Published on March 27, 2017
Story, photos, video and audio by Jon Cerio
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — People in Syracuse and Central New York know that, like the weather, plans can change in a heartbeat. Sometimes the weather is the reason for the change and they were reminded of all that during four days in the middle of March.
When it comes to Syracuse men’s basketball, some fans are more hard-core than others. You could call it “Syracuse Mentality.”
The Syracuse men’s basketball team and its fans went from hoping on Selection Sunday for a spot in the NCAA tournament to planning an NIT game at the Carrier Dome for Tuesday, to finally playing the game on Wednesday.
Media got the postponement news in an email on Tuesday from the team’s Sports Information Director Pete Moore.
“After consultation with Onondaga County and City of Syracuse authorities, as well as the NCAA, and with fan and participant safety the top priority, tonight’s NIT game between Syracuse and UNCG has been postponed,” it read.
Onondaga County had issued a travel advisory early that morning and while the University of North Carolina at Greensboro team had arrived on Monday, getting fans and others safely to the game and back remained a concern.
Say it Ain’t Snow
Between Tuesday morning and 7 p.m. Wednesday evening, more than 25 inches of snow fell in the city. Schools and businesses in the area were closed or running on essential staff only on both days and with SU students away on spring break, that applied to the university as well.
Even on the eventual game day, conditions were still pretty challenging. The advisory had been lifted in the afternoon but the Syracuse University campus is located on a hill, and cars and trucks still had trouble making it up the slick Adams Street incline.
On Waverly Avenue, near Marshall Street and Irving Avenue a few blocks downhill from the Dome, intersections were still filled with slush. Drivers hoping to get a running start to power through the mess had to watch for pedestrians crossing in front of them.
The temperature was about 20 degrees but the wind chill made it feel more like six.
Normally, Syracuse city police officers are stationed by the busy intersections of Harrison Street and Almond street, at the off ramps of Interstate 81 North and South, directing traffic for SU games. On Wednesday, their absence was apparent.
There were no lines of cars waiting to sneak past patrol’s waving arms. No sea of red taillights impeding your progress as you inched forward. Nothing but white covering the roads, buildings, and white knuckles on fists clenched to steering wheels.
Even if you got up the hill and through the thick, icy terrain, you still had to park. University staff did a reasonable job of clearing parking lots, including the West Lot, with one key exception – exiting on foot.
Unless your plan was to backtrack the 50-plus yards or so to where you entered on this blustery night, you had to find the footpaths of previous patrons’ steps to exit the perimeter.
There were lines in the lot of fans trying to do this, with borderline success. It was a balancing act of sorts – one shoe in a foothold, leg covered in the white stuff, as you pivoted your other foot forward, hoping that you weren’t stepping onto ice or slippery slush. The process was even harder for media people carrying cameras and tripods, as the added weight made balancing even more of a challenge.
Slippery steps and howling into the wind
Then came the steps – which you avoided if at all possible. The 20 or so steps in between Sadler and Lawrinson residence halls were even more harrowing. Even though there were railings for support, the steps were not well cleared. It was as if you were attempting an obstacle course, finding the path, each step more precarious than the last.
If you cleared those, you then made your way around Sadler, where the bitter wind would beat against you, as if offended by your persistence.
One fan spoke into the wind loudly enough for passersby to hear.
“How did Wake Forest get in (to the NCAA tournament) over us?”
Salt of the Earth
When you finally made it to the Carrier Dome, you had plenty more steps to climb. At least these ones, along with the surrounding sidewalks, were better cared for.
That’s thanks in no small part to Syracuse University maintenance workers such as Chris Oliver. Oliver put in the extra hours shoveling dozens of steps, and then applying a generous amount of salt afterward, to help protect the fans. For him and his coworkers, this storm was harder than the norm.
“Just a heavier snow load the last couple of days, you know a little windier,” Oliver said. “So you just gotta apply it a little heavier and keep moving.”
Oliver maintained his smile, but appeared a little winded by the conditions. When asked if he was glad there was yet another home game to prepare for, he only had to say two words.
“Oh yeah,” Oliver replied with a smile.
And with that, he was down the steps, spreading some extra salt. Another local guy with a tough Syracuse mentality.
Once through the Dome’s doors, the idea of sparse lots, sidewalks and roadways paled in comparison to what greeted you inside.
The sight of silver was jarring, as row upon row of aluminum bleachers sat empty. The bright Dome lights reflected off the benches, making the bleak turnout that much more apparent.
For fans of one of the Northeast’s premiere teams, it was like the Wild West when finding a seat. The usual rules and restrictions did not apply on this night. It was first come, first serve, as bargain hunters willing to brave the elements were rewarded with good basketball – and a better vantage point.
“I’d seen some tickets for $25 for courtside, so I was like ‘I ain’t missing this,’ Watertown resident Montezze Smarr said. “If I had to get stuck, I was going to get stuck. Courtside at a Syracuse game? You can’t beat that.”
Smarr was giddy with enthusiasm, getting to witness his first game up close. He made the 85-mile trek from the Fort Drum region to see the Orange in action.
“We’re kind of used to it. We were kind of wondering why everyone was complaining,” Smarr kidded. “Welcome to our world.”
On the floor, Orange players warmed up in shirts with the slogan “Syracuse Mentality.”
It refers to the attitude of the team, but just as easily describes the attitude of the hard-core fans who made it to the Dome on this night
“It’s not a blizzard,” Syracuse native Steve Haller said. “We live in Syracuse. It’s a Tuesday – Wednesday in this case. It was supposed to be a Tuesday.”
“Eh, it’s not too bad,” Andy Wilson said. “It’s alright, we’ve had worse.”
Wilson stood at the most congested spot in or out of the Dome that night – the concession stand. Due to the limited turnout, very few stands were in operation. As a result, fans were bottle-necked through the area at halftime. If you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought you were in the middle of a sellout crowd.
Not-So Loud House
When you combine the tough conditions, and the fact that SU had been eliminated from NCAA tournament contention, the “loud house” wasn’t quite as loud on this evening.
Syracuse had drawn more than 30,000 fans for its victory against Duke a few weeks back, on a mild, February night.This was not Duke nor was it the NCAA. NIT games, rare as they are in Syracuse, usually don’t draw big crowds anyway. Here in mid-March, in the lingering wake of the storm only 4,288 fans bought a ticket.
“It was definitely a smaller crowd,” Syracuse freshman guard Tyus Battle said. “It’s just good seeing people out there to support us.”
Fans who did show up were rewarded. Besides cheaper-than-normal seating, the team pulled off a victory.
Syracuse beat UNCG, thanks in large part to graduate student forward Andrew White III’s record night. White hit seven three-point shots, and officially passed current assistant coach Gerry McNamara for most threes made in a single season. White ended up with 109 on the season after the game, two ahead of the McNamara record that stood for 12 years.
“I just wanted to make sure that I gave my team and my coaches and the fans that were here supporting us something to be proud of,” White said.
After the game, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim spoke of the fans to an average-sized crowd of about 20 in the press corps.
“I thought the people were good, I thought they were very good,” Boeheim said. “Obviously it’s tough to get out and get here. The fans that were here were very good, very excited.”
After the game, fans weren’t as excited to head back out into the night and make their way home. One thing did make it a little easier, however.
There were no traffic jams on this night.