Central New York Gets A Bounce In Its Step When Syracuse Basketball Plays Like This
Forty-five minutes before game time, and the house appeared full.
Wait. There's two seats together without fannies in them or jackets draped to save them, a few rows from the back wall, dead center of the row.
Perfect. My dear wife Karen and I had found our spot to watch the Syracuse men's basketball team battle Duke this past Saturday night.
We would be part of a sold-out crowd, lending our two voices to a big throng that would once again prove the sports maxim that there's something special about being inside a filled-past-the-brim joint noisy from all the cheering.
And this isn't the Carrier Dome and its record-breaking crowd of 35,446 I'm referencing. No, this was the Palace Theater on James Street, where 680 or so souls took advantage of their offer of free admission to watch the Orange tangle with the Duke Blue Devils on the movie screen.
Terry Urbaedis and Joanne Esposito, of Cicero, stood in the pre-game line in the theater lobby, waiting to buy beverages. The joint was jumping, loud already with conversation about the undefeated Orange team meeting Duke for the first time ever as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Nobody was complaining that the line was kind of long and the service was sort of slow.
We were all in this together.
At this point of winter -- halfway to spring, sure, with more minutes of daylight added daily but additional feet of snow surely to stack up -- the Syracuse team, coached by Jim Boeheim and led by senior C.J. Fair, provides one wonderful rallying point.
"It's this time of year when it gets so exciting," Urbaedis says. "Especially now. We're 20-0. Watching this team gets you through to March Madness. Then there's St. Patrick's Day."
Esposito was appreciating the community feel. She grew up in Eastwood and attending Henninger High School.
"I'm seeing so many people I grew up with. It's a celebration. I'm seeing people I haven't seen since graduation," she said.
Urbaedis said the Palace was smart opening its doors to the fans.
"It's fun being in the thick of it," she said. "When you can't be at the dome, this is really great."
She turned out to be so very correct.
Fifteen minutes before game time, the guy up front with a microphone informed the crowd that nobody else would be getting in. The theater was officially filled.
Moments later, they put up on the screen a video clip of Beyonce singing the National Anthem. Some people joined in, just like in an arena or stadium.
ESPN started its broadcast and, lo and behold, everybody stood up again, as famous Syracuse alumnus Vanessa Williams sang the National Anthem from the dome.
The TV broadcast filled the movie screen. It was bigger than any flat screen in any bar, certainly.
The picture wasn't as sharp as high-definition, and the sound needed some fiddling to increase the volume. During the second half, somebody in the theater may have been leaning on and off the switch that turned on the houselights above the screen. When they came on, the game was harder to see. People hollered, and the problem went away after a few minutes.
The man with microphone became perhaps a tad too enthusiastic as the game wore on. Shouting cheers that thundered over the house PA and drowned out the TV broadcast announcers. Such cheers of "Let's Go Orange" and "defense" are best left to come organically, from the fans.
And cheer the fans did.
The game was thrilling, up and down and back and forth.
Duke tied it with a long three as time expired. Appropriate, it was, considering that Duke hit 15 three-pointers for the night.
Syracuse prevailed, 91-89 in overtime, but only after another last-ditch shot by Duke went long. The heroics of career-best scoring nights by Fair and Jarami Grant and steady guidance from freshman Tyler Ennis had prevailed.
The crowd in the Palace Theater danced and cheered and carried on.
The Orange was 21-0, its best start to a season ever.
Later that night, No. 1 Arizona lost for the first time this season, to California.
Monday afternoon, the Syracuse squad was unanimously selected as No. 1 in the Associated Press and USA Today polls. Monday night, guard Trevor Cooney had his career-best night, with his 33 points leading a 61-55 win over Notre Dame in the dome.
Sunday evening, Syracuse will meet Clemson in the dome, riding high at 22-0 and perfect exactly halfway through the ACC schedule at 9-0. There are more mediocre teams than usual in the ACC this season, but three obvious breath-holding games remain. Syracuse must play at Pittsburgh on Feb. 12 and at Virginia on March 1. And sandwiched between is a return match in Cameroon Indoor Stadium witnessed by the famed Crazies on Feb. 22.
People in Syracuse will be wearing Orange and talking Orange and rooting for the Orange.
Snow? What snow?
Do you think there's a chance that Syracuse could go undefeated this regular season? Through the ACC Tournament? Win the national championship?