They last spoke a month or two ago. Roosevelt Bouie recalled it being the kind of warm conversation one might expect between two men whose friendship traces all the way back to the summer of 1976, their freshman year at Syracuse University. During their 90 minutes on the phone, Bouie and Louis Orr reminisced about their basketball playing days and caught each other up on what was going on with family, friends, and careers. They also did what guys often do – they busted each other’s chops.
“It was special like it always was every time Louis and I chatted,’’ Bouie recalled the other day. “We just picked up where we had left off the last time we spoke. Never once did Louis mention what he was dealing with, and I guess that’s the way he wanted it.”
What Orr was dealing with, sadly, was the final stage of pancreatic cancer, which would take his life on December 15. “That he didn’t tell me about it was so Louis,’’ Bouie said, his voice choking a bit. “He didn’t want to burden me or others with his problems. That’s the kind of person he’d always been, right till the bitter end.”
Bouie paused for a moment to compose himself. “Louis and I were like brothers,’’ he continued. “We were joined at the hip.”
Forever connected by friendship and hoops history.
In discussions about Syracuse basketball lore, it’s impossible to talk about one man and not the other. Bouie, the 6-foot-11, shot-blocking, rebound-grabbing, rim-rattling dunking center from tiny Kendall, and Orr, the pencil-thin, you-best-not-take-me-for-granted forward from Cincinnati, played significant roles launching Jim Boeheim’s Hall of Fame coaching career and aiding SU’s emergence as a national basketball program.
They were Boeheim’s first signature recruits when he became head coach in 1976, and over the next four years the basketball act the student newspaper dubbed “The Louie and Bouie Show” would receive rave reviews while leading the Orange to 100 wins and four NCAA tournament appearances. The lethal one-two punch combined to average roughly 26 points and 16 rebounds per game during their college careers, but those numbers do not do Bouie and Orr justice because they spent so much time on the bench during second halves of blowout victories.
“They were the two that got the ball rolling for us in the late 1970s,’’ Boeheim told me several years ago. “As far as my head-coaching career, it all goes back to them. They helped me get off to a great beginning.”
And it was only fitting that when the University got around to retiring their jerseys in 2015, they were honored together. “When Coach told me they were retiring my number, I was ecstatic,’’ Bouie said. “And when he told me it would be unveiled up there in the (Carrier Dome) rafters with Louis’s, it was like putting icing on the cake.”
Understandably, Bouie’s emotions have been all over the place in recent days as he processes his grief. There have been some tears and some chuckles as he remembers his good friend, who was a quiet assassin on the court, and a kind, gentle soul away from it. Bouie will never forget those early basketball practices when Boeheim and his assistants literally ran the players ragged. “I was in very good shape, and when I looked at how skinny Louis was, I figured I’d be able to beat him easily in those endurance drills,’’ he recalled. “But Louis was always finishing several steps ahead of me. I said, “Dang, this dude may be frail, but he’s also tough.’ ’’
Orr’s ultra-thin physique – maybe 170 pounds stretched over a 6-foot-9 tall frame – fooled many an opponent into underestimating him. “I think his body actually worked to his advantage,’’ Boeheim said. “People looked at him and thought they were going to have an easy night. They quickly discovered that appearances can be deceiving.”
Bernard King, who went on to become one of the New York Knicks’ all-time scorers, learned this difficult lesson near the end of an NCAA tournament game in 1977. Orr blocked his turnaround jumper to spur a stunning 93-88 overtime victory against heavily favored Tennessee. Orr may have saved his greatest collegiate performance for last. Bouie got into foul trouble early in that game against Iowa, but Orr was magnificent in his attempts to take up the slack, barely missing a triple-double on the stat sheet with 25 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists. Though the Orange wound up losing, Orr had answered any questions the NBA scouts may have had about him.
The Knicks took the string-bean forward near the top of the second round, while Bouie was chosen a few picks later by the Dallas Mavericks. Orr wound up having a productive eight-year NBA career, but his friend chose a different path. He turned down the Mavs offer and flew to Italy, where he became one of the first American-born stars in international basketball. Interestingly, when Orr’s pro career in the states ended, Bouie convinced him to join him for a season in Italy. “Louis and I spent 16 hours a day together,’’ he said. “Had breakfast together. Had lunch together. Had dinner together. Went to practices and games together. It was a chance to get to know each other on an even deeper level.”
Five years ago, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion between Bouie and Orr. Some moderator I turned out to be. A 30-minute conversation turned into a 90-minute one. But nobody in the audience seemed upset it had gone long. They were having too much fun feasting on these two legends spinning tales.
“The thing I remember about that night is that at one point, Louis said, “You know, Roosevelt, we’ve known each other for 40 years and we’ve never had an argument,’’’ Bouie said. “I had never thought about that, but he was right. In all that time, there was never a cross word between us. It was an amazing friendship, and I’m really going to miss him.’’
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.