Ah, the 1995-96 Syracuse basketball team. I was in middle school at that time, and still in search of a college team to root for. Being from Long Island, I casually rooted for St. John’s, but I was still mostly a free agent.
I remember the moment when I became a Syracuse fan vividly. It was March 23, 1996, and Syracuse was down 70-68 against Georgia with two seconds to go. I was clearly rooting for the Orangemen because they were a team from New York (they should’ve hired me to create the slogan for the team).
John Wallace (still to this day my favorite player) unleashes a perfect pass to Jason Cipolla on the left baseline, and Cipolla rose and drained a shot while falling into the welcoming arms of Donovan McNabb. “OK, this is going to be my team,” I said, out loud, to no one in particular.
The clincher came a short time later when I watched Wallace sprint up court and uncork a 20-foot leaner to sink Georgia in a back-and-forth game that resembled a game of H-O-R-S-E more than anything else. (Not that any Syracuse fan needs me to describe these moments in history, but it’s still awesome anyway.)
So, long before I had any interest in journalism, or even knew what Newhouse was, I wanted to go to SU.
After losing three starters–including the school’s all-time leading scorer, Lawrence Moten–Syracuse, as a four seed from the west, improbably played Kentucky in the National Championship game. Who doesn’t love an underdog?
Sure, the Orangemen ended up losing 76-67, but looking back on a box score from that game, it’s next to impossible to even fathom that the Orangemen were even within four points with two minutes to go. The Wildcats were just stacked with talent up and down their roster.
While Syracuse had one player (Wallace) move on to the NBA, the Wildcats had nine. Even then, Wallace was the quintessential NBA journeyman, playing a total of 381 games in seven seasons for five different NBA teams before moving on to the international leagues.
Meanwhile, four of the Wildcats’ five starters would move on to the NBA. Overall, Tony Delk (545 games), Wayne Turner (3), Nazr Mohammed (977), Jeff Sheppard (18), Derek Anderson (615), Antoine Walker (893), Ron Mercer (432), Walter McCarty (593) and Mark Pope (153) would all have NBA careers of varying lengths.
Obviously Walker was the most successful of the group (at least on the court, not necessarily with his money), becoming an NBA champion and a 3-time NBA All-Star. Delk, Anderson and Mercer would become solid NBA contributors. Also, of the group, Mohammed lasted the longest, and played 80 games for the Bulls last season.
Two things really stuck out to me at the end of that game.
- Rick Pitino was a great recruiter, and hats off to him for being able to get the most out of his talent. Kentucky was No. 1 for most of the year, and deserved to win that game.
- Jim Boeheim did an exceptional job with this team. Syracuse lost nine games that season, with half of them coming during the early part of Big East play. The key adjustment of putting Cipolla into the lineup kick started the team to a remarkable run into the postseason. Getting to the National Championship game (on that topic, Syracuse had to beat a Kansas team that had Paul Pierce and five other future NBA players) and going toe-to-toe with the most talented and deep team in the country with only one NBA caliber player is something remarkable to look back on.
Not a bad way to start your Syracuse fandom career.