It’s never easy to be the coach’s son. But for Jim and Buddy Boeheim of Syracuse, a strong relationship — and Buddy’s stellar play — is making things easier.
Juli Boeheim knows some people see her husband as a gruff, nasally-voiced 76-year old who seemingly has been coaching men’s basketball at Syracuse University since Dr. James Naismith first hung up a peach basket.
But she knows a softer side of her husband, especially when it comes to his youngest son, Jackson, who is known as Buddy. Juli recalls Jim and Buddy sitting on the couch watching cartoons or basketball games, Buddy with his blanket and stuffed animals, Jim’s hand gently resting somewhere on Buddy, often on the top of his head. She fondly remembers the times she and her husband would set up a small basketball hoop for the three children — Buddy, his twin sister, Jamie, and their older brother, Jimmy — and watch as they ran, one by one, into the playroom to dunk the ball.
Buddy Boeheim liked to pretend he was Gerry McNamara, the Syracuse assistant coach and former star player known for his long-range shooting, though the toddler pronounced it “Gerwy McDamarwa.”
Jim Boeheim has been the head coach at Syracuse since 1976, 23 years before Buddy, 21, was born. Now they are enjoying a storybook phase of their relationship, with father coaching son — who also happens to be Syracuse’s best player — on a run to the round of 16 of the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament. The 11th-seeded Orange will face No. 2 Houston in a regional semifinal on Saturday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
“I’m lucky, I’ve been it in 35 times as a coach and every time is special,” Jim Boeheim said of the tournament in a recent interview with ESPN. “This time is maybe even a little bit more special because I get to coach my son here. He’s become obviously a big part of our team and it’s been nice to see his development.”
In four postseason games in the A.C.C. and N.C.A.A. tournaments, Buddy Boeheim, listed at 6-foot-6, has averaged 28.2 points, surpassing his childhood hero McNamara, who averaged 16.2 points in a four-game run when he led Syracuse to the 2006 Big East Tournament title. In Boeheim’s last four games, he has made 24 three-pointers, including six in a win against West Virginia, and has drawn attention from N.B.A. scouts.
“We wanted size on Buddy, and we switched size off of him, and he shot it over the top of us,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said afterward.
Juli Boeheim said it was she — and not Jim — who first got their children involved in basketball, purely as a fun pastime. She worried early on that Jim might drive them too hard, prodding his children to “Shoot it again, shoot it again” during late-night sessions in the driveway.
“My mind-set was never, ‘Let me teach these kids how to play,’ or ‘OK guys, it’s time to play basketball,’” she said in a phone interview. “It was never, ever anything other than innocent fun and games. I never had any ulterior motives.”
Buddy was Juli’s affectionate name for Jackson when he was a young child. As he grew, teachers called him Jack or Buddy. “As soon as he started playing high school ball and they introduced him as Buddy, I said: ‘That’s it. Now it kind of sticks,’” she said.
There’s a long tradition of fathers’ coaching sons at the collegiate level, though Jim Boeheim is among only a few members of the Naismith Hall of Fame to have done it. The longtime coach Bob Knight, for example, coached his son, Pat, at Indiana in the early 1990s. But while Buddy is Syracuse’s star player, Pat Knight was far from the best player on his father’s teams.
“The two best scenarios are you either want to be the best player or you want to be the worst player,” Pat Knight said in a phone interview. “I was the worst player, just a guy coming off the bench, no pressure, nothing.”
He added that there is more pressure when the coach’s son is the team’s best player. If the son plays well, that is expected. If he doesn’t, people wonder if he’s only getting time because his father favored him over better options.
Greg McDermott, who will coach Creighton against No. 1 Gonzaga on Sunday, can relate to the Boeheims’ experience, having coached his son Doug, who led the nation in scoring with 26.7 points per game as a senior. Doug now plays for the Indiana Pacers.
“There’s no question it’s easier when he’s one of your best players because his teammates understand the value that he gives to winning,” Greg McDermott said.
“It was really important to Doug that I treated him like everybody else, and most people who watched us practice said they would never have been able to tell that Doug was my son. That made it easier for him with his teammates.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery has two of his three sons on his team — Patrick, a redshirt freshman, and Connor, a redshirt senior. Neither was the star on a team that featured the national player of the year favorite Luka Garza.
Buddy Boeheim only developed into a key player as he grew, averaging 6.8 points as a freshman, 15.3 as a sophomore and now 18 as a junior.
Greg McDermott said one the most important challenges for a coach’s son was learning to separate the coach from the father.
“It was probably hard for Buddy at first, too,” he said. “Forever that voice is your father’s voice, and then all of a sudden it becomes your coach’s voice, and it’s different.”
Boeheim said he had learned to separate when his father is coaching from when he is just the dad with whom Buddy enjoys an ice cream cone during downtime.
“He’ll yell at me if I make a mistake or tell me what I need to do better on offense or defense,” Buddy told ESPN, “and then off the court we like to talk about my brother or my mom or whatever’s going on, if she’s bothering us. We still joke around, we have fun and it’s a great.”
Another challenge for the sons of coaches: What to do when your teammates talk about the coach when he’s not around. What happens when they insult your father in your presence?
McCaffery said that before he began coaching his sons, he consulted Tubby Smith, who coached his son G.G. at Georgia and his younger son Saul at Kentucky.
According to McCaffery, Tubby asked G.G. what he would do if his teammates criticized his coaching. G.G. Smith said he would just walk away. But when Smith posed the same question to Saul at Kentucky, the answer was different.
No one, Saul Smith responded in no uncertain terms, would be allowed to say a bad word about Tubby in his presence. “They know better,” Saul said, according to McCaffery’s telling. “They better not be talking about you like that.”
Juli Boeheim said Buddy had never mentioned being in a difficult situation in the locker room or elsewhere when comments were made about his father.
“I’m sure he’s heard something over the three years, but never anything he talks about,” she said. “He’s a peacekeeper, so he would probably ignore it or walk away. He doesn’t like confrontation at all.”
For years, critics have said that Boeheim is past his prime. Syracuse won its only title in 2003, when Carmelo Anthony was the team’s star, but in five of the last six years the Orange have been on the bubble entering the tournament. Still, Boeheim has guided Syracuse to a Final Four and two round of 16 appearances since 2016, and Buddy is quick to defend his record.
“Do you know how many people would dream about going to two Sweet 16s, two Final Fours and an Elite Eight? In 10 years, I think that’s pretty good,” Buddy Boeheim said Sunday on a Zoom call. “He continues to do it. He’s one of the best coaches in all of sports. There’s no doubt about it.”
Boeheim has said he plans to coach as long as Buddy keeps playing, which may be two more seasons, depending on whether he takes the bonus year offered by the N.C.A.A. to winter-sport athletes during the pandemic.
At the same time, Jimmy Boeheim is a senior at Cornell who averaged 16.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists in the 2019-20 season before the Ivy League canceled the current one because of the pandemic. With eligibility left, he has the option of transferring to Syracuse next season to play alongside his brother, and his father.
Juli, playing coy, said, “That’s the rumor.”