This is coming a few weeks before the official anniversary, but since there’s a big celebration of the accomplishment this weekend, I thought I’d write.
I was a senior in high school and had been admitted to Syracuse University. While this is where I likely wanted to go to college, there were a couple schools where I’d been admitted. I grew up in several places, none of which were Syracuse, but my dad was an alum and he’d given me the passion for Syracuse, too. Growing up, he made sure I knew who the biggest SU basketball rivals were, to the point that not only did I think that Georgetown was a bad school for basketball, I legitimately thought it was a bad school until the valedictorian at my high school, who’d been admitted to Georgetown, couldn’t understand why I questioned her judgement in applying to a school like that.
One of the places I lived growing up was South Bend, Indiana, home to plenty of Indiana University alums. I learned the name Keith “f-ing" Smart early on in life. There’s a story of an early date my mom and dad went on after they’d first met where they saw an SU game and the Orange lost, causing my dad to tear up his alumni card he was so mad. Clearly I was born with Orange in my blood.
With all that history, though, SU wasn’t for sure for me. I had a time where I really wanted to go to University of Michigan (I have memories imprinted of my older cousin — a Michigan alum who was a student during the Fab Five years — cursing loudly as Chris Webber mistakenly called a timeout at the end of the National Championship game leading to a loss). I applied to Wisconsin and Boston University. The huge Big Ten school and the school in the middle of a city were both attractive to me.
So, to decide, Syracuse had a weekend in the spring where they would show off campus and try to convince admitted students to accept and enroll. Of course we planned to go on one of the dates offered, April 7.
By this point, we all knew that Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the team could be something special, but that was about it. When we chose that date, there was no inkling that we might actually see the Orange play for the championship while we were on campus.
As the weeks proceeded, and the NCAA tournament began, SU just kept on winning. After the elite eight game when SU beat Oklahoma, we realized what could be happening — if SU won again, we’d be on campus as the team played for its first national championship. But, we’d never publicly acknowledge what was so clear. God forbid we jinx anything.
On Saturday night, SU beat Texas to advance to the championship game. This was all coming together! We headed to SU. Now, I’d been to visit campus the previous fall, and it was beautiful. Not yet winter, the weather was perfect. Not cold, leaves changing, etc. Not so in April. But SU was in the national championship.
During the day on Monday, I got tours of campus and learned what it’d be like to be a student at SU. That night, we went to the Dome to watch the game — they were projecting it on the big screen from New Orleans. The stadium was packed, and I was watching what might be my college team with my dad playing for their first title. The same coach who started his career when my dad was in school was still there. Super cool.
Of course, we were stressed. In 1996 SU made it to the national championship with John Wallace, but couldn’t succeed. It wouldn’t happen this night either, right? But somehow, it did. Carmelo did his thing, Gerry McNamara couldn’t miss. Billy Edelin, Kueth Duany, and more, all kept it going. And then when it seemed like everything would crash down as Kansas ate into the large SU lead, Hakeem Warrick reached out his long arm and blocked the shot, securing the win for SU. Amazing. And also, clearly I’m going to SU.
Had that game not happened, maybe I still would have gone to Syracuse, but maybe not. But I feel lucky that the game did happen and it led me to that decision.
While the team never reached the title again, it did provide other amazing moments. While I was there McNamara was in my statistics class and I remember seeing Carmelo out late on Marshall street during a visit back to campus. We got to watch GMac’s final game in front of more than 30,000 people, and then watch him lead the team to a Big East Championship, miraculously. During that tournament, I ended up spending to a midterm because I couldn’t stop watching the game early. I convinced another professor to turn on the game against UConn instead of holding class — this was the better decision.
I got to meet people that are still some of my closest friends. When I graduated, I moved to Washington DC but still kept my orange fandom, getting involved with the alumni club and going to Sign of the Whale to watch games — including the 6 overtime classic where we convinced the bar to stay open and serving drinks even though it was too late and they had to close. Going into work the next day, I wore my orange proudly.
Erika and I, before we got married, decided we wanted to live and work abroad for a year. We moved to Korea, and though this was the farthest if ever been from Syracuse, I continued to stay connected. The 2010 team had a chance to be champions, and I watched as many games as I could even though the tone difference made it brutal. Unfortunately when Arinze Onuaku got injured, dreams of a title vanished.
After Korea, we moved back to DC. During that time SU announced it was leaving the Big East. OMG. What does that mean for my identity? Do I still hate Georgetown, UConn, Pitt, Nova, St. John’s, and more? Yes, yes I do. But this was a tough one.
I never thought I’d move to Syracuse again. But then I did. Erika and I were married, thinking about starting a family, and knew life in DC would be harder and more expensive. Being involved in the alumni club, I met staff that mentioned if I were ever interested, there was a job in the alumni office I could apply for. Ok, sure.
I applied, got the job, and we were heading back to Central New York. Undergrad alum, check. SU staff, check.
In the first year I was at SU, the team one again surged. That 2013 team magically advanced through the tournament. Erika was pregnant and the baby was late. She was due at any time. SU was in the final four. I tuned in, obviously. It was a hard fight game against Michigan and unfortunately SU lost. Within an hour, I’m totally emotionally wiped and Erika goes into labor. Bad timing if I’m making this all about me. 36 hours later, I’m a dad and we are thrilled. Parents in Syracuse.
One of the benefits of working for the university was that I could get a Masters Degree essentially for free. Sign me up.
Working full time and starting a family, I need a flexible program. Ideally an online Masters where I could do the classes at night. At the time, SU really only had one offering like that. A Masters in information management with a concentration in data science. I knew I liked data, but didn’t know I had a passion for it. Turns out I do. Undergrad alum, check. SU staff, check. Grad alum, check.
Once I’d graduated, I was ready to move on from the University — sometimes seeing the sausage get made at a place you love is tough. Turns out I love Syracuse though, so we stayed. I had the opportunity to work for the City on a newly formed innovation team. Before long I was the first chief data officer the city ever had. Thanks Hakeem Warrick for blocking that shot, you connected me to a place where now I could be a public servant. Walking into city hall every day. Working with passionate people who love this place (even if they’re sometimes a little grumpy) was such a privilege.
During the tube with the city, I decided to be an adjunct professor, too. Undergrad alum, check. SU staff, check. Graduate alum, check. SU faculty, check. I got to teach at each of the schools from where I graduated, Maxwell and the iSchool.
When COVID hit, we had 3 kids by this point, and Syracuse was the perfect place to be. Plenty of hiking trails with plenty of social distance. Some opportunity for quiet.
During that time, I decided it was tone to switch jobs again, and for the first time since moving here, if work somewhere with no connection to the city. It was time. We love it here, but needed a little space for work/like balance. The thrill of seeing a policy you helped develop do into action is awesome. The stress of worrying that policy will work when it impacts your neighbors is…not always fun.
A couple weeks ago we got out of the cold and had a vacation in Florida. Reprieve from Syracuse winters is always nice, but I have to admit, getting off the plane at Hancock airport and feeling the sting of cold felt good. Yesterday, I was driving back from a visit to my current employers office in Manhattan. Driving up 81 North and seeing the city reveal itself never gets old for me, I felt like I was home.
When Erika and I moved here in 2012, we thought we’d be here for 3 years. Now more than 10 years later, after having 3 kids — two of whom are already in Syracuse public schools — and on our second house, it is hard to imagine leaving. I believe my kiddos all have orange in their blood too, one of them even had Orange hair! I still get deja Vu every once in a while driving past a place I probably haven’t been since I was in college. My coworkers make fun of me everyone I try to convince them to nice here. I should get paid by the city, they say. Been there, done that. It’s so cheap here and the weather isn’t too bad, I say. Sure Sam, they say.
The Dome looks different than it did 20 years ago, and it is hard to believe I’ve lived longer since that night than before it. But, Boeheim is still around, the Done still stands, and I continue to love those place. Undergrad alum, check. SU staff, check. Grad alum, check. SU professor, check. Home, check.