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Boeheim goes for career win No. 900 tonight

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SYRACUSE — Jim Boeheim came to Syracuse in 1963 as a wide-eyed 17-year-old from the tiny village of Lyons, hoping to play basketball, and perhaps some day coach at the high school level.

Nearly 50 years later, the bespectacled 68-year-old coaching icon is about to enter one of the most exclusive fraternities in his profession. But his next Syracuse University men’s basketball victory — perhaps coming tonight against Detroit that would be No. 900 in his career — won’t mean any more than the first one as Orange head man against Harvard on Nov. 26, 1976.

“The only thing that matters is that we win another game and play well,” Boeheim said Saturday night after notching his 899th career win against Canisius at the Carrier Dome. “Milestones are just that. You think about them for a day, and they are gone and it’s on to the next game.”

If Boeheim is reluctant to discuss his place in history, his players and assistants are not.

“I was here for 800 (2009 vs. Albany) and that was something special,” SU senior James Southerland said. “But what coach is about to reach, 900, that’s just unbelievable.”

Fellow senior Brandon Triche, who was a freshman when Boeheim hit the 800-win mark, said growing up in nearby DeWitt, he’s followed Boeheim’s progress up the victory ranks since he was in grade school.

“To see him pass 500, 600, 700 and then hit 800, I thought that was kind of unreachable,’’ said Triche, whose uncle, Howard, played under Boeheim for three seasons in the 1980s. “But this. This is truly amazing. It will be an honor to be part of coach achieving one of the greatest coaching marks in all of sports.”

If SU wins tonight, Boeheim will join only good friend Mike Krzyzewski (936) and the now retired Bobby Knight (902) in the exclusive 900 win club. He also trails only Krzyzewski (1,227) in career games coached with 1,203.

“What it means is that I’ve been around a long time,’’ Boeheim said, “and that I’ve had a lot of great players and assistants. I’m just happy to still be doing this at my age, and to be able to appreciate what the game has done for me and my family.’’

Assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who played for Boeheim from 1989-92, and has sat next to him on the bench since 1995, said the key to Boeheim’s longevity and success is that he doesn’t make the game too difficult.

“Jim’s not one of those guys who watches a ton of tape, or tries to analyze his players every second,’’ Hopkins said. “He is a player’s coach first and foremost. He allows his players to play up to their abilities without a lot of restrictions. He’s very structured, but also very flexible in practice and during games.’’

Boeheim said he had always wanted to coach since making the Lyons varsity as a sophomore. He really got the bug his junior year in college when then SU coach Roy Danforth offered to help the young coaching protege find a job at a summer camp.

“Once I did that, I really got the bug,’’ Boeheim said in a previous interview. “But there have been so many people and players that have made this happen. I played just a minor role.’’

Orange assistant Gerry McNamara, another four-year starter under Boeheim, said that is the understatement of a lifetime.

“Jim Boeheim is Syracuse basketball. We wouldn’t be where we are today if not for him,’’ McNamara said. “I know in my case, his visit made all the difference in the world in my choosing Syracuse. And I’m sure that’s been the case with almost every players he’s recruited here.’’

Sophomore forward Rakeem Christmas said Boeheim’s resume and the fact that he produces so many All-Americans and NBA players was one of the main reasons for choosing SU.

“My mom fell in love with coach right away,’’ Christmas said. “He didn’t give us any bull or make any promises. All he did was lay out the facts, tell me I would improve every year and what he expected of me.’’

With a career record of 899-304, Boeheim’s winning percentage of .747 ranks 10th all time. He also has the most 20-win seasons in Division I history (34), and ranks fifth all-time in NCAA Tournament wins with 48. He also earned the school’s first national title in 2003.

Add in a pair of Olympic gold medals and it’s been an amazing ride.

But things haven’t been all rosy for Boeheim during his tenure. He’s had to overcome prostate cancer, an NCAA investigation into his program in the early 1990s and just last year the firing of a his chief assistant, Bernie Fine, over sexual assault issues that have never been proven.

The college basketball Hall of Famer would rather talk about his team than where he belongs in basketball history.

“This team is different, just like the previous 36,’’ he said. “They re establishing their own identity, and that’s what keeps me coming back.’’

Boeheim offered that he nearly quit college his first semester at SU because “I was homesick. I guess I made the right decision to stay.’’

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