Though born around the time Ryan Blackwell was taking his final shots and grabbing his final rebounds for Syracuse University, they’re well aware that their coach was once an Orange hoops star. The players on the Liverpool High School varsity team in suburban Syracuse have heard about Blackwell’s exploits from their parents. They’ve checked out the highlights on YouTube. And they like to razz him good-naturedly about his “ancient” basketball skills, especially when the 40-year-old breaks up the monotony of practice by challenging them to one-on-one games.
“They like to crack jokes on me,’’ Blackwell says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh coach, you don’t have it any more. You can’t ball anymore.’ I show them otherwise.’’
He pauses, and chuckles.
“I still got game, even if it’s just for a few minutes now, instead of 40 minutes back in the day,’’ says Blackwell, a former Pittsford Sutherland High School standout who will be inducted into the Frontier Field Walk of Fame before Sunday’s Rochester Red Wings game. “I can still school ’em.’’
That he can. In more ways than one.
Blackwell’s basketball odyssey has taken him around the world. He’s logged more miles than a Harlem Globetrotter, while following the bouncing ball from Pittsford to Illinois to Syracuse to France to Indiana to Portugal to England to Uruguay to Japan to Florida and back to Syracuse again. Blackwell has had a whale of a time coaching high school kids, leading Liverpool to consecutive Section III championships in his two seasons there.
And it’s been fun returning to his Orange roots as the coach of Boeheim’s Army, a group of former SU players he guided to a Final Four appearance in The Basketball Tournament, a $2 million, winner-take-all, summer hoops festival recently televised on ESPN.
“It’s been a blast representing our school and our coach and our community,’’ Blackwell says of the team named in homage to SU Hall of Fame basketball coach Jim Boeheim. “It’s been cool walking into gyms and seeing a sea of Orange in the stands. It’s a reminder to me how big Orange Nation really is. Brought back a lot of memories.”
It also brought a lot of exposure to players such as Eric Devendorf, Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair, and to Blackwell, their coach. Some of the former SU stars want to continue playing professionally. They still hold on to dreams of attracting the attention of NBA scouts. Playing in a month-long, 64-team tournament featuring many pro players and former college stars on national television was a good opportunity to showcase their skills.
And it gave Blackwell an opportunity to audition his coaching skills, too. Though tempted to suit up for a few minutes in the tournament, he opted to stay in his civilian clothes. Other than one-on-ones with his high school players and occasional pickup games at the Carmelo Anthony Basketball Center on the SU campus, his playing days are over.
He aspires to coach at a major college or in the NBA.
“That’s my goal; my next step,’’ he says. “That’s not to say I’m not enjoying my experience coaching high school kids, because I am. We’ve got good kids in a school district that’s been incredibly supportive. It’s just that I would like to challenge myself at the highest levels of basketball. When or if that will happen, I don’t know. But that’s what I’m shooting for.”
Blackwell has been successful coaching high school players in Syracuse and professional players in Japan. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise because the 6-foot-7 small forward was always a fundamentally sound player; a coach on the floor. His 1,855 points and 1,100 rebounds remain Pittsford Sutherland records, and he wound up earning New York State Class B Player of the Year honors in 1995, his senior season under legendary coach Paul Mueller. After spending a year at the University of Illinois, Blackwell transferred to Syracuse and became a model of consistency, averaging 11.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while routinely being assigned to shut down the opposition’s top scorer.
“I have so many fond memories from those days,’’ he says. “The Big East Conference was intense. We had classic games against UConn and Villanova and Pitt. We got to play a bunch of games in basketball’s Mecca – Madison Square Garden – and I got to play for a legend. It was a thrill to be able to keep the tradition of SU basketball going.”
He imparts many of the lessons he learned from Boeheim to his players.
“I think one of the great things about Coach’s approach is that he tried to keep things simple,’’ he says. “I think some coaches want to overwhelm you with schemes and make this into rocket science. Coach Boeheim’s system got the best out of his players. He wanted to enhance your abilities; not bottle them up. He wanted you to play hard, play with heart, not be afraid. That’s what I want my kids to do.”
Upon graduating with a degree in child and family studies in 2000, Blackwell dreamed of playing in the NBA, but he wasn’t drafted, so he headed to France to play professionally. He never did make it to The Show, but he has no regrets. Basketball enabled him to shoot, rebound and dribble his way around the globe.
“It gave me a chance to see the world, to experience so many different cultures,’’ he says. “Had I realized my dream and stayed in America I would have missed out on those experiences.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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