GENEVA — Years ago, as America and the Johnson administration had civil rights legislation to pass and impending doomsday reports from the Soviet Union to decipher, Dr. Donald Staffo and his friends had basketball.
Syracuse basketball, to be precise.
The congestion that surrounds the Carrier Dome from Interstate 81 as fans converge to cheer on the Orange these days was still many years away when Staffo graduated from Little Falls High School in 1964.
From the close-knit Italian families on the south side of town, to the family on the hard court, it was the best of times. If there ever was a theme for those who “bleed orange,” it’s that loyalty trumps all, and that life is better when played in a zone — not just from the low post.
“I remember going with my friends to Manley Field House to watch the Orangemen,” Staffo recalled. “Those are vivid memories for me, and it never left me. The team became a love of mine.”
Like SU men’s basketball head coach and Lyons native Jim Boeheim, Staffo never left his roots. After decades in education and journalism, Staffo’s latest book — he has authored more than 10 — takes him back to “the city on a hill.”
“Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball” tells the story of a program, a coach, a city, and their inseparable links.
“I wanted to write a book that showed people the positive impact of sports, to paint a picture of how big and important this program is to not just the university, but to the people for whom this program means more than anything,” Staffo said.
As with every success story, there is more to it than meets the eye. Buildings in the Salt City that could tell the story of the industrial revolution, of iron and cigars, of typewriters and cars, and of locomotive gears are now just shells. The spirit of their workers lives on, however, and sports is the key.
“I look at the story of the Carrier Dome, and I think it’s very inspiring,” Staffo said. “You know what Syracuse basketball has that very few sports teams at any level have in this country? Pizzazz. You can feel the energy being in that building.”
Success for Staffo has in many ways taken him far from his native upstate New York. After earning a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Brockport and a master’s from Western Kentucky, Staffo returned close to home. Teaching physical education for the Liverpool school district for 10 years inspired him even more to pursue his lifelong passion of sports and health.
Once he received his Ph.D. from Ohio State, Staffo made his next step as a mentor at the college level.
“When you are a physical education teacher you see how important sports are to kids, that it serves an important purpose,” he said.
His commitment to helping those less fortunate and to improving the lives of his students is a theme that resonates throughout his professional career. In his time as athletic director at Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky he established the school’s first education major with the goal of bringing sports, health, nutrition, and those in need.
For more than three decades, Staffo has been professor and chairman emeritus of the Department of Health and Physical Education at Stillman College.
“I’ve seen the impact that a teacher and a coach can have on a kid,” Staffo reflected. “It’s a very gratifying experience.”
Many authors and historians find commonality with their subjects and people of interest. For Staffo, Boeheim’s career path is one of many shared experiences.
“The one thing that amazed me the most in writing this book was how much consistency there was,” Staffo said. “He never strayed too far from his roots. I’ve talked with his best friends, and they all see him in the same light. He’s very forthright and has a lot of gratification.”
“I’ve had lengthy interviews with former classmates and teammates, and it really blew me away how consistent they all were in describing Boeheim.”
When Staffo hasn’t been teaching at the high school or college level, or coaching youth sports, he has found time to distinguish himself as a nationally recognized sports journalist.
An author of more than 2,100 articles for national, regional, and local publications, and a University of Alabama football reporter for the Associated Press, Staffo has been close to many of the biggest sporting events of the last 30 years.
All those years on the sidelines have given a man whose life is a testament to putting others above one’s self even greater appreciation for his favorite team from childhood.
Dave Bing, former mayor of Detroit, an NBA Hall of Famer and Boeheim’s college roommate at SU, pens a moving forward to Staffo’s latest book.
“Knowing people like Dave and how they see Boeheim made this writing endeavor very special,” Staffo said, “but this book is about even more than the coach. It’s about how a school that was only known about regionally took over the nation. From my perspective, Syracuse and what happens in the Carrier Dome on those many cold winter nights, represents something that resonates with a lot of people.”
In turn, it is further proof that there aren’t many places in America that protect and thrive in a zone the way Syracuse does — on the hard court and at home.