eighth grade told me, `Jim, you’re not going to please everybody.’ He must have known I was going to be a coach.” Julie understands.
She sees the past, and the little boy who could struggle with confidence, who in middle school had not yet begun to blossom as a player, but somehow his father made it ok. “Jim could just say three sentences after a tough game. Me, I probably say way too much,” she said. “I remember Jim saying, even to me, `Buddy’s going to be really good one day.’”
Her husband brought that up about Buddy in a media session last week. “I had to boost him up a lot. I have two sons. If you describe Jimmy, he plays golf, he hits 10 out of bounds in a row and he thinks the 11th one is going to go in the hole on a par 4. Buddy can play 10 good holes and one bad one, and he thinks the next one is going to be bad.
“He believes in himself now, and it’s taken a while to get to that point.
Juli also sees the present, and the emotions of what would be a pinnacle for most any father — coaching his son in the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve talked about, how do you cut the heart in two, dad and coach?” she said. “Jim is really tough and disciplined, and he’s also a tender-hearted, mushy, crying kind of guy. That’s something nobody will probably accept, but he is.”
She has seen her husband’s two sides when he had to compete against friends and former assistants, tender situations he would not even talk about at home. She’d suggest they have the other coach over for dinner while he was in town. Can’t do it was always the answer. That’d be blurring the two hearts. “He’s done that in those situations and now I know he’s trying to do that on the sidelines and I think he’s probably pretty good at it.”
So she’ll be a long-distance maniac again this week. The assistant coaches’ families are still in New York, too. They’re all waiting, but should Syracuse Orange get to the Final Four, they’re on a plane.
For now, Juli Boeheim waits in a distant zip code for Saturday night’s game with Houston. Last tipoff of the day from Indianapolis, as luck would have it.
“That 9:55 is late,” she said, “but listen, I’d take 3 a.m.”