You may remember 2015, when Syracuse announced that Jim Boeheim would “retire in three years.”
Then, in 2018, the Orange made it to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed, and upset TCU and Michigan State to make it to the Sweet 16 before finally losing to Duke, 69-65. It was a valiant effort to end Boeheim’s career and send a legend off into the sunset.
Except… Boeheim is still there, which is too bad, because it gives him a platform to air some really harmful opinions. The Syracuse coach is taking a lot of heat, including from Jay Bilas, for saying that Duke is “better now without” Jalen Johnson, the NBA prospect whose decision to opt out of the season launched a thousand bad takes.
The thing is, what Boeheim said about Johnson is at least defensible. It comes across as a shot at Johnson, because it absolutely is, but it’s far short of labeling Johnson a “quitter” or any of the other baseless criticisms lobbed at a 19-year-old who made a decision for himself and his future, and with the endorsement of his coach at Duke.
There’s a valid discussion to be had about Duke being a better team without Johnson, although Boeheim’s citation of two wins without him is wrong — it’s only one rout of Wake Forest, although Johnson played only eight minutes and scored just three points in his last game, a thrashing of N.C. State.
It’s very possible that Johnson is a better pro prospect than college player. You don’t have to look back too far to find an example of such a concept: Patrick Williams didn’t even start for Florida State last year, but was the No. 4 pick in the draft and has been impressive as a rookie with the Bulls. Johnson’s most impressive game as a collegiate player — 24 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, and four blocks with no turnovers — came in a 79-73 loss to Pittsburgh. Johnson averaged 2.5 turnovers per game and neither shot regularly from three-point range nor got himself to the foul line often. The idea, on its face, that Duke can be better without him, is not out there to the point of causing a ruckus.
But it’s not just about that point, it’s about Boeheim’s attitude and where he’s coming from, which is not just talking about Duke as a basketball team, but using that as the pretext for taking a shot at Johnson. He’s not making the case that Johnson is a better pro prospect than college player at all. And even his own former players, like Dajuan Coleman, can see it.
It’s also a pretty awful look when Boeheim makes $2.5 million a year to be an authority figure for athletes who don’t see a dime for their labor, and he’s out taking shots at Johnson opting out to ensure he remains in good health to protect his own financial future.
Far more troubling, though, is Boeheim weighing in on things that he has no business whatsoever being taken as any kind of expert about, like his rants on the same radio show about how Ivy League schools canceling spring sports shows that “they don’t care anything about their athletes” and how “of all the things they’ve said in New York State, the craziest is a 20,000-student school gets 100 cases [of COVID-19] and they have to go remote.” Those attitudes help put lives at risk, and should get Boeheim a lot more scorn than his veiled criticism of one athlete.
But let’s just hold onto this quote for the NCAA Tournament:
“Everything has been mapped out and planned out and I think it’ll be extremely well done. I don’t think anybody will have a problem with catching the disease once we get there.”
It would be great if Boeheim is right about that, and that March Madness can really go off without a hitch. But it would be a lot better to hear that from, say, Dr. Anthony Fauci, than from a guy who on the same radio show said, “We have a 30,000-seat dome. We can put 5,000 or 6,000 people in there easily.”
Ah, well. Earth-2, where Boeheim really did retire in 2018, must be nice.