The coach’s wife lives and dies with every bounce of the basketball. And it has been this way for Juli Boeheim for 23 years.
But this time is different. Because this time, the star player on Jim Boeheim’s latest Sweet 16 Syracuse team is her younger son, Buddy.
“To me,” Juli Boeheim told The Post, “Buddy is just a big kid, a big, fun-loving, SpongeBob-loving kid. So now I see Buddy Buckets, I’m like, ‘What?’ ”
She is an angel of a lady, ask just about anyone who’s met her, and she is in hoop heaven back in Fayetteville, N.Y., watching Buddy realize his childhood dream on the biggest college basketball stage, playing for his father, playing for Syracuse, getting his father another March Madness run that no one was expecting.
“It’s unbelievable,” Juli said, “and as a mother, a mom’s joy for her kids, no matter what they’re doing, if they’re doing things right and well and overachieving and shining, I mean … my heart’s gonna burst. Just overjoyed, that this kid has worked so hard to get this, is just everything. I just love it.
“His heart is special and I always told him that, and I’m just so thankful for the opportunity that other people can get a look at that.
“I’ve always said it, since he was a little kid, I would always tell him, ‘Buddy, God made you special, don’t let this world take that away.’ ”
Her son — who overcame a midseason slump and has averaged 24.2 points over his past nine games, including 27.5 in the Orange’s two NCAA wins — and husband have effectively navigated the treacherous waters where those who hear cries of nepotism must swim. Of course she was worried about what might confront Buddy. Both of them, really.
“Just the pressure and blame and ‘Is Jim overplaying him?’ … People misunderstanding Buddy, not seeing him for who he is,” Juli said. “Again, back to this heart of his, I wanted him to get a fair deal, a fair shake, without judgment so quickly and easily, and I knew that would happen and I knew it would be unfair and wrong, not accurate. ‘Daddy’s his coach,’ whatever all that garbage is.
“But when I saw that he wasn’t worried about it, it helped me so much. We never ever talked about it. We still haven’t to this day. He just never let it faze him. I think he just put it to the side and didn’t go down that road of worry, ’cause you can’t control that.”
Even for a Hall of Fame coach, it is an adjustment.
“But when Buddy played so well that first year,” Juli said, “Jim would come home and say, ‘Wow, Buddy’s ahead of schedule!’ It really helped a ton. It’s still got its difficult moments, and Jim will say that, because just the emotion alone of trying to cut that off. I’ve heard him say in these interviews lately, ‘I just try to block it out.’ And he’s pretty tough mentally. If anybody can do it, Jim can, but you can only do it to a degree.”
Buddy’s brother, Jimmy, played at Cornell. His twin sister, Jamie, played at Rochester. Long before he grew up to be Buddy Buckets when he played in the Jamesville-Dewitt Youth Athletic Association, he was Everybody’s Buddy.
“A lot of times when he was in elementary school,” Juli recalled, “he would have the ball, bring it down and pass it every time. I remember Jim saying, ‘Buddy, you gotta shoot that sometimes.’ He goes, ‘I know, but he never gets to touch the ball.’ Like you know he’s passing it to the kids that don’t get the opportunity to touch the ball.”
Buddy is more like his mother than his father.
“I’m the youngest of six,” Juli said. “I grew up losing to everyone, but I had the best time and I wanted to keep playing. Buddy’s very competitive, don’t get me wrong there. But he’s all about the moment, and having fun. … That’s what the best part growing up in this business was, the people. The players, the staff, their families, the kids, the trips to the tournament, swimming in the hotel pool with the managers. It was just all those incredible memories of just having fun being together.
“And he would go through major withdrawals after the season ended. ‘Mom, what do you think they’re doing now?’ and ‘When does practice start? Like, ‘I need this, I gotta have this in my life.’ He was that kid.”
Juli was the comforter on those occasions when Buddy would cry after a bad AAU or high school game. Juli was the one who tucked the children in at night and read stories to them. Jim was the coach. Jim was the confidence builder. Jim was the one who kept telling Buddy he one day would be better than everyone else.
“It kept him motivated to the point where just worked insanely hard. Like off the charts,” Juli said.
There is a sweet innocence and naïveté to Buddy. Juli laughs when she mentions a text she received from him the other day:
“There’s an underwear company that wants to send me some boxers. Is that OK?”
I asked Juli what it is like for her watching a Syracuse basketball game.
“Draining,” she said, “ ’cause they’ve had this connection to each other since birth. They’ve been inseparable, and Buddy has just adored his dad from Day 1, and vice versa.”
And suffered when seasons would end all too suddenly and prematurely.
“I can’t say he felt it worse than anyone else, but he expressed it outwardly where he couldn’t help but cry,” Juli said. “Buddy was just this gushing mush of tears.”
Jim Boeheim wasn’t expected to get 11th-seeded Syracuse to Saturday night’s dance with second-seeded Houston. “So thrilled. He’s still got it!” Juli said.
He’s got Buddy Buckets. His son. Her son.
“He is a special kid with a great big heart, you can’t deny it, and anyone who knows him would never deny that,” Juli said. “I’m thrilled to the core.”