BEHIND THE INTERVIEWS: RONY SEIKALY

BEHIND THE INTERVIEWS: RONY SEIKALY

December 31st, 2014
(Fourth in a series of articles about the writing of BLEEDING ORANGE, which I co-authored with Jim Boeheim.)

There seemed to be an apocryphal aspect to the Syracuse story of Rony Seikaly, the sudden discovery of the raw-boned kid who was born in Beirut, the larger-than-life natural talent who had to be reined in, the tempestuous relationship he had with Boeheim.

Except it’s all true.

I had my doubts about Boeheim’s claim that he knew nothing about Seikaly when he showed up to play at summer camp, but Seikaly confirms it. “Jim didn’t know anything about me,” Seikaly said during an interview for BLEEDING ORANGE. “At first he thought it was someone pulling a fast one on him. Colleges spend all this time and money looking for players, and here comes somebody out of nowhere who was unrecruited.”

Actually it wasn’t quite out of nowhere. Seikaly had a sister and an uncle who went to Syracuse, and several years before he materialized at Boeheim’s basketball camp he had gone to a game at the Carrier Dome. “We sat in the nosebleed section,” Seikaly says, “but it didn’t matter. I said, ‘I’m going to play here.’” He kept that pledge and signed on in 1984, a question-mark recruit with loads of potential in that sculpted 6’11’’ 230-pound body.

The interview I did with Seikaly was a little different than the interviews with most of the other Syracuse players to whom I talked. The subtext was not his eternal fealty to the program or his enduring relationship with Boeheim, but, rather, the sometimes fractious relationship he had with the coach over four eventful seasons.

Coach and player see it differently, of course. The way Jim saw it is that he had an ultra-talented player who was somewhat stubborn about working on the fine points of his game; Seikaly, for his part, saw an athlete who, yes, was lacking some rudimentary basketball skills in the beginning, but one who worked hard on his game yet could never get the coach to completely change his mind about him.

The Boeheim side of the story is in BLEEDING ORANGE. Buy it here: http://tinyurl.com/qc5azsn

So this belongs to Seikaly.

“Yes, we had our differences,” Seikaly says. “Coach just had a different way of motivating players, but at the end of the day, I guess, it gets results for him.”

That obviously wasn’t a complete endorsement, so I pressed Seikaly about it.

“When you’re going through it, you’re wondering: Why is it me he’s on all the time, and not anyone else? Look, I understood it a little bit. In me Jim saw this immense athletic ability that he wanted to hone into a basketball player. I had only started playing the game at 14 or 15, so maybe I didn’t do the right things the way you did when you started playing at 7 or 8.

“What specifically? Well, it wasn’t about playing hard like some people might think. It was more about picking up the silly fouls. That drove him crazy. If somebody drove to the basket I tried to challenge them, challenge every shot that went up in the paint. And sometimes that got me in foul trouble.”

Seikaly also suffered—and Boeheim concedes this himself—from comparisons to Derrick Coleman, who played with Seikaly in Rony’s final two seasons. They presented a formidable twin-tower interior, one that took ‘Cuse to the NCAA championship game in 1987, but they were different kinds of players. Coleman was as smart a player as Boeheim ever had. The game seemed to be bred into him, and so whereas Seikaly always seemed to be struggling Coleman always seemed to have an answer, his up-and-down competitive attitude notwithstanding.

Seikaly acknowledges Coleman’s fundamental supremacy but feels he felt Boeheim’s wrath, more than Coleman did, for a specific reason. Here’s Seikaly’s take on Coleman:

“Derrick had everything I didn’t have, a basketball feel, a knowledge and familiarity with the game. Derrick is by far the best big man I ever played with, so immensely talented. [Seikaly includes his 11 years in the NBA when he says that.]

“But I think Coach Boeheim realized one thing about Derrick—that he had the sort of personality you couldn’t push. He would’ve loved to have pushed Derrick like he pushed me, but he knew he couldn’t. If Derrick made a mistake, I would get yelled at, so Derrick would understand it was actually intended for him. If you said it to Derrick, he would tell you to fuck off and just not do it.”

Seikaly feels, as deeply as anyone I interviewed—with the possible exception of Boeheim himself—the stinging loss to Indiana in the ’87 championship game.

“You would think that with time, the memory would’ve passed,” says Seikaly. “But it hasn’t. I don’t want to sound like I’m exaggerating, but I know if we had won that game we would’ve come back with a better team the next year, and we would’ve won again. It would’ve changed the whole course of so many things for so many people.”

The 1987-88 Orange was a powerful team but, hurt by the illness to quarterback Sherman Douglas, lost 97-94 to underrated Rhode Island in the second round of the tournament. That was Seikaly’s last game, and it was a good one—he had 27 points.

So, in the case of the Indiana game, time did not cure all wounds for Seikaly. But he is getting by his rough patch with his old coach … for the most part.

“I know that Coach Boeheim believed in me,” says Seikaly. “There was a love-hate relationship between us, and, yes, I did hate him at times. He was not a good communicator in the sense that, when gym time was over, you would get a hug or that tap on the shoulder that let you know everything was okay. And that was hard for some players, including me.

“But I guess that him pushing me from day one paid huge dividends. For him and me. He knows talent, and that’s the reason he wins. Jim’s strength as a coach is his ability to let players play. He doesn’t bottle up your talent. He is a hybrid coach, not your TV darling like Calipari and Pitino, or a super-diagrammed coach like Mike Krzyzewski. He’s like a pro coach in the sense where he does just what he needs to do to win.”

Boeheim and Seikaly have become a lot closer over the years since Rony has become a well-known deejay (that’s him in his DJ look in photo above) and Boeheim frequently attends his shows, being a fan of the loud noise and non-stop dancing. Okay, I made that last part up. But they have reached, as have Boeheim and most of his ex-players, a mutual understanding and respect. “As hard as it was sometimes at Syracuse,” says Seikaly, “I don’t think I could’ve played that long in the NBA [11 seasons with four teams] without that experience.”

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