A few weeks ago, I wrote about how sports fans love to make lists and argue about them. Well, we also love dealing in hypotheticals. A recent issue of Sports Illustrated delved into some of the more intriguing “What ifs” in sports history, including what might have happened had the Cincinnati Reds drafted Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods pursued his dream of becoming a Navy Seal, LeBron James chose soccer over basketball and Donald Trump bought the Buffalo Bills.
It was a fascinating read and got me to thinking about some hypotheticals involving athletes, coaches and teams from these parts that could have had huge ripple effects. So, here’s a look at several compelling conjectures that might have changed the course of sports history in Upstate New York and beyond.
What if Jim Boeheim had taken the University of Rochester basketball coaching job? Boeheim had shown his loyalty to Syracuse University as a walk-on player and assistant coach. So when head coach Roy Danforth left the Orange hoops program in March 1976, Boeheim figured it was a slam dunk he would be promoted. But when SU announced it would conduct a national coaching search, Boeheim became livid. He decided to interview for the UR opening, and was offered the job. On his drive back from Rochester, he intended to force the issue with the SU search committee. “Give me the job now, or I’m moving to Rochester,’’ would be his ultimatum. Committee members already had consulted several Syracuse players and liked what they heard about Boeheim, so they called off the search and offered him the job.
In the 40 years since, Boeheim has won a national championship and more games than any men’s college basketball coach not named Mike Krzyzewski. Interestingly, two other lives were impacted by Boeheim’s decision. Legendary Orange center Roosevelt Bouie would have attended St. Bonaventure University had Boeheim not been awarded the SU job. Perhaps, with Bouie, the Bonnies, not Syracuse, would have become a perennial basketball power. Mike Neer wound up taking the UR job and led the Yellowjackets to a Division III NCAA title and more than 500 wins.
What if Walter Hagen had chosen baseball over golf? The Haig made his reputation on the links, winning 11 major titles, a total surpassed only by Jack Nicklaus and Woods. But Hagen’s first love was baseball and the East Rochester native was ready to go to spring training after receiving an invitation from Philadelphia Phillies manager Pat Moran, who told him: “Give up that sissy sport of golf and get into a real man’s game.” Fortunately, Ernest Willard, a former newspaper editor, intervened. Willard was so certain Hagen would become a golf champion that he offered to pay his way to Chicago to compete in the 1914 U.S. Open. Hagen won that tournament by a stroke, and put away his baseball glove for good.
What if the Rochester Royals had selected Bill Russell in the 1956 National Basketball Association draft? All these decades later, it still boggles the mind why the Royals didn’t draft the shot-blocking center who led the University of San Francisco to consecutive national championships and the U.S. team to Olympic gold. Late Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach loved telling the story how he offered the robust revenues of a week-long appearance by the Ice Capades in Rochester in exchange for assurances by Royals owner Les Harrison not to draft Russell. Harrison told me emphatically on several occasions that Auerbach’s story was apocryphal. He said Russell wanted a $25,000 contract—an exorbitant salary at the time, especially for the cash-strapped Royals. Harrison added the Royals already had superb big man Maurice Stokes and were in dire need of a guard, which is why they drafted Sihugo Green instead of Russell. Green spent nine so-so seasons in the NBA. The Royals moved to Cincinnati in 1957. And Russell became the pillar of the Celtics dynasty, leading them to 11 titles in 13 years.
What if Scott Norwood’s infamous kick had split the uprights? There would be a Lombardi Trophy in Orchard Park and memories of a parade to end all parades in Buffalo. But would there have been a dynasty? Or would the Bills have become intoxicated with fame and lacked the hunger to return to the Super Bowl? Interestingly, the resilience they displayed in playing in and losing an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls has earned those Bills teams great respect and appreciation over time. Had they won just one championship, they might have been forgotten by history.
What if Johnny Antonelli had signed with the New York Yankees? The Bronx Bombers were among the teams to court the former Jefferson High School phenom, but their low-ball offer was $28,000 below the $52,000 Antonelli received from the Boston Braves. I’ve joked with John several times that if he signed with the Yankees, he would have a jewelry box filled with World Series rings and he, not fellow southpaw Whitey Ford, would have become known as the “Chairman of the Board.” Things, though, worked out just fine for Antonelli. He earned a World Series ring in 1954, twice won 20 or more games in a season and made the National League All-Star team five times.
What if Brett Hull’s winning goal in Game Six of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals had been overturned? Replays showed that Hull’s skate was illegally inside the goalie’s crease, but for some convoluted reason the officials let it stand after a video review. Had the Zebras made the right call, the Buffalo Sabres might have won that triple-overtime game and gone on to win the Cup. Instead, “No goal” became another painful phrase in Buffalo’s cursed sporting lexicon, ranking down there with “Wide Right” and “Homerun Throwback.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.