Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim has recruited all-star players such as Carmelo Anthony, Sherman Douglas, and Derrick Coleman. He’s scored a national title and helped coach the 2008 Olympic team to a gold medal. Now he’s going for the gold again. MensFitness.com caught up with Coach Boeheim just as he’s gearing up for the 2012 Olympic games to get the inside scoop about the competition. Plus, Coach shares his thoughts on retirement and why he’s making it his mission to fight cancer.
What’s the biggest difference between the college and the professional athlete?
The biggest difference is that Olympic players are so much more mature, and they pick up things more quickly. There’s a higher level of talent. They play 100 games a year, have a strong work ethic, and know what has to be done.
With college kids, you’re teaching the basic, everyday things that have to be taught when kids get into school. With pros, they’ve already learned the basics—there’s much more they can do so you’re more flexible with what you can do as a coach. At the Olympics we’re coaching guys that that are the best in the world, and maybe even the best players ever.
The NBA is made up of some of the best basketball players in the world too, but within the Olympic games you have NBA athletes on different teams. How does this affect the competition?
The foreign players start out playing together at 15, and grow up playing together in their national teams. These guys really know each other well. That's the key thing that foreign teams have, is that they’ve already been playing together in their national teams for eight to 10 years.
Which Olympic teams do you think are going to be the most challenging?
The best team by far is Spain. In the last Olympics we beat them only in a 4-point game with about four minutes to go. In all the other games, we won by about 30 points. Spain has really good veteran guards, and now they have Ibaka, plus the Gasol brothers and Sergio.
Other good teams are Brazil and Argentina. France is pretty good. But Spain is really the team to look out for.
This is the second time you’ve coached at the Olympics and gone for the gold. How tough is it to win the gold twice?
I think whenever you try to repeat something it’s tough. But we have really talented players on this team. We have a lot of guys back from the last Olympic team, and we have some new guys who are really good, such as Russell Westbrook.
It’s always difficult to win the Olympics, because you don’t have a series of games against one team as you do with the NBA. You get to the medal round, and you are one and done. Win or lose, you can go home afterwards. We feel that we have the most talented team, but it’s still tough to win that one game.
You and Coach K are leading this team together again. What’s it like coaching with the guy that you’re going to be competing against when SU goes to the ACC?
Everyone brings something different to the table. Coach K has been in the top programs in the country for more than 20 years now, so you know when you play against him in the ACC you’ll be up against great players and a great coach.
Coach K is one of the best—if not the best—coach out there. He listens to everybody’s opinion, and what we do in the end is what Coach K thinks is best.
This Olympic experience, and the seven years that Coach K and I have worked together, has helped the college program. We are constantly learning and getting better. We’re coaching the best of the best and always picking up new things, strategies, and fundamentals. Assistant SU basketball coach Mike Hopkins is here with us this time, and the total experience has been great for SU to teach us new things so we can improve our program at the college level.
What are you picking up about the game from coaching guys like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul?
You’re learning things all the time from your own players, and from other coaches. Things are constantly changing. If you’re not moving forward, you’re sliding backwards. So you’re always trying to learn new things, from strategy to the fundamentals to everything. Everyone should be learning, no matter how long you’ve been doing something. The things that we’ve learned here help make the SU program better, too.
You’ve become quite the philanthropist. The Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation raises thousands and thousands of dollars for kids in need and for cancer research, with programs like Courts for Kids and the Jim Boeheim Fantasy Camp. Why is it so important for you to give back?
The importance of the Foundation for me is that everyone in Syracuse has supported our basketball program so much, and I think that you have to realize at some point that you have to give back to the community. We wouldn’t have the basketball program if it weren’t for the community.
We’re able to give back by working with the kids in our community for Courts for Kids and helping fight cancer with Coaches vs. Cancer. But we’re able to give back only because everyone is willing to pitch in and offer support—whether it’s for the golf tournament or the Basketball Gala. When you get into a position where you have the opportunity to have an influence and give back, it’s your responsibility to do so.
You’ve been so passionate about generating millions of dollars for cancer research. Now you’re on the advisory board of Cellceutix, a small pharmaceuticals company, that’s on the cutting-edge of developing what could possibly be the most advanced cancer drug on the market. Do you think we’ll find a cure for cancer in our lifetime?
I joined the company because I think we are making real progress, and I think we are going to find the cure for something. We’ve made great strides with cancer—there’s more early recognition and more treatable cancers than ever before. There’s still a long way to go, but if we keep funding research and raising awareness and make sure that early detection is still the best way to cure cancer, I think everybody believes we will find a way to beat it.
Did you ever imagine your life going in this direction when you were growing up in the small town of Little Lions, NY?
Not really. When you’re getting through college, you don’t really know what you’re going to do next. I imagined that I’d be coaching and teaching high school or something. But you never know what is going to happen in life. I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to coach as graduate assistant at Syracuse University, and I was lucky that I got to stay with it.
You’ve been coaching for more than 30 years now, and people are wondering if you might be getting ready to retire. Do you have any plans to retire soon?
When it comes to coaching, you should focus only on doing the best coaching job you can do for that team in that particular year. I make plans only for this year, and do everything that I can to be successful for this team. When I first started coaching, I figured I’d coach for about 10 or 15 years. Then I made it to 20, and then 30. I never thought I’d be coaching for 36 years, so you just never know. There isn’t any end in sight, but the day will come when you think you’ve coached enough and it’s time to move on.