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The first tent had been pitched outside the Carrier Dome 12 days earlier. By the morning of Feb. 1, about 50 tents had sprouted in the area dubbed “Boeheimburg” in honor of Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim. The temporarily insane students camping outside the Dome in the depths of the polar vortex were hoping to get prime tickets for the first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference clash between the Orange and the Duke Blue Devils.
“Hey, we’re talking about a front-row seat to history,’’ a shivering young man explained when asked why anyone in his right mind would risk frostbite and hypothermia to attend a basketball game. “The sacrifice is worth it.”
Apparently, neither wind nor rain nor snow nor the threat of pneumonia was going to keep these deliriously dedicated young people from their appointed rounds. They were taking school spirit to the nth degree—or the minus-10th degree, which is how low the temperature plunged on one of the nights they spent in frosty “Boeheimburg.”
As it turned out, the sacrifice proved worthwhile as this much-anticipated showdown between the fourth- and fifth-winningest programs in college basketball history did something hyper-hyped sporting events rarely do—exceeded expectations. From the rousing national anthem by SU alumna Vanessa Williams to Rakeem Christmas’ spectacular blocked shots to the chainsaw-to-ear decibel levels generated by an NCAA on-campus record crowd of 35,446, this game hit all the right notes as SU scored a 91-89 overtime victory against Duke.
As advertised on thousands of orange T-shirts, a rivalry was indeed born that first night of February, a rivalry that promises to be every bit as entertaining as SU’s longtime matchups with late Big East Conference brethren Georgetown and Connecticut.
“I don’t think I’ve been involved in a better game in here that I can remember, where both teams played at such a high level,’’ Boeheim said afterward. And that’s saying something, given that nearly 600 basketball passion plays have been staged beneath the billowy, white big top that has become Syracuse’s defining landmark.
In a nice gesture on the morning of the Duke game, SU’s Hall of Fame coach delivered coffee and doughnuts to the loyal inhabitants of Boeheimburg. He obviously was touched by the depth of the fans’ support, and in post-game remarks he alluded to that and the important role the Dome has played in the transition of SU basketball from regional program to national juggernaut.
After Saturday’s classic, fans hung around to savor the moment. They realized they had witnessed a basketball masterpiece, one that will be seared into their memories and replayed often in the months and years to come.
It’s funny how things turn out. I remember criticizing the move of SU home basketball games from the cozy confines of Manley Field House to the cavernous Dome back in the fall of 1980. Boeheim was even more adamantly opposed to the relocation than I was, and I understood completely.
Manley had given him an enormous home-court advantage. You could shoehorn about 9,000 fans into that phone booth of an arena. Spectators were so close to the action they could count a player’s nose hairs, breathe down his neck, have an intimidating impact on the game. Boeheim feared that intimacy would be lost by moving the games into a football stadium that seated close to 50,000. So he protested vehemently, to the point where he stormed out of a meeting with the chancellor’s right-hand man.
Eventually, we were all proved wrong. Fueled by the on-campus arrival of megastar Pearl Washington, the emergence of the Big East as a power conference and the development of intense rivalries, the Dome blossomed into the biggest and loudest house in college basketball. The arena became to SU basketball what Highclere Castle was to “Downton Abbey.” Like that majestic edifice in PBS’ critically acclaimed British drama series, the Dome has established itself as a lead actor. It’s become as much a part of Orange hoops lore as Boeheim and the scores of magnificent players whose sneakers have screeched against its hardwood court.
There has been much talk lately about construction of a new retractable-roof stadium in downtown Syracuse. The Dome supposedly has become antiquated. The suites are small and drab. They aren’t conducive to luring the corporate dollars essential for a midsize university to survive and thrive in the megabucks world of college football. Interestingly, the Dome was built with king football in mind. It was considered a revolutionary, state-of-the-art arena in 1980. Now it’s regarded as a relic, as outdated as leather football helmets and center jumps after every basket.
Hey, I would love to see a retractable-roof football stadium in Syracuse. There have been too many beautiful autumnal Saturdays when you wished you could have peeled the top off the Dome and watched an SU football game in the fresh air. I get that. But I would hate to see the basketball team leave the building. I would hate to see the Orange vacate its unique hoops home.
As we were reminded again in that epic game between Syracuse and Duke the other night, there really is no place like Dome.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has authored, co-authored and edited 22 books, including the biography “Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story.”
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