Syracuse University men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim sat at a table in the press room of Madison Square Garden, his face resting on his clenched right fist.
A member of the assembled national media asked Boeheim about the player to his left, senior Gerry McNamara. The guard just had saved Syracuse’s season, turning in a 17-point performance against Cincinnati in the first round of the 2006 Big East Tournament. McNamara’s final three points came on a running floater that gave Syracuse the lead as time expired. The win meant the Orange—which, at 20-11, had slim hopes for a spot in the NCAA Tournament—would have a chance to make a statement the next day against top-ranked Connecticut.
Boeheim began answering the question with little hint of emotion, his face still planted on his fist.
“Gerry’s been very consistent for us all year, his whole career,” Boeheim said. “I have to laugh a little bit when our own papers call him, our own student newspaper’s calling him overrated. And they actually listened to a couple of assistant coaches who I guarantee will never be head coaches if they think that Gerry McNamara is overrated. Of course, our paper will print that anyway because, you know, somebody said it.”
Boeheim took a deep breath.
“Without Gerry McNamara, we wouldn’t have won 10 f—ing games this year. OK? Not 10. These other guys just aren’t ready. They needed him. Without him there, not 10. We wouldn’t be here to even have a chance to play this game. And everybody’s talking to me and writing about Gerry McNamara being overrated? It’s the most bull— thing I’ve seen in 30 years. And especially when it comes from our people, in our papers.
“But they’ll quote it from somebody else. An anonymous assistant coach. Let the assistant coach come up to me and say, ‘Gerry McNamara’s overrated.’ I’d like to see one of those guys come up to me and say that.
“He’s been double-teamed every game this year. And the coaches voted him first-team all-conference. But the head coaches, they don’t know s—, I guess.”
It was a classic Boeheim rant, one that rallied the Syracuse faithful around McNamara. Fortified by the vote of confidence, McNamara went on to play perhaps the most inspired stretch of basketball the Big East had ever seen. He led the Orange to three more victories in New York City, all against ranked teams, all by four points or fewer. The last win, against Pittsburgh, clinched Syracuse the Big East Tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. McNamara won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
The run solidified McNamara’s place in Syracuse basketball lore. A documentary called “Orange Glory” called the 2006 Big East Tournament one of the 20 greatest moments in Syracuse basketball history. There are video tributes on YouTube. For years, an apparel shop in Syracuse made T-shirts with “Overrated?!!” on the front. A Gerry McNamara bobblehead wound up on Dwight Schrute’s desk during the next season of NBC’s “The Office.”
Ten years later, some Syracuse fans are still hopping mad that anyone could think Gerry McNamara was overrated.
And the whole thing is my fault.
* * *
As I recall it, the idea came to me before the 2005-06 season, halfway through a Burger King Whopper.
I was a junior journalism student at Syracuse University, and as the student newspaper’s men’s basketball beat writer, I spent a lot of my time thinking about the Orange.
In the preceding years, Orange fans had been spoiled. The 2003 SU team had won the program’s first national championship two years earlier, led by freshman Carmelo Anthony, a future NBA All-Star. They had enjoyed four years of high-flying forward Hakim Warrick, the 2005 Big East Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. But everyone seemed to prefer a scrappy, 6-foot-3 guard from Scranton, Pennsylvania named Gerry McNamara.
It was clear to anyone who watched that McNamara was a wonderful college basketball player. McNamara’s legend formed early in his career at SU, when he proved he was most dangerous when it mattered. Syracuse won the national title in his freshman year, in part thanks to his six 3-pointers in the first half of the national championship game against Kansas. The next season, he scored 17.2 points per game, including a 43-point outburst against Brigham Young in the first round of the 2004 NCAA Tournament. He made the All-Big East first team twice. He finished his career with the most minutes played, 3-point shots made and the best free-throw percentage in Syracuse University history. He scored the fourth-most points in SU history, and set Big East records for 3-pointers made and free-throw percentage.
But stack McNamara against Anthony or Warrick one-on-one, and on most days, he’d be overmatched. McNamara had a different skill set—he’d beat either of those guys in a 3-point shooting contest—so it’s not a completely fair comparison. But the whole “overrated” discussion stemmed from one question that kept hounding me: how, on a championship team full of personality and talent, did McNamara become the biggest legend of them all?
I had mentioned to my friend Tim Gorman, then the sports editor of The Daily Orange student newspaper, that I wanted to write a column calling attention to the fact that the legend of Gerry McNamara had surpassed McNamara, the actual player. He said, “Are you sure?”
I wasn’t. For the better part of the season, I sat on the idea. I had a 15-credit course load, a 35-hour a week job as The D.O.’s assistant sports editor and the full-time demands of a beat writer covering the SU men’s basketball team. I spent far more time with the Orange that winter—in Syracuse and on the road—than in a classroom. The semester had made me numb to a lot of things, but whether I admitted it then or not, I still hadn’t gathered up the courage to take on one of the most popular players in Syracuse history.
The Daily Orange had a reputation on campus as an extracurricular that would “suck up your life,” and it’s true in the sense that the demands of the paper took precedence over whatever else was going on. The people there were your co-workers and your friends—if you worked at The D.O., you spent all your time with other people who worked at The D.O. As such, word about this McNamara idea had filtered through the newsroom at 744 Ostrom Ave. Everyone at The D.O. knew about it, at least in the sports section.
During the 2005-06 season, The Daily Orange had three men’s basketball beat writers: Ethan Ramsey (who took over as sports editor for the Spring 2006 semester), Zach Berman (now The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Eagles reporter) and myself. Two of us would cover each game, and we alternated who would go on road trips.
Ramsey and I took the trip to Pittsburgh for the Orange’s Jan. 23, 2006 game against then-No. 10 Panthers. The Petersen Events Center was a hard place to play for a visiting team; the Panthers had lost just five games there in the building’s first three seasons. At that point in the 2005-06 season, Pitt hadn’t lost a home game.
The stat sheet shows McNamara led all Syracuse scorers with 18 points against the Panthers, but the reality was, he struggled. Pitt knew McNamara was Syracuse’s only real offensive option, and hounded the guard relentlessly. He scored those 18 points through sheer will. He finished the game 8-for-24 from the field, 2-for-12 from 3. In the last 80 seconds of the game—the time Gerry McNamara was supposed to flourish—he missed three shots and turned the ball over once.
When the buzzer sounded to end a limp 80-67 Syracuse loss, Ramsey slammed his laptop.
“He sucks,” Ramsey said. “I’m writing that column.”
Ramsey did write a column, on deadline, that night calling McNamara overrated. But Gorman, who filled in as sports editor with Ramsey on the road, knew how long I had held on to the idea. He convinced Ramsey to table the column until we could all get together to talk about it.
The next week, we met and decided it wouldn’t be the best idea to write anything disparaging about McNamara without some sort of counterpoint. So we presented the columns as a debate: “Is Gerry McNamara overrated?” Ramsey wrote the “yes” column. Berman took the “no” stance. Unlike what Boeheim suggested in his rant a month later, we didn’t quote anonymous assistant coaches, or anyone for that matter. It was purely the writer’s opinion.
We published the columns Feb. 7, 2006. By that point, Syracuse was stuck in a 1-4 tailspin. The Orange already had lost, in the Carrier Dome, to Seton Hall that season. It was four weeks away from its worst loss of the season (and still the worst of Jim Boeheim’s career), a 39-point shellacking at DePaul March 2, 2006. The Blue Demons finished the year with a 12-15 record. This was not a good Syracuse team, and in hindsight, Gerry McNamara was the only thing relatively redeeming about it.
If you read what Ramsey wrote, he never blames McNamara. He focuses his criticisms on Syracuse fans and their outsized expectations for their idol. But Ramsey ended his column with line that plainly stated where he stood: “Look at the numbers. Watch the games. Gerry McNamara is no legend.”
They were the words that would help cement McNamara as one.
Not much was said on campus or by the team after the columns hit. McNamara was understandably upset about it, but he had something of an adversarial relationship with The D.O. reporters all season. It was no joy to talk with Gerry McNamara. He made it clear he was talking to us only because he had to.
Syracuse went 3-5 down the stretch to finish with a 7-9 Big East record. For the final regular season game against No. 4 Villanova, 68 busloads of people made the trip from McNamara’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. I stood outside the Carrier Dome interviewing the bus people. One told me, “If you ever wanted to rob Scranton, today’s the day.”
Syracuse lost, 92-82. I didn’t watch the game, instead standing guard outside the dome, listening to cheers and groans permeate its Teflon roof. A friend of mine couldn’t bear to watch McNamara’s final minutes in the Carrier Dome, and left early. She collapsed into my arms, sobbing, her tears smearing the shamrock with McNamara’s No. 3 she had painted on her left cheek.
With the loss, the Orange’s NCAA Tournament prospects were grim. Syracuse headed to New York City to fight for its life in the Big East Tournament. It needed at least one win— and probably two—to work its way into legitimate NCAA consideration.
We all thought we had heard the last of the columns. But Boeheim had other plans.
* * *
The morning of the 2006 Big East Tournament’s first round, the daily paper in Syracuse, The Post-Standard, released the results of a poll of conference assistant coaches. Among the questions was, “Who is the Big East’s most overrated player?” The assistant coaches selected Gerry McNamara. That same week, in its preview for college basketball’s conference tournaments, Sports Illustrated released its own poll of anonymous assistant coaches that came to the same conclusion.
That afternoon, McNamara hit the buzzer-beater against Cincinnati, and gave his coach a prime opportunity to back his besieged player.
During his rant, Boeheim conflated the polls conducted by The Post-Standard and SI with The Daily Orange’s then-month-old columns. I’ve never asked him, but I don’t believe Boeheim made a mistake. I think he knew the difference between The Daily Orange columns and the two professional media polls.
I also think Boeheim knew what he was going to do before he did it. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame because he is smart and calculating, not one to fly into a profanity-laced tirade unless he can accomplish something. In this case, he simplified the “overrated” issue into a nice soundbite for the national media, letting the country know he backed McNamara—a wounded player in need of a confidence boost.
And the plan worked.
Ramsey was in the room for that press conference, with McNamara staring daggers at him. Back in Syracuse, Berman and I scrambled as The D.O. was flooded with phone calls and emails threatening the paper and its men’s basketball writers. Any attempt to explain that we didn’t quote anonymous coaches, that we weren’t required as SU students to blindly support the basketball team were fruitless. Boeheim had spoken, and his army was out for revenge.
Some of this animosity still lingers. A YouTube video of Boeheim’s rant has 447, 240 views, and continues to receive comments. One of them, left a year ago, reads, “Some of these stupid writers and reporters. Hang em all.”
The 2006 me worried a public lynching was a definite possibility. The energy around the team built with each ridiculous play McNamara made. In the second round against UConn, he hit a game-tying 3 at the end of regulation. Syracuse won in overtime by two. In the semifinals against Georgetown, the last of McNamara’s five second-half 3-pointers cut the Hoyas’ lead to one with 48 seconds remaining. He assisted a layup by guard Eric Devendorf in the final seconds to give Syracuse a 58-57 win.
In the finals, he scored 14 points in the Orange’s easiest win of the tournament, a 65-61 victory against Pitt. When the buzzer sounded, McNamara walked over to the corner of the court where a large group of Syracuse fans were sitting. Someone threw McNamara an orange T-shirt with “Overrated?!!” printed on the front. He put it on, and stood with a defiant look on his face as cameras swarmed around him.
In the postgame press conference, a reporter asked McNamara if he had anything to say to student paper guys who called him overrated. Twice, McNamara said the name “Ethan Ramsey,” before saying Ramsey wasn’t there. He went on to say he didn’t pay much attention to The D.O. writers since they hadn’t played a second of basketball in their lives and therefore didn’t know what they were writing.
It’s true that Ramsey was not there; he had covered the first two rounds of the tournament. Berman and I were at the final. I don’t remember much about the actual championship game, but I will never forget the atmosphere post-game, from the moment McNamara put on that T-shirt. It was the first time in my life I felt like a villain.
In the back of the media room, people cheered—breaking standard press conference procedure—as both Boeheim and McNamara gleefully answered questions about how the title proved the doubters wrong.
It was clear: Syracuse hadn’t defeated Pittsburgh to win the Big East Tournament. It had beaten The Daily Orange.
* * *
Looking back on it now, it seems crazy. Gerry McNamara overrated?
But that’s the effect of hindsight. I do wonder how different McNamara’s legacy would have been if he didn’t make that floating shot against Cincinnati. Would Boeheim still have gone to bat for his player? Would anyone would have cared about the columns?
To be clear, I think McNamara has earned his spot as a Syracuse legend. I’ve always liked him as a player, a no-frills workhorse with a knack for the big shot.
I think part of what bothered me about McNamara was how high outside expectations were for him, and how he accomplished more when someone else was shouldering the burden of “The Main Guy.” Carmelo Anthony, from the moment he arrived in Syracuse, was The Main Guy. Hakim Warrick grew into the role. But, aside from those four days in March 2006, Gerry McNamara seemed to struggle as The Main Guy. Of course, Anthony and Warrick had something McNamara didn’t: a talented supporting cast that included Gerry McNamara.
McNamara never made it to the NBA. He bounced around overseas and the NBA Development League for a few years before retiring and taking a spot on Boeheim’s staff. He’s now an assistant coach for the Orange, and—should he hang around long enough—a likely candidate to be head coach one day. It wouldn’t be a bad hire.
McNamara continues to be the benchmark by which Orange guards are judged. The current Syracuse team has a scrappy, sweet-shooting guard named Trevor Cooney. Cooney’s style of play excited Syracuse fans when the Orange signed him five years ago. He gave the team something it hadn’t had since 2006.
But Cooney has been a little streaky in his four years playing for the Orange, prone to disappear when the team needs him to take charge. Though he still has a handful of games left in a Syracuse uniform, Cooney already has had the verdict on him handed in.
He’s good but he’s no Gerry McNamara.