Third Place Writing – Sports


30 years of hate: With tonight’s game, fierce rivalry turns three decades old

By Tyler Dunne

Decades of history rested on his shoulders. Georgetown’s Eric “Sleepy” Floyd was two free throws away from immortalizing himself as a villain in Central New York.

Thirty years ago. Five seconds left. Tied game. Syracuse’s final game at Manley Field House. And the Orangemen were in the midst of a 57-game home winning streak. Yes, the freshman Floyd had a chance to spoil the party, a chance to rear-end a storybook finish.

“I might have looked cool, but I know I was shaking inside,” said Floyd, a future NBA All-Star.

SU players vultured around Floyd, spraying him with trash talk to damage his psyche. Teammates offered encouragement. The 9,521 fans raged. Internally, Floyd repeated “Easy as ice cream, easy as ice cream” to himself – a self-meditation technique.

It worked. Floyd nailed the free throws. Georgetown won, 52-50. And what happened next forever fueled the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry. Hoyas head coach John Thompson took the scorer’s table microphone and declared, “Manley Field House is officially closed!”

The reaction was pin-drop speechlessness. Shock took on a life-form. No way could Syracuse lose this game. It didn’t fit the script. In 18 years, SU lost just 30 times at Manley. This made no sense.

“The fans were shocked they had actually lost because they didn’t think they would lose,” Floyd said. “And the players didn’t think they would lose. It was the last game at Manley Field House, and they were going to go out in style.”

Tonight’s game between No. 5 Syracuse and No. 12 Georgetown marks the 30-year reunion of Manley’s closing. The building was a perfect platform for this rivalry to develop. Thompson’s words still pierce through the memories of the Syracuse faithful, leading to three decades of one of collegiate sports’ fiercest rivalries.

These days, Manley Field House is mostly dormant, housing practices for various sports. It’s no longer the orange-throwing, fan-barking, temper-flaring war zone of old. But in annual Syracuse-Georgetown games, the legacy of Manley lives on.

Leo Rautins, the father of SU guard Andy Rautins, was a redshirt that season for the Orangemen. The wounds from that game, under those circumstances, will never heal.

“It ticks you off. From that point on, all games with Georgetown became battles,” Rautins said. “That just pissed every Syracuse fan off forever.”

An “intimidating” place

Once the echo from Thompson’s words dissipated and the tremor of shock faded, legendary SU center Roosevelt Bouie signed autographs at Manley for the final time.

His parents shuffled down from the bleachers. There was a short pause, and Bouie’s mom spoke up.

“She said, ‘Y’all suck! But I still love you,'” Bouie recalls with a chuckle. “We had the game put away. We were up by a good margin, and we let it slip away.”

The Orangemen led 30-16 at halftime and still held a four-point edge with 2:10 left. But down the stretch Syracuse missed 5-of-8 free throws. Bouie, the team’s leading scorer, was held to three points in the second half. Floyd drained his pressure shots. The streak died at 57.

But Bouie sees the big picture. A bitter rivalry was born that day. Former players talk about Manley like veterans piecing together old battle scenes. Long before the age of political correctness, games at Manley took on lives of their own. Rules were bent. Opponents, harassed.

Cramped inside a noise box, 10,000 fans transferred Manley into a house of horrors. No wonder SU won 86 percent of the time in the building.

“Going into Manley Field House was a huge, huge challenge,” Floyd said. “It’s very small and very intimidating. Basically, you had to look at it like you were starting out 10 points down in the game.”

It all started with rock-concert volume booming inside the arena before games. Bouie still remembers a pounding sensation in his chest when fans stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers. Communicating with teammates was impossible before tipoff. Before the jump ball, Bouie often cupped his hands and screamed last-minute tips into the ears of Louis Orr and Eddie Moss. No luck.

“They’d look at me like, ‘What?! I can’t understand what you’re saying.'”

Once the game began, an R-rated atmosphere ensued.

“Players back then were a little more creative when they were talking shit,” Rautins said. “You did your homework. You knew about guys. When you said something, it stung.”

One band of interrogators that certainly did their homework was the “Canine Club.” The group loitered underneath the opposing team’s basket and barked at players. From mothers to girlfriends, everything was fair game.

All the Canine Club needed was eye contact.

“The first one in the starting five that actually looked up into the stands was toast,” Bouie said. “(If it was me) I would have ran into the stands and it would be on. The only thing I kept thinking was, ‘Thank God I went to Syracuse.’ It’s one thing to have fans that say, ‘Yay, boo, ha, ha.’ But it’s another thing when they’re telling you intimate things about your family members.”

Then again, maybe that’s nothing new. So many college basketball games are packed with rowdy undergrads. Thing is, Manley fans went further. They dug deeper to affect the game. This home-court advantage was unique.

When a team went on a run, head coach Jim Boeheim never needed to burn a damage-control timeout. From afar, Bouie remembers a liter of soda being lofted onto the court. Officials needed a couple minutes to clean it up, and Boeheim’s players could regroup near the bench.

When an official made a questionable call, a frozen orange was catapulted onto the court – usually about 10 feet away from the ref.

“Never risking hitting him,” Bouie said, “but just enough to get his attention.”

Bouie remembers one or the other happening every game. Nobody cared to stop it. The orange and soda routine was accepted. What happens in Manley, stays in Manley.

“How can you throw that stuff out there every game and not get caught?” Bouie asked. “You can’t! So all I have to say is I’m pretty sure that if someone wanted to stop it, it could’ve been stopped.”

An everlasting rivalry

Today, Sleepy Floyd is a historian of sorts. Living in Charlotte, N.C., he’s never too far from ardent Duke and North Carolina fans. They constantly tout their status as the gold-standard rivalry in college hoops.

Thus, Floyd must remind everyone that there was once something bigger. Memories fade. It’s his job to rehash and relay stories about old Syracuse-Georgetown games.

“Down here in Charlotte,” Floyd said, “I try to explain to people that they don’t realize how intense that rivalry was for a long period of time.”

The year Manley closed – and Thompson nearly started World War III – was also the year the Big East conference was born. That game at Manley made Syracuse and Georgetown instant enemies and instant headliners for the young conference. They’ve had 63 matchups since then, with Syracuse holding the 33-30 edge. Forty of their games have been decided by 10 points or fewer. And the two teams have combined for 12 of the Big East’s 30 league tournament titles.

Year by year, the rivalry took new twists. Whether or not he played in the games didn’t matter. Floyd has a Rolodex of stories to pick from.

One that stands out is the 1984 Big East championship that Georgetown won, 82-71, in overtime. In Syracuse, the game may forever be under protest. With 3:52 left and SU holding a three-point lead, Georgetown’s Michael Graham shoved SU’s Andre Hawkins to the floor and hurled a wild, left-handed punch at his face. He barely missed, inches from devastation. An official scurried into the melee, shouting “Out! Out!” presumably to boot Graham from the game. Not so. Instead of getting four freebies and the ball – a flagrant foul plus the personal foul plus possession – Syracuse’s compensation was borderline insulting. A mere two-shot foul.

Afterward, Boeheim knocked a chair over and said, “Today, the best team didn’t win.”

The cat-and-mouse game between Boeheim and Thompson kept the rivalry fresh. Whenever Thompson rode the refs, Boeheim hustled over. And vice versa. To Georgetown fans, Boeheim was a whiner. To Syracuse fans, Thompson was a bully.

They played their roles to a “T.” For show, if nothing else.

“One time, Coach Boeheim got right up in Thompson’s face, and Thompson just pushed him away,” Bouie said. “They pretended like they were mad. When he walked away, Coach Boeheim was smiling. That was for the rivalry. That was for the Big East.”

More specifically, Thompson’s parental coaching style added mystery to the rivalry. The hulking, outspoken coach went to great lengths to isolate his players and harvest an us-against-the-world mentality.

To do so, Thompson bunked his players up at a hotel far from SU’s campus. It was a must. Syracuse students had the innate ability to find Thompson’s players. And if they did, Floyd and others were greeted with pizza deliveries at 3 a.m. and absurdly early wake-up calls.

“So we had to keep wherever we were staying a secret,” Floyd said. “There’s only so many places you can stay up there, so they eventually figured it out.”

The Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry always went beyond the game itself.

“It was personal,” Rautins said. “You wanted to get in their head. You wouldn’t even get by hotel security today.”

Georgetown owned the ’80s, Syracuse owned the ’90s and records were always thrown out the window. Thompson’s underdog card usually worked – the Hoyas are 5-0 against SU when Boeheim’s team is ranked in the top five. A good omen this season. Either way, the games are always close and always loud.

After some games, Rautins’ ears buzzed for hours. He’d leave the Carrier Dome, return to his room and it was impossible to write a paper. He couldn’t concentrate. The ibuprofen-proof ringing took all night to stop.

“You take the loudest you see the Dome today, and it doesn’t come close,” Rautins said. “It does not even come close to how it was in the early days of the Big East.”

Nothing like what he sees today from his courtside seat at his son’s games, Rautins admits. But that doesn’t mean the rivalry has waned.

Floyd sees signs of life. While driving a few weeks ago, Floyd spotted a car decked out in Georgetown décor. Floyd honked his horn to get the driver’s attention, and they exchanged fist pumps. This year, Floyd made a bet with a Syracuse fan. The loser must wear the other team’s apparel for an undisclosed amount of time.

Even along Tobacco Road, the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry remains strong. People remember its brute roots.

“I could be at a sports bar somewhere, and someone inevitably always comes up to talk about the rivalry,” Floyd said. “We try to equate the Carolina-Duke rivalry to the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry. We talk about how amazing it was, how competitive it is. Even today.

“It might not be at the same level, but I think that rivalry still goes on.”

A new chapter

He was only 14 years old at the time, but John Thompson III knew the full implications of his father’s words. Listening to the game on the radio from his home, he ate it up.

The moment his dad metaphorically slammed the doors of Manley Field House, Thompson III knew the rivalry would never be the same.

“There’s no doubt about that,” Thompson said. “But that was so long ago. There have been so many things since then. So many tough games and so many tough players that have perpetuated it and kept it going.”

Tonight adds a new chapter. Both Syracuse and Georgetown are surging. Both harbor realistic title hopes.

“Georgetown’s playing as well as anybody in the league, probably better,” Boeheim said.

As Thompson III said, a lot has changed since that night at Manley. The cast of characters. The venues. The teams around them. Former players lament that the 16-team Big East is watered down. But even as the conference continues to hook more and more teams, Syracuse-Georgetown endures. Participants in the rivalry are part of a fraternity. The games were a dangerous blender of hatred and respect.

In his final game with Syracuse, Leo Rautins opened a Pandora’s box of trash-talking on Patrick Ewing. Words “that you wouldn’t repeat to anybody.”

So of course – as fate would have it – there was Rautins at the New York Knicks’ camp, shooting around before a practice by himself. And Ewing suddenly appeared.

“I walk up and say ‘Hi,’ and the next thing I know we’re both laughing our asses off, talking about how crazy those games were,” Rautins said. “He remembered the same way I did. They were just wild and nuts. We both loved those games.”

Rautins’ son, Andy, has heard it all. He’s “well exposed” to the colorful stories, the ones his dad would rather not share with the public. Maybe 30 years since Manley’s closing, the rivalry takes another bold turn.

What began that night at Manley continues. When Syracuse and Georgetown meet, one thing is guaranteed.

“They were all battles,” Rautins said. “All wars.”