The 1995-96 Syracuse basketball team, which made it all the way to the National Championship game, was honored during halftime of Saturday’s Syracuse-Pittsburgh game. John Wallace and Lazarus Sims were among those on hand, and they spoke with the media after about their experiences both during the ceremony, and on their magical Final Four run. Here’s what they had to say:
Q. Tell us what it’s like to be back at the Carrier Dome.
Lazarus Sims: It’s great to be back. The moment is surreal for the both of us. It’s where it all started for us. Came in together, finished together, had a great run, the chemistry has always been there, (it’s) still there. So to come back and see the crowd, see how our team is doing and to get the love that we just got, is just full circle for us.
John Wallace: Me personally coming back is always a beautiful thing. Like I said out there, the love that’s shown every time I’m back in the building is just incredible. Like Z said, it’s surreal. It’s very humbling. I mean, I get goosebumps everything I walk back into the Dome. There’s no better place to play college basketball in the United States.
Q. When did you know that the 1996 team was going to be a special team?
JW: Honestly, I tell people all of the time, the credit that Lazarus deserves for that team chemistry, he’s the guy that got everyone the ball. He’s the one that was a consummate point guard. A pass first point guard, so guys like myself, Todd Burgan, Otis (Hill), we were always working to get open. Because we knew the minute we were open, the ball would be delivered. So it makes it easy to play, makes everyone play a little harder, play a little bit better defense when you’re getting the ball and you’re involved in the offense constantly.
Q. Did it make it all that much sweeter that you guys kind of came out of nowhere to make that run?
JW: Everyone counted us out. Everyone kinda remembers that year, I was kind of surly at all of the press conferences, because I was like ‘why are you guys hopping on the bandwagon?’ (Sims) Because expected it. (Wallace continues) Yeah, we knew. We talked about it from day one. If we’re able to do what we’re doing in practice and pickup games now, and we knew Lazarus was going to get us the ball, I firmly believed that I was going to be the best player on the court every game. And when you have those things in place, we had a chance to win every single game.
Q: Did it mean anything extra to you being local guys?
LS: It’s still the same. It was a great run. But just being local, and being a part of that team, the run meant so much. Because we invited the community, we invited the campus, we did things on campus that other teams don’t do, and it was natural. It wasn’t forced. It was just what we were. We made ourselves a part of the community, a part of the campus. So the run was for everyone. We just ran with it, and like he said, I enjoyed watched these guys finish. And that was my joy, protecting my teammates and making them feel good. They did the same for me. It was chemistry from (when we talked in the) door. I mean, John, we’ve been playing since sixth grade together. So once we both signed, we said we were coming to school together. It was a done deal.
JW: Being two guys from upstate, to bring that kind of joy an excitement back to upstate. Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish it off with a victory. If I didn’t foul out, I firmly believe we would have definitely won. I reiterated over the years, that was the only play where Lazarus and I weren’t on the same page. My fifth foul. We’ve been playing together, like he said, from sixth grade, and for us to play 10 years together, and not be on the same page together for one play, when I was calling for the lob, and he threw a chest pass, I still don’t think I fouled the guy trying to retrieve the ball. But that’s neither here nor there right now. We’re here to celebrate right now. And what a great moment that was for Syracuse fans and ourselves.
Q. John, you almost didn’t come back for the 96 season. Do you ever thing about what your life would’ve been like if you didn’t come back for your senior year?
JW: I can remember vividly sitting at the Final Four table when we made it, and Lazarus, before anyone said anything, said ‘This is why he came back.’ And it was true. That, coming back my senior year, cemented my legacy at Syracuse. If I leave after my junior year, I’m just another good player that played at Syracuse. Coming back my senior year, going to the Final Four, making it to the championship, that cemented my legacy up here, and I’m proud and forever grateful for the love I’ve always received up here, playing with such a great point guard in Lazarus.
LS: And let me add to that. One of the reasons he came back, like I reiterated, is our chemistry. We told each other in high school that we were going to be there for each other. And we were going to finish off, and do great things, together. He put his foot in the water with the draft, but he also (saw) the bigger picture. So he decided to come back and cement himself with the higher echelon players in the country. And to me, he was one of the best players, if not the best player, in the country.
JW: Let me answer that a little bit for Lazarus. We were roommate. I’m seeing him going through tough times. He should be playing. When you’re a competitor, you want to play. And unfortunately, he didn’t come out playing immediately because he was playing with Adrian Autry. But to preserver and to not give up on yourself, to just say, this is my final run and I’m going to make the most of it. He could’ve hung his hand and said, you know what? I got a raw deal. I’m going to pout. But he didn’t. He did the exact opposite. He said I’m going to make the most of this, my senior year, I’m going to leave with a bang, and he really did. There’s a lot to be said about a person who went through the trials and tribulations that he did, being a local star, being highly sought after, highly coveted, and to come here and not to play immediately. And to go through some growing pains. It’s amazing accomplishment for Lazarus to persevere through all of that adversity.
LS: Like he said, it’s a maturation process. It molded me into the person I am today. It instilled in me what I knew growing up. Like he said, I was highly regarded coming out of high school and could’ve went anywhere and chose to stay home. And then to be humbled and not play right away, was a growing experience. And it was a lesson that taught me and helped me through life. And gives me the understanding that you’re not privileged with this stuff. You have to earn it. And when you earn it, you feel a lot better than if someone just gave you something. Because you don’t understand the fruits of your labor, or the fruits of people’s labor that came before you. I understood the great history of Syracuse and the great players that came before me. So I worked and wanted to be a part of that group. But I didn’t put my head down. Numerous nights, John and I played one-on-one and wouldn’t let each other go home. And (Jim) Boeheim had to stop us. (Wallace) Of course I got the edge in the series, but go ahead. (Laughter) (Sims) He’ll tell you that right now, but on camera. It made me respect the game, it made me respect what I was working for and what I would become. And it matured me. It matured me faster and I think me not playing earlier helped my team get to the Final Four.