Jim Boeheim thought he experienced it all through nearly six decades of involvement with the Syracuse University men’s basketball program, until he started preparing the Orange for the upcoming season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hall of Famer, entering his 45th season as head coach for his alma mater, provided details on the unusual nature of SU’s preseason preparations and the stringent safety protocols expected this year during a recent media Zoom conference.
Syracuse is scheduled to open the campaign by hosting Bryant in a nonconference game at 3 p.m. Nov. 27 in the Carrier Dome, which will be televised on the ACC Network.
The Orange finished 18-14 overall and 10-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference last year and has been working out on campus since late July under circumstances that Boeheim described as “completely different,” than past preseasons in an effort to limit the potential spread of the coronavirus.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to have a season, and hopefully we can do that,” Boeheim said.
“We’re taking all kinds of precautions and we’ve been together for four months, it’s almost a bubble like, knock on wood, we’ve had great success and our players have been very good on a campus and in a town where there’s a lot of people testing positive,” he added. “They’re just trying to stay in a bubble as much as we can so that we can play, and hopefully that’s what will happen.”
Boeheim, normally as active on the court during practices as any ACC coach even at age 75, has spent a maximum of two minutes within six feet of a particular player during each session.
Assistant coaches have been granted a maximum of five minutes within that proximity of a player per practice, while team managers have been required to maintain distance throughout the entire session.
All players, coaches, and managers that enter the Melo Center for practice recently started wearing contact-tracing devices — described as a wrist-watch with computer chips inserted — to monitor each person’s distance from each other and the amount of time they spend within six feet of others.
The data is accumulated so close contacts can be identified in the event any team personnel tests positive for COVID-19, and to measure the amount of close contact during each practice for a general reference point.
Boeheim stated that players spend a maximum of 10 minutes during each session in close contact with each other, and they have remained distanced during drills and warmups with strength coaches. Players typically walk onto the court and go directly to their assigned spots, which are all separated by at least 10 feet, to begin individual skill work.
“We’re trying to minimize as much as we can the contact that our players have,” Boeheim said. “It hurts us a little bit, you don’t have as much unity because you’re not coming together as much.”
Players are only permitted to enter the locker room in groups of five or less and are required to return to their residence immediately after practice without gathering in a common area. The SU coaches and players will be spaced out in the locker room during the season, and that area, along with the playing surfaces, have undergone rigorous daily cleanings.
The team is not conducting any in-person film sessions or meetings, including coaching briefings, and coaches wear masks any time they are on the premises unless they are alone in their respective office.
Boeheim said that he keeps players at least 10 feet away if he brings them into his office for a talk. The team is also unlikely to hold its annual Thanksgiving dinner as a group.
“It’s a really difficult time for the players,” Boeheim said. “I’m just praying that they’re able to play games, and that will help. I’m confident we can pull it off, it’s not going to be easy, but it can be done.”
According to a school official, the preliminary drawings for home games at the Dome show benches spaced out much like the NBA bubble in Orlando, Fla., with chairs between players that span multiple rows. The team is not yet able to allow fans or sell single-game tickets due to state COVID-19 mandates.
In-season travel will consist of charters and direct trips to team hotels and opposing arenas, with trips arranged for stay time to be as limited as possible.
Syracuse players have undergone COVID testing once per week since returning for voluntary workouts this past summer and will increase to testing every other day when games begin. Opposing teams will be held to the same standard. The ACC released its updated winter sports safety plans on Friday, also calling for all team personnel to be tested three times per week when the season tips off.
Boeheim said that he had planned to meet with Onondaga County health officials regarding the team’s approach late this past week.
The Hall of Fame coach said that he has maintained “absolute hope,” that the Orange will be able to play its full schedule this season. He also expressed concern for the mental health of athletes and students at all grade levels if current trends toward remote learning and shutdown orders continue as cases increase around the state.
“The one thing I’ve learned in my life is that you don’t sit still, you don’t quit,” said Boeheim, a prostate cancer survivor of nearly two decades. “I’m against that 100 percent and I see that out there today. I don’t think you give up. I think you try to work through it, you establish protocols to keep yourself healthy and your players healthy, but you don’t sit home. If that’s the answer, I think we’re in trouble.”