I was one day away from starting my academic college experience. On Monday, Aug. 27, I would begin classes for my freshman year at Syracuse University. But I didn’t care. Nothing was more important than the interview I was readying for. When I walked through the corridor, I admired the photographs on the walls. I saw the great players I never really got to see in their college years: Dave Bing, Derrick Coleman, Ronny Seikaly. I saw the newer legends, who had recently made their ways onto the wall: Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara, John Wallace. I hesitantly made my way into Bernie Fine’s office, not knowing what to expect. I was nervous. I was anxious. But I was confident. I just knew I wanted to manage the Syracuse basketball team.
My basketball playing days ended when I retired at the end of the sixth grade. The Yorkville Basketball League just couldn’t handle me or my two points and one rebound per game. So when my playing career ended, I just started going to my friend’s games at school. I managed for the varsity team in high school (in the coolest way possible, of course). My high school coach had played for Bernie about 15 years before in the World Maccabiah Games in Israel, so when he arranged an interview with Bernie for me, I felt like I had a real shot to manage the team.
When I walked into Coach Fine’s office, the first thing he did was shake my hand with his notoriously firm grip. Bernie’s hands have always been a topic of conversation within the team: his notably firm handshake, his unique, Hulk-like ability to palm a weighted basketball and lift it from the ground as if he were Atlas lifting up the world. I don’t remember what we talked about in that interview, but I remember that at the end of the day, Bernie called me and about six or seven other freshmen back to the basketball offices to tell us we had gotten the job.
At each university, someone holds the title of “head of basketball operations.” Well, Bernie is essentially head of manager operations, and he is too nice to say no to anyone. He hired every manager that wanted to work. He let us work. He treated us as well as anyone possibly could. There is a reason that Syracuse has one of the largest basketball rosters of any team in the country. With 20 guys currently on the team, it is not because all 20 of them can play at the Division-I level. It is not because 20 undoubtedly dominant college players have ventured to Western New York to help conquer the Big East. It is because Bernie Fine is simply too nice to say no.
That too-nice-to-say-no fervor doesn’t just describe Bernie as a coach, but as a man. As that same nervous, nerdy freshman, I had already started to formulate a wonderful relationship with Bernie just one month into the school year. I wasn’t remarkable. I was no exception. Bernie had this sort of relationship with every manager, with every player. It was the type teacher-student relationship that made you think you were always his favorite, except that everyone thinks he is Bernie’s favorite. That’s just Bernie. He is the type of person that at the end of September invited every Jewish player and manager to go to temple with him and his family for Rosh Hashanah. He is the type of person who did the exact same thing nine days later for Yom Kippur.
Bernie has always worked with the forwards. He wants to see guys who are bruisers, guys who will initiate contact in the paint. He has the managers hold giant pads during drills and run into the forwards full speed during rebounding drills. It led to a fair share of bloody noses on our part, but I don’t think Bernie ever really acknowledged that. His demeanor in practice hardly reflects his manner when he is just engaged in conversation. He’ll yell, he’ll criticize, he’ll surely get mad. His intensity is indiscriminate. If a player doesn’t go up hard enough, he’ll hear it. If a manager doesn’t hit a player with enough force, he’ll hear it. Bernie isn’t just a coach. He is a teacher. And he’s made it apparent in his years at Syracuse that he is not just there to drill the players, but to also act as a teacher to everyone involved in the program, including the managers.
At the end of my freshman year, I transferred to Missouri. It had nothing to do with Syracuse basketball. In fact, I look back on my managing experience as an overwhelming positive. Even though I left, Bernie and I still keep in touch. We have emailed as recently as just a couple weeks ago. Then on Thursday night, I turned on my TV and saw the ESPN Bottom Line. A plethora of emotions started to run through my body. Days later, I still feel the same way. I’m still harboring those exact same emotions. I am angry. I am frustrated. I am confused. I am sad. I am as outraged as I have ever been. I still have no idea who or what any of these feelings are targeted at, but they’re present. They’re with me.
This is Bernie we’re talking about. This is the man who is an absolute legend, the man who so many outstanding people consider to be an outstanding friend. Coach Boeheim has been adamant in his defense of Bernie. Can you blame him? Bernie isn’t just a long-time assistant to him. Bernie was part of Boeheim’s first staff. Before that, he was a Syracuse manager when Boeheim was a player. They have known each other for 50 years. Boeheim isn’t defending a coach or a program. He is defending a friend. After spending the past few days talking to friends within the program, I can safely say that Coach Boeheim’s sentiment trickles down. Former and current managers and players refuse to believe that Bernie could even slightly wrong another human being. He is an idol, a legend. He has as great of a résumé as any assistant coach in college basketball possibly could.
But now that résumé is irrelevant. To many people, the reputation that Bernie has had for 65 years of his life no longer matters. But to everyone that knows him, those 65 years are all that matters. I always assumed that the corridor with pictures of Melo and Derrick Coleman would one day hold a picture of Bernie Fine, sitting on the bench in his usual seat next to Coach Boeheim. Now, everyone that still cares about Bernie needs to wait and find out if it should.