SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Nobody bothers Jim Boeheim on game days. Not his coaching staff. Not his wife. Not his children.
He prepares by lounging in his bedroom, watching cooking shows, reading, thinking, studying — just being alone. But once, about 15 years ago, his son, Buddy, walked into his dad’s bedroom with a board game tucked under his arm.
“Wanna play Candy Land?”
He felt he couldn’t say no. He obliged. “One game, that’s it,” he told him. Buddy won the first. His father needed another chance. And another. They played long enough that Jim’s wife, Juli, peeked inside the room to check in.
That competitiveness has dogged Boeheim his entire life, and he’s passed it down to both of his sons. The younger, Buddy, this season fulfilled a lifelong dream of playing for Syracuse, where he’s a freshman guard. His older son, Jimmy, is a sophomore forward at nearby Cornell. Boeheim, 74, is in his 43rd season as the head man at Syracuse, the oldest coach in Division I hoops. Soon the Boeheim basketball convergence that seemed destined will unfold. Soon they will get down to family business.
As Jim prepares to coach one son against the other Saturday night in Syracuse, he recognizes familiar faces will be all around the court. He hasn’t said anything to his family about the significance of the game. “Not one word,” his wife, Juli, said this week. Last year, all he did before his Orange played Cornell was send Jimmy, then a freshman, a text the night before: “I love you, good luck.”
“I know one thing,” Boeheim said Wednesday, after the Orange (4-2) beat No. 16 Ohio State. “Both better play or I’m not going home.”
Boeheim has been embedded in Syracuse’s culture since he walked on to the basketball team as a freshman in 1962, then stayed on as an assistant coach making $10,000 in his first season. He earned $25,000 during his first year as head coach, 1976, and now makes about $2 million per season. Living in Central New York his entire life, it might seem as if he has everything he ever wanted: national title, five Final Fours, 930 wins (101 were vacated by the NCAA).
This weekend’s game is another item for his personal legacy.
“Just when you think he’s accomplished everything, what else is there to do?” said Juli, his wife of 21 years. “Then we get this, something we can tell our grandkids. It’s such a blessing and a gift, even though it’s stressful. This might be the cherry on top.”
The Boeheim family reunion highlights the ties between family and sport. A father may not have ever coached one son against another in college basketball history; Boeheim said he wasn’t aware of another example. Two brothers have faced off on occasion. In 2017’s national championship game, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins played his adopted brother, North Carolina’s Nate Britt. In the 1992 NCAA tournament, Duke’s Bobby Hurley played Seton Hall’s Dan Hurley. In 1999, Wisconsin’s Duany Duany played at Syracuse against his brother, Kueth.
Buddy and Jimmy understand the rarity of Saturday, although Jimmy said he hadn’t thought about playing his brother and father until Wednesday night. Buddy, meanwhile, stored away the date on the day the game was announced in May.
“Going against him is something I’ve never imagined,” Buddy said. “On the court, I hope I’ll act like I don’t know him. That might be hard to do.”
Like many younger brothers, Buddy spent a lot of time playing his big brother — and losing. They were born 18 months apart, and Jimmy has always been taller (he is 6-foot-8; Buddy is 6-5). From the beginning, they bonded through basketball, particularly in one-on-one battles inside a playroom. At night, when dad was home from practice, they would set up a Little Tikes hoop. Dad reffed while mom did introductions on a toy microphone. They’d turn off the lights and turn on a flashlight to mimic NBA intros. Afterward, Buddy usually ran out crying. They’re so competitive that they haven’t played one-on-one since the playroom years.
“They got all the type-A stuff from their dad,” said Jim’s sister, Barbara, who lives in Alexandria, Va. “Jim has all of the type-A stuff in the family.”
The first signal that a Boeheim family reunion would be possible came a year and a half ago, when longtime Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins left to become head coach at Washington. Boeheim’s previously planned retirement date was after the 2017-18 season, but after Hopkins left he signed a contract extension that likely will align his retirement date with the end of Buddy’s career, following the 2021-22 season.
It came together even further when Jimmy went to Cornell, which has played Syracuse 123 times over more than 100 seasons. Then Buddy chose Syracuse after North Carolina Coach Roy Williams told Jim: “He’s good. You better take him.”
Being the son of a Hall of Famer carries enormous expectations. Yet Boeheim’s children say he was never tough on them: He offered only one or two pointers after their youth games. Buddy says his father doubles as his best friend. He wears No. 35 because his dad did.
Jim remembers his sons’ natural curiosity as children. They hung around the practice facility, studied Syracuse wins and learned to watch film by third grade. After Syracuse victories, Buddy yelled, “Dad! I love you!” Jimmy was a late bloomer who developed his game later in high school. “I was small and not very good,” Jimmy said.
Jim, the father, just wants both of his sons to play in the game Saturday. Buddy’s just hoping for a good picture together. Jimmy’s glad he already got the nerves out of his system last November, when he drained a three-pointer in front of the Syracuse bench. He said he had to re-watch the game because everything after starting lineups became a blur.
“I’m more relaxed this year,” Jimmy said Thursday. “Last year, I was stressed, playing my dad and all.”
Because of this meeting’s unlikelihood, the Boeheim brothers’ sister, Jamie, was for weeks afraid to check whether she had a conflict Saturday. She doesn’t. She’ll sit near midcourt where her mom has always sat, a middle ground that places her equidistant from her two sons.
Last year, Juli wore a “Boeheim vs. Boeheim” shirt. On the back: “Can’t lose.” She’ll wear a similar version this year.
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