(Editor’s note: Over the summer, leading up to the 2016 football preview series in late August, Orange Watch will highlight various antidotes related to Syracuse athletics.)
Item: Thanks to statute of limitations, we feel we can now share the story of how we came to be in possession of the “SYRACUSE” scoreboard sign (pictured) that was used during the Syracuse-Kentucky basketball game on February 28, 1988 in Lexington, a game the Orangemen couldn’t hold a nine point lead over the last 12 minutes with the Wildcats rallying to win 62-58.
As Syracuse basketball made its march through the 1970s into the early 80s, growing from an upstate New York regional program with fierce rivals such as St. Bonaventure, Niagara and St. John’s, to a national brand with Jim Boeheim taking over in 1976 and the Big East and Carrier Dome following a few seasons later, igniting the all-time Georgetown rivalry along the way, programs that the Orange now join in the all-time top five in victories – Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Duke – were still the envy to SU’s faithful.
All but Duke had won at least one national title prior to Boeheim’s first season, and the Blue Devils had been national runners-up three times by the end of Boeheim’s second season in 1978.
Simply put, aiming towards those winning Blue Blood programs with Big Blue Kentucky on top, was the direction Syracuse basketball aspired, and even a shocking ‘Cuse Final Four appearance under Roy Danforth in 1975 which resulted in defeats to Kentucky and Louisville, was dismissed by many, Kentucky included, as merely a blip on the national college hoops radar.
We always noticed from afar that UK did everything tastefully in regards to the visiting teams that came into Rupp Arena which opened in 1976, sometimes down to the finest details. When Syracuse played UK in the Kentucky Invitational consolation game in 1978, what struck us from watching film of that game was how they took the extra step to customize the visiting team’s name, as opposed to just having the generic word “VISITOR” on the four corner scoreboards of the building.
The four customized “SYRACUSE” signs were slid on a mini track into each board’s slot for the visiting team. Each sign was 10” X 48” made out of a fiberglass-like material with each of the letters in the team name carved out using a stencil and creating the white letter space that was illuminated by the light bulbs built in behind the sign (obviously a different world from today’s digital boards).
We could understand having a set of four signs for each SEC team that Kentucky would host each season, but four custom team name signs for each game no matter the opponent? We always thought that was impressive and classy.
Fast forward almost 10 years to the third-from-last regular season game of the 1987-88 season. Since that aforementioned 1975 national semifinal defeat to Kentucky at San Diego, no Syracuse basketball team had worn a blue uniform in a game, that is until Nike finally put on enough pressure to get Boeheim to relent and allow for blue jerseys to be worn for a Sunday afternoon CBS national telecast between the No. 10 Orangemen and 12th ranked Wildcats at Rupp.
The blue jerseys had been rumored for much of the season, but the shocking site of no orange for a road game was so distinct that CBS play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger made sure to alert potentially confused Syracuse fans that yes, that was their team wearing blue, within 30 seconds of the opening tipoff.
Covering the game courtside for the New York State Radio Network and WSYR-AM in Syracuse, we stared over and over at the scoreboard closest to our seat location, thinking that that custom made “SYRACUSE” sign would be the ultimate souvenir from the home court of the sport’s winningest program.
In a tense game that changed momentum after Rony Seikaly drew his third and fourth fouls within a minute late in the second half, UK’s Eric Manuel and Winston Bennett did the most damage to the Orangemen with a couple of dagger shots late, offsetting Seikaly’s 21 points, and Derrick Coleman’s 15 boards.
Afterwards, hosting the network postgame talk show with the arena long emptied save for a few scattered workers, during one of the news breaks up we bolted to the closest scoreboard and calmly oversaw the removal of the sign out of the track exposing the many light bulbs. Then it was back down the steep Rupp steps trying to hide a non-concealable item and eventually the sign was out of the building.
Getting a large, bend-but-not-break oversized object back to Syracuse on a plane the next day, even during pre-9/11 flying, was tricky. The sign finally found a home in a hanging clothes closet thanks to a gracious flight attendant, although we felt awful after the plane came to a stop when the same flight attendant was left hobbling in pain after receiving a nasty gash to her shin removing the slightly bent sign from its holding place.
In this eBay age who knows what it might be worth to an Orange fanatic or anyone else for that matter, but it’s staying put on an office wall shouting out its own memories.