McNamara clutches up for Orange Back
Kyle Veltrop

It's hard to lose 50 busloads of people from Scranton, Pa., but among 33,199 people, it's also hard to stand out. That's because all of these people who have piled into the Carrier Dome this night seemingly have a singular identity: They love their Syracuse Orange; more specifically, they love Gerry McNamara.

He is the favorite son of Scranton, the adopted son of Syracuse. And in front of this huge crowd in early February, the Orange is playing Notre Dame, the favorite team of many in McNamara's Irish Catholic-heavy hometown.

So this is the show he puts on: He misses a 3-pointer. And another and another and another and another. The only first half basket for the guy with range from 25-plus feet is a layup. He misses a jumper coming off a screen. He misses a pull-up. On a dribble stop-and-pop move from the top of the key, McNamara hits nothing but net -- the outside of the net.

Wait, wait, wait.

That's not how you tell a Gerry McNamara story, by examining every shot, by studying a stat line. Hakim Warrick is the team's best player, but it is McNamara who gives Syracuse its verve. Many regard Duke's J.J. Redick as the nation's best shooter, but of anyone, it is McNamara whom you would want taking the shot that you just have to make.

To understand his value, you need to fast-forward to crunch time -- like to the second half of that game against the Irish, when he scored 12 points in the final 4:14 as Syracuse erased an 11-point deficit. Or rewind to a game against the Irish in his freshman season two years ago, when he made a game-winning 3 in the closing seconds. Or pause to reflect on how he has saved his best moments for the NCAA Tournament, such as when he made six 3-pointers in one half against Kansas in the 2003 national title game. Or last year, when he made nine 3s and scored 43 points in a first-round win over BYU.

"Gerry likes the bright lights," says Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins. "He doesn't get up the same for Canisius. But if it's a big game or a big moment, it's like, 'Here comes the show.' "

That's how you tell the story of a growing legend.

Syracuse won it all two seasons ago, and it has the pieces to put together another run. Coach Jim Boeheim worries he doesn't have enough offense -- and none of the team's freshmen or sophomores has emerged as a consistent threat -- but Syracuse has five core players who contributed significantly to that national title team, including McNamara, Warrick and Josh Pace.

St. John's coach Norm Roberts says, "Everyone knows Josh Pace is going to go left, and you know he's going to shoot floaters, and he still makes them. Everyone knows Hakim is going to spin in the post and either shoot a fadeaway or dunk it in your face, and he still does. And everyone knows McNamara is going to shoot the pull-up 3, and those shots still go down."

Backup point guard Billy Edelin says, "As a team, we all know what we can do well, and in Gerry McNamara's case, that's shooting the basketball."

McNamara's shot was born and raised in the gym at Holy Rosary elementary school in Scranton. From sixth through eighth grades, McNamara stayed late after CYO practices with his dad -- also named Gerry- -- and shot jumper after jumper.

McNamara calls Gerry Sr. "the most important figure in my basketball career," but it always was more about being a good dad than a good coach.

"He would shoot, and I would feed," Gerry Sr. says. "And when he got tired, we would go home. The only thing I ever told him about his shot was to keep shooting."

Gerry and Joyce McNamara, who met in high school, both work at the post office in Scranton. They never have missed a game of their son's Syracuse career -- home or away. They aren't the only ones from northeastern Pennsylvania who have been following the Orange. When McNamara's eighth-grade CYO team won the state title, Scranton took notice. By the time McNamara led Bishop Hannan High to a state title four years later, he was a full-fledged cult hero in a blue-collar area where sports are a big deal.

Scranton smiles when Pitt coach Jamie Dixon says McNamara is a "tough kid" and Georgetown coach John Thompson calls him "a tough basketball player" and Roberts points out that McNamara is "just so tough." Not only did McNamara grow up in a hard-working environment, but he also got a good helping of toughness from his dad, an ex-Marine who still has shrapnel in his hip and face from getting shot twice in Vietnam.

Aside from taking regular bus trips up Interstate 81, the people of Scranton watch Orange games on TV as religiously as the nightly news. When Syracuse's official website ran a fan poll two years ago asking, "Who's your favorite player?", McNamara got nearly 70 percent of the vote. Carmelo Anthony polled in the 20s. Pete Moore, the Orange's associate director of communications, suspects that some happy web clickers in a certain city had a little something to do with that, a scaled-down version of Yao Ming leading the NBA All-Star balloting because of the Chinese vote.

"I remember after Syracuse won the national title," Joyce McNamara says. "Gerry and his brother Timmy went to Wal-Mart (in Scranton), and all Gerry wanted to do was get some fishing lures. And people came at him in waves. They were buying basketballs so they would have something for him to sign."

While recruiting McNamara, Hopkins even took his wife, Tricia, to see one of his high school games so she could experience the love affair firsthand.

"A kid like that rarely comes along in a town like that," says Hopkins. "I'm not going to use the words Jesus Christ, but to them, Gerry is almost like The Chosen One."

Gerry McNamara fits just about every profile of that overused stereotype of the "overachieving gym rat." Shot jumper after jumper with Dad after practice growing up. Stands in the 6-foot range. Hard-nosed point guard. And, yes, he's a white kid with a buzz cut. Except a couple of things smash that stereotype: McNamara is ridiculously gifted, and basketball hardly is his full-time obsession.

Hopkins likens McNamara's ability to push the ball to that of Chicago Bulls rookie and former Connecticut star Ben Gordon. And anyone who has seen McNamara throw down a reverse alley-oop dunk in practice wouldn't question his hops. He is called a "natural," by both his dad and Hopkins, who uses two movie references to make his point.

"Gerry is like Roy Hobbs," Hopkins says. "Whatever he wants to do, he does. If you taught him pingpong, within a week he'd beat Forrest Gump.

"Other coaches, whenever they sign a 5-11, 6-foot white guy, they'll tell me, 'I think he can be a lot like McNamara,' and I'm like, 'You just don't understand. He's a once-in-a-lifetime player.' "

As far as McNamara's devotion to basketball, it is something of a part-time one.

"Gerry needs his time away from basketball," Pace says of his teammate.

When McNamara showed up an hour and a half early to a recent practice, a few of the Orange getting in some extra work on their own were stunned. McNamara's summers aren't spent working on drills from sunup to sundown. Instead, he goes fishing as much as he can, plays a little golf and hangs out with his circle of friends from Scranton. Family and friends form his foundation.

Hopkins, who played at Syracuse from 1989 to '93 and is in his 10th season as an assistant there, says McNamara is one of his favorite players he has coached. But when it comes to his work ethic, "Gerry frustrates the hell out of me, to be honest," Hopkins says. "You see guys out there working harder. I call him during the summer and tell him he needs to be working harder, doing this, doing that. Of course, then he comes back in the fall and plays pickup and just blows everyone away."

If he were all basketball all the time, would McNamara be even better? Would his 39.4 percent field-goal shooting be significantly higher? Would his flashes of dominance turn into steadier beams of brilliance?

Maybe he'd just burn out. That's a possibility, considering his all-out ways in games. It's at least something McNamara thinks could happen if he were to never step away.

But as he says, "I've been pretty good at lighting the fire when it needs to be lit."

True enough. Plus, McNamara did stay late after a recent practice, though the time mostly was spent on hoisting trick shots -- from behind the backboard, from out of bounds, from ridiculously long ranges. In fact, McNamara launched some shots from halfcourt -- and, at one point, one ... two ... three in a row dropped through the net.

It wasn't even crunch time.