For Syracuse’s Brandon Triche and his uncle, game vs. Indiana takes on extra meaning

The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Mike Wise, Liz Clarke, and Jonathan Forsythe discuss Florida Gulf Coast University’s historic weekend and predict which tournament underdogs will make it to the next round of the NCAA Tournament. (Post Sports Live)

Twenty-six years later, Howard Triche still hears the whispers. Those final seconds, that missed opportunity. A man can’t change his legacy.

In 1987, Syracuse was less than 30 seconds from a national championship. It just needed to stop Indiana one last time. Syracuse’s players focused on Steve Alford, the Hoosiers’ best shooter. Then another Indiana player, guard Keith Smart, took a pass with seven seconds to play, dribbled to his left and took the shot. Triche, a senior forward and co-captain, tried to get a hand in Smart’s face, but he was a fraction of a second late.

Triche stood and watched the ball go in, and then, slump-shouldered, watched the Hoosiers celebrate. Final score: Indiana 74, Syracuse 73.

The photographs of that moment still haunt Triche. The questions — What did that feel like? What could he have done differently — still fly.

“We’ll never be able to get revenge,” Triche said nearly three decades later, the same week that Brandon Triche, his nephew, will try to redirect the family’s narrative on Thursday in Syracuse’s Sweet 16 matchup against Indiana at Verizon Center.

They never spoke much about that game. Holidays and visits came and went, and Triche stayed silent about what happened on March 30, 1987, nearly four years before his nephew was born. He played one-on-one with Brandon sometimes, but when discussions turned to Syracuse basketball, Smart’s shot never surfaced.

“We never really talked about Indiana,” said Brandon, now a senior guard for the Orange, “or what happened.”

After Howard Triche’s final college game, he returned to Central New York. His family had settled there years earlier, and there was no escape from Howard’s worst sports moment. If anything, private moments with his family offered sanctuary.

“It’s just one of those things,” Howard said, “that no one close really brings it up or talks about it. They know you felt bad about the game, about the circumstances. It’s been a long time, so there’s no sense of bringing it up.”

When Brandon was considering playing at Syracuse after starring at nearby Jamesville-Dewitt High, the whispers found him, too.

Some confused him for his uncle, calling for him by the wrong name. The story of Howard’s role in Syracuse’s lingering disappointment, not erased until the Orange’s first national championship in 2003, made its way to Brandon.

“Howard, Howard!” he recalled hearing. “No, that was 25 years ago.”

He called his uncle once, and Howard shared supportive words. They might be calling him Howard as a freshman, but by the time his career with the Orange was finished, they would remember his name.

“They’ll be saying ‘Brandon’s uncle,’ ” Howard recalled saying, “rather than ‘Howard’s nephew.’ ”

Over time, Brandon became one of the Orange’s most dependable players. Now a senior, he will start his 144th consecutive game Thursday, a streak spanning his entire career. No Syracuse player has appeared in more victories than Brandon, who has been on the court for 119 of them.

“I came to Syracuse with the main goal of winning,” Brandon said Wednesday at Verizon Center.

Some still call him by his uncle’s name, the ghosts of 1987 still circling. Brandon said he has become well versed in what transpired during that tournament — and about why his uncle is mostly silent about it.

Sure, Howard indulges the co-workers and reporters who bring it up each year. The television broadcasts occasionally show the low-def footage, the winner and loser, team and player. Howard said most people approach him in search of insight, and he can understand that. He tells them that he should’ve been a second faster, or that he should’ve anticipated Smart’s quick jumper, or . . . something.

“There’s nothing you can say after those games,” said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who coached Howard and now coaches Brandon.

Howard has had years to think about it.

“It’s just the way it happened,” he said. “I probably didn’t realize how big of a game it was at the time. Especially from the Syracuse community, to recognize that — that’s part of my life. That’s part of my history.”

Then he went on.

“Of course,” he said, “you wish one day I’d wake up and we won the game.”

On Thursday morning, Brandon Triche will wake up with a chance to write his own legacy against the Hoosiers, again a No. 1 seed with a chance to win the national championship.

Walking through a back hallway a few steps from the court, Brandon said advancing to the East Region final and maybe even to the Final Four are on his mind. It would be somewhat poetic if Howard’s nephew returned the favor against the Hoosiers, delivering his own measure of heartbreak and, in Central New York, further erasing Smart’s shot — and Howard Triche’s inability to stop it — from the collective memory.

“It sounds good,” Brandon said, “but especially for me, it hasn’t been as pounding in my brain. . . . I try to do things for myself.”

Howard, now 48, said he hopes things turn out differently for his nephew.

“I view it as him having a chance to have an opportunity that I didn’t do: to win a national championship,” Howard said. “Hopefully this is the year he can do that. That’s kind of how I envision it.”

A moment later, he added one final thought.

“This is his dream,” Howard said. “This is where he’s going to. It’s going to turn out different for him.”

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