The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Buddy Boeheim thought he would just be a role player. His role now is Syracuse’s leading man.

Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim has been the team’s go-to scorer during the ACC and NCAA tournaments. (Darron Cummings/AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — Life, that rascal, has shepherded her into one of its most ticklish possibilities. Somehow she has become both the wife of a coach and the mother of a player who happens to be playing for that coach. It’s harrowing to ponder even if this arrangement dates back probably through all 200,000-odd years humans have played games on Earth. Seldom has it been as visible as at, for example, Syracuse.

But wait, look here. Lately life has been hurling at her a whole string of amazing. Her 21-year-old son Buddy Boeheim has gone all the way from “What the hell’s he doing here,” to, “All right, I suppose it’s okay,” to, “Holy mercy what a marvel.” Her husband marvels in his clinical way, which has more effect because he is not one to gush even if he is one of the world’s youngest 76-year-olds.

“Actually, I’m great,” Juli Boeheim said Tuesday from Syracuse, N.Y., fielding the standard opening question.

Buddy Boeheim powers No. 11 Syracuse to another Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed

Since bracketed play began with the ACC tournament, Buddy Boeheim, a junior whose EKGs probably would reveal Orange dancing wildly around, has scored 27 points on North Carolina State, 31 on Virginia, 30 on San Diego State and 25 on West Virginia. It has tugged his points-per-game upward to 18 when it wasn’t so bad beforehand. As Syracuse scraped into the men’s NCAA tournament with a No. 11 seed and followed another season flecked with groans with another trip to the Sweet 16, Buddy Boeheim has surpassed the expectations of everyone including his parents, who first met him two minutes after his twin sister, Jamie, also an excellent player.

“In his first year, Jim would come home after the game and say, ‘Wow, Buddy’s ahead of schedule,’ ” Juli Boeheim said. Then she quoted her son saying, “I just really thought I’d be a role player.” Then she said, “We knew he would be that: blue-collar, hard-working,” having been “just a happy-go-lucky, playful, ‘Spongebob’-loving kid.” Then she concluded, “Being a role player was going to be a great enough gift and a blessing, just to have him play on this team.”

Now this, and now life has stopped giggling at her, even as all along she already had one ace in stash for handling her predicament: She’s a former Kentucky girl and Kentucky young woman. Yes, she hailed from that land of green-quilted terrain and land of four million citizens, all of whom are coaches. She spent first grade through ninth in Harlan County in the southeast corner where Kentucky says its hellos to Virginia. Her family would spend weekends at Kentucky football games in a hotel she calls “a second home.” When Syracuse played N.C. State this year, and she saw how N.C. State’s Braxton Beverly hails from Hazard, about 30 miles from Harlan in the Kentucky mountains, she said: “I’m like, ‘Buddy, tell him your Mom is from Harlan! I think he would, like, pass out!’ He never told him. That would be hard for Buddy.”

One of her older brothers was a University of Kentucky cheerleader, a celebrated position with a ring of championships all its own there. Her family knew Jack Givens, who scored 41 points in the 1978 NCAA championship game against Duke, and she once worked for Givens herself. After high school in Florence, Ala., she returned, attending both the University of Kentucky and basketball games at Rupp Arena, although more for the social experience and less for feeling pained after rare Kentucky defeats.

(How dare she.)

She knew the basketball terrain in her bones, and after she met Jim in 1994 and married Jim in 1997 and before they had Jimmy (who is transferring after three seasons and one canceled season at Cornell), she worried he’d be out there “at midnight with a ball,” sending some hapless offspring through some last run of drills. He turned out to be the opposite once he’d get home, and that may or may not help explain why the tykes relished basketball and ran ecstatically to the car after school for trips to Syracuse games and hotels and the eternal hotel question of children, “Where’s the pool?”

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All had their ways about basketball, of course, and Buddy’s turned out to factor very much into this Sweet 16 and Syracuse’s upcoming match with Houston.

“Growing up, he was a little under-confident,” Jim Boeheim said this past Sunday. “I had to boost him up a lot. I have two sons. If you describe Jimmy, he plays golf. He hits 10 out of bounds in a row, and he thinks the 11th one is going to go in the hole on a par-4. Buddy can play 10 good holes and one bad one, and he thinks the next one is going to be bad.”

That turns out to be a great way to go from overmatched in ninth grade to overwhelming in March 2021, from unseen on recruiting lists to having his father sneer at recruiting lists.

“I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, like I said, every day,” Buddy Boeheim said Sunday after Syracuse beat West Virginia and the Mountaineers’ marksman Sean McNeil said, “Buddy obviously knows how to fill it up, so it’s just heartbreaking.”

By now Buddy also knows how to dribble and then fill it up, so while Jim Boeheim extols his son as Syracuse’s hardest-working worker across the father’s 45 seasons, it has resulted in this pivotal twist: “Now he can put the ball on the floor and get a shot. He’s better because he can do that. He’s just made himself into a player.”

That has lent some ease to the bloodcurdling role of wife and mother, to a Wildcat who said of her student days, “I don’t remember the highs and lows of wins and losses like I do now. More than anything, it wasn’t like I am now, when I’m hurting when we lose. Jim classifies it as kind of a temporary death. You’re really just so bummed. And now I have it double.” She calls the concurrent noise “The Blob” because it “comes in, you can’t keep it out, and it just sucks up everything.”

Further alleviation of stress has come from the meshing personalities of father and son. “I don’t know,” she said. “Buddy is stuck on his Dad like glue and always has been wild — wild! — about his Dad, since his birth.” She recalls “late-night feeding, I would feed our daughter because she was a little more delicate,” and seeing: “Buddy looking so snuggled in his Dad’s arms. I couldn’t take my eyes off him because it was just so comfortable, his way with Buddy, and Buddy just ooh’d and goo’d over him.” They would put him on the bathroom floor in his car seat, and he would watch Jim Boeheim shave, and he would revel and shake his leg and then go to sleep as if we all could gain some tranquility from watching Jim Boeheim shave.

Years on, like most longtime students of basketball, her feelings mix on the subject of coaches yelling, as she says, “I think spiritually it’s not what we’re supposed to be doing,” but then, “If he’s not yelling, he’s given up on you.” It hasn’t bothered her all that much on the occasional turns familiar to many in her role through the centuries: when her husband, renowned as a grouch but not really as a yeller, has yelled publicly at her son. “I have seen it a couple of times, and it hurts me a little bit, but I think it hurts me worse [with other players], because I think Buddy knows where it’s coming from. … I hurt more for the other players and their mothers watching than I do if I see Jim yelling at Buddy.”

March Madness has long been the NCAA’s Magic Eraser. This time it’s a highlighter.

Now she has had this year watching like most everybody else from home where, she says, “I say things that probably aren’t accurate,” and her son Jimmy will say, “No, Mom.” She has had this year when they have dealt with the Ivy League 2020-21 cancellation that cost her firstborn a season, and the pain still registered in her husband Sunday when he belittled the Ivy League to reporters for its decision even if that’s inappropriate during a pandemic as everyone navigates the unknown.

“He’s recovered,” she said of Jimmy. “It was heartbreaking. I’m sure he cried over it.” But at least he didn’t have to bus back from canceled games, and what’s more, she believes, “There will be a greater purpose in this.” Suddenly it’s spring, and she looks around and says: “Look what we’re doing now, with no pressure, no expectancy. It’s better than being a number one seed.”

Look here. All the wives and mothers across all the messy centuries, all that envy and pity from the world around them, and here’s one amid a bliss. She might be watching from 565 miles away, but she’s got a Sweet 16 to follow with hope, a son annihilating expectations and a No. 11 seed to boot.

What to read about college basketball

Men’s bracket | Women’s bracket

Way-too-early top 25: Kentucky, North Carolina, Houston, Gonzaga, Arkansas and Duke should be in the mix again next season.

Rock Chalk, Jayhawk: Kansas forged the biggest comeback in the 83 championship games to date to beat North Carolina and win the men’s national title.

Gamecocks dominate: The women’s national championship is officially heading back to Columbia, S.C., for the second time in program history after a wire-to-wire 64-49 victory by South Carolina over Connecticut.

Mike Krzyzewski’s last game: Coach K’s career ends with joy and agony in college basketball Armageddon.

One day, two title games: A decade after Title IX, a battle for control of women’s basketball split loyalties and produced two national champions.

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