The surest way to start a fight in Syracuse, N.Y., is to tell somebody you're a Georgetown basketball fan.
"All I've heard on the radio since I got here today is talk, talk, talk about how Syracuse is going to beat us," Georgetown Coach John Thompson said yesterday by telephone from Syracuse. "This rivalry is the highest level of sports competition that I've ever been exposed to."
Thompson and his Hoyas will encounter the supreme road test this afternoon at 1 (WRC-TV-4) when No. 8-ranked Georgetown visits Syracuse in the Carrier Dome before an expected 30,000, which would be the largest crowd to see a basketball game in the East.
"These people here participate in the game as much as anybody in the country," Thompson said. "They feel like we're coming into town to take something sacred away from them. This has gotten like the Hatfields versus the McCoys."
Over the past few years, Syracuse followers have pulled a fair number of pranks on the visiting Hoyas.
"One year, at about 2 o'clock in the morning," Thompson remembered, "some Syracuse people sent a taxi to our hotel and gave the driver instructions not to leave until he had taken Eric Floyd (Georgetown's all-America guard) to the airport.
"And they've done all the typical collegiate stuff, like sending pizzas to our hotel so the delivery man would try and make us pay for them, and sending flowers to our hotel."
This time, with the Hoyas' 13-game winning streak on the line, Thompson took a rather extreme precaution to keep his team away from the circus-like atmosphere and hype that is consuming the Syracuse community.
Georgetown is staying about 200 miles from Syracuse.
"We've stayed and practiced at St. Peter's College (in Jersey City, N.J.)," Thompson said. "I've purposely ducked everybody in Syracuse. I thought I'd run into somebody up here and get into a fight. Nothing has happened yet, but we're about to go practice at Manley Field House (on the Syracuse campus) so it's too early to tell. I didn't want to come up here any sooner than I had to, though. I can't come to this part of New York without getting into trouble."
There is excitement in Thompson's voice as he talks about his episodes in Syracuse. "It's fun, as long as it's not personally offensive," Thompson said. "It's not much fun having 30,000 people booing you, but this is what college basketball is all about. It's something else."
There always has been a rivalry between Georgetown and Syracuse, usually two of the best teams in the East.
But as Thompson said yesterday, the rivalry intensified on Feb. 13, 1980 when Georgetown defeated Syracuse, 52-50, in the last game ever played at Manley. Syracuse had won 57 straight games in Manley. Orange Coach Jim Boeheim had never lost a game in that building, having won 56 straight.
"That last game at Manley was supposed to be a festive occasion for them," Thompson said. "And then, after we won the game, I said that we had to officially close the place down. You think they loved us after that?"
Since that season, when Georgetown defeated Syracuse three times, these two teams have fought bitterly. Syracuse won two of three games last season, including a Big East tournament game last March, when Boeheim and Thompson nearly came to blows at midcourt, after shouting and pointing at each other.
"When Jim and I got into that hassle, it almost verified what everybody thought about the rivalry," Thompson said. "It really could have gotten out of hand at that point, but we went out to dinnner this summer and talked and cleared all of that stuff out of the way."
Boeheim, then, may be the closest thing to a friend Thompson has in Syracuse. Thompson has had some arguments with the sports journalists and basketball officials in upstate New York, many of whom believe that Thompson sets up his rules to frustrate them.
"The writers up here go after me real hard, but there hasn't been anything vicious," Thompson said.
Thompson's biggest battle with the Syracuse-area media came in August during the National Sports Festival, held in the Carrier Dome. The media wanted open access to Thompson's practices and his players--especially freshman Patrick Ewing. But Thompson wanted the interviewing process to be more structured.
"The summer wasn't all bad," Thompson said. "I bought an 'I Love Syracuse' button while I was here and I had planned to wear it during the game. But I forgot to bring it with me."