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Hakim Warrick’s block has exalted status in Syracuse University basketball annals

The “Nightmare on Bourbon Street” history lesson wasn’t imparted to him until after the game. And that was just as well, because if Hakim Warrick had known the eerily similar circumstances ahead of time, it only would have exacerbated the knee-knocking pressure he felt after missing two free throws in the waning seconds of Syracuse University’s NCAA basketball championship game in the Louisiana Superdome 20 Aprils ago.

“I already was feeling bad enough after that second free throw clanged off the rim,’’ he was saying recently by phone from suburban Las Vegas, where he is an assistant coach of an NBA development league team. “I’m glad I didn’t know what had happened in that very same building years earlier.”

What had happened in the 1987 NCAA championship game in New Orleans was the most painful moment in Orange hoops history. After Derrick Coleman missed a free throw, Indiana pushed the ball down the court and Keith Smart flung the dagger-in-the-heart jumper that prevented Syracuse from winning it first NCAA title.

Fortunately, Warrick didn’t know Keith Smart from Maxwell Smart and, after missing his second foul shot with just under 15 seconds remaining in the 2003 title game, he hustled down court hoping and praying the Orange could maintain their three-point lead and cut down the nets. Kansas whipped the ball around against SU’s patented 2-3 zone, and a pass found Jayhawks guard Michael Lee all alone in the corner — near where Smart had launched his infamous game-winner. Normally a forward, Warrick was playing center at the time, but he was thinking like a forward and sprinted toward Lee.

“When I started running toward him, I thought there was no way I was going to get there in time,’’ he recalled. “But as I got closer, I thought I might have a chance to at least contest the shot, and maybe even get a hand on it. I just had to make sure at the last moment to twist my body to the side, so I wouldn’t crash against him and foul him.”

As it turned out, Warrick, a lithe, 6-foot-9 athlete with a 38-inch vertical jump and seemingly elastic arms, swatted the ball into the stands. With just 1.5 seconds remaining, the Jayhawks inbounded, but Kirk Hinrich’s desperation heave was off target. The Orange men were national champs. Warrick had redeemed himself and saved the day. By rejecting that shot, he had exorcized ghosts of championship games past and had made history by ensuring history didn’t repeat itself. In a matter of seconds, he had gone from goat to hero.

“I had people coming up to me afterwards, crying and thanking me for no longer having to talk about Keith Smart,’’ Warrick said. “I think that’s when it really hit me, the magnitude and gravity of what we had just done.”

This Saturday evening, before the Wake Forest-SU game at the JMA Wireless Dome, Warrick’s heroics will be celebrated when he and former teammate Gerry McNamara have their jerseys retired. It will be Warrick’s first time back for a game there since his final home game 18 years ago.

“Really looking forward to spending some time with G-Mac, Melo [Carmelo Anthony] and the guys,’’ he said. “Hard to believe 20 years have passed already. The funny thing about time is that with each passing year the magnitude of what we accomplished becomes more special.”

They’ll undoubtedly reminisce how G-Mac hit a record six three-pointers in the first half to give the Orange a sizeable lead against Kansas. They’ll discuss how Melo gutted his way through a back injury so debilitating he couldn’t bend over to tie his sneakers and accumulated 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. And they’ll obviously relive the Block Heard ’Round the Basketball World.

Though Warrick will always be beloved in Syracuse for his one shining moment, he’ll be remembered for numerous other plays, too, including several rim-rattling dunks. Warrick was a force, as evidenced by the fact he, Coleman and John Wallace are the only players in SU annals to finish their careers with more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Remarkably, Warrick’s stellar Orange career might not have happened if prized recruit Julius Hodge didn’t spurn Syracuse at the last minute for North Carolina State, opening up a final scholarship for Hakim.

“There was a point when I was ready to stop waiting for Syracuse and go somewhere else,’’ Warrick said. “Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t.”

He admitted to playing with “a little chip on my shoulder” because he hadn’t been a coveted prospect, and that additional motivation served him well. Warrick won a starting job over more publicized SU recruits midway through his freshman year and was named the Big East Conference’s Most Improved Player his sophomore year. After a sensational senior season in which he averaged 21.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, he was named a consensus All-American.

That 2002-03 championship season remains the most enjoyable in a career that saw him play eight years in the NBA and another several seasons overseas. Syracuse had missed the NCAAs in Warrick’s freshman season, and the following season no one was expecting much from a team that would be starting two freshmen (McNamara and Anthony), two sophomores (Warrick and Craig Forth) and one senior (Kueth Duany). But youth clearly wasn’t wasted on the young with this group.

“I think we were too young, too naive to realize we weren’t supposed to be that good that early,’’ Warrick said. “It was evident from the start that G-Mac and Melo weren’t ordinary freshman. Still, I’d be lying to you if I said I knew we were going to win the national championship. I did, though, think we could contend for the Big East title.”

Though McNamara had staked SU to a big lead in the championship game, Warrick knew a veteran team like the Jayhawks would make a run, which they did in the second half. And it appeared they might just send the game into overtime, until Warrick rejected their comeback, securing the 81-78 win. Interestingly, several of the players he now coaches weren’t even born when Warrick made his historic play. “They don’t know about it or the fact I played in the NBA,’’ said Warrick, who graduated with a degree in retail management and consumer studies. “I think some of their parents might know. But, hey, that’s just the way it is today.”

Perhaps this might prompt a few players to check out Warrick’s YouTube highlights. If they do, they’ll learn why their coach is being immortalized in the Dome.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. 


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