When Georgetown plays Syracuse, Louis Orr will be a man divided

The Syracuse alum who will sit on the Georgetown bench Saturday at the Carrier Dome owes his basketball life to the Orange coach who recruited him when no one else would. He owes his current job to the Hoyas coach who hired him when he didn’t have a job. This is where Louis Orr finds himself as he tries to help his employer beat his alma mater, without which he wouldn’t have a career.

Georgetown at Syracuse on Saturday, a December college basketball delight with all the usual vitriol. But for Orr, it’s a nonconference game that has one fan base yanking one arm in one direction, another fan base tugging another limb the opposite way and a bunch of jokes for those who know him best.

“He was voted to stay in the Orange Nation,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. “It was a close vote, but he’s still in.”

“He’s definitely an Orangeman,” Georgetown Coach Patrick Ewing said. “But right now, he’s a Hoya.”

“That’s my alma mater,” Orr said. “But hey, come Saturday, it’s competition.”

Basketball, like so many sports, is about relationships. Few coaches have the relationship between them that Ewing and Orr do because it stems from their days as teammates in the NBA, even if they attended rival schools. Few programs have the relationship between them that Georgetown and Syracuse do, too, even if it has changed since the days Orr and, later, Ewing played in it, with the Orange now in the ACC and the Hoyas in a revamped Big East.

[Mac McClung buzz is growing. Hoyas great Jeff Green says, ‘Let him grow.’]

That rivalry, fostered by Boeheim and his old nemesis John Thompson Jr., helped make the Big East what it once was, which was nothing short of the best basketball league in the nation. There was, at times, bad blood between the programs. But even when it was tense — never forget that Thompson thundered: “Manley Field House is officially closed” — one was important to the other. Essential, really.

“I’ve played in it, before it was really what it became,” Orr said. “And I’ve coached in it. I know.”

When Syracuse (6-2) hosts Georgetown (7-1), no one will know it like Orr. He was one of Boeheim’s first recruits, back in the spring of 1976, before the now-Hall of Fame coach began his inaugural season at his alma mater. And when Ewing got the head job at his alma mater, Orr was one of the new coach’s first calls.

Those two developments came more than 40 years apart. It’s amazing how Orr’s responses were two versions of the same thing.

“He was no-maintenance, whatever was best for us,” Boeheim said.

“The first thing with this job,” Orr said, “was whatever’s best for Patrick.”

Selfless then. Selfless now. As Orr, now 60, sits on Ewing’s bench and helps his old pal try to beat his old coach, he will simultaneously be appreciative of how much he owes to Boeheim, to Syracuse.

“I could have fell through the cracks,” Orr said. Except a friend of a friend of Boeheim’s told him about this skinny 6-foot-8 kid from Cincinnati.

“Who’s recruiting him?” Boeheim asked.

“Nobody,” the guy said.

Boeheim got on a plane anyway. “If I got that call now,” Boeheim said, “I probably would do nothing.” Back then, he went to Xavier’s gym, where Orr was working out with the Musketeers players, even though the Musketeers’ coaching staff expressed no interest.

“He weighed 160 pounds,” Boeheim said this week by phone. “I’m like, ‘I came here for this?’ ”

The funny thing: Once a scrimmage got going, Orr held his own. Boeheim brought him to Syracuse, and Orr and Roosevelt Bouie became Boeheim’s first recruiting class.

“I was spoiled with those guys,” Boeheim said. They were, he said, exemplary in every way, and they formed the foundation for what Boeheim built.

Orr, too, later spoiled Ewing. In the fall of 1985, Ewing was one of the most heralded rookies the NBA had ever seen, taken first overall out of Georgetown by the New York Knicks. He won a national championship with the Hoyas, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in college and as a draftee. The expectations were enormous. Ewing figured not only to bring a banner to Madison Square Garden but to clean up the streets of Manhattan and stop crime across the city.

Orr, by that point, was in his sixth year in the league. He knew the life. He understood what Ewing was going through.

“He always had the spotlight on him,” Orr said.

So Orr helped him transition, and they bonded. They played just three seasons together, but the connection held. “I’ve leaned on him for a lot of different things,” Ewing said.

Ewing never brought an NBA championship to New York, but he’s a Hall of Famer without a doubt. The contract Orr negotiated with the Knicks during Ewing’s rookie season was the last he would have in the NBA, but he went into coaching soon thereafter. He assisted Pete Gillen at Xavier and Providence, then went to Boeheim’s bench at Syracuse, all while Ewing was playing in the NBA.

“He’s really good with kids,” Boeheim said. “He’s a really good teacher. He’s really patient. He’s just so trustworthy, players are going to listen and respect him because of who he is. He’s a great individual. There’s nobody better than Louis Orr.”

[Georgetown takes care of the ball — and Liberty — with a second-half rally]

The head coaching jobs came after that: Siena for a single season initially, then Seton Hall, a job from which he was fired, and finally seven years at Bowling Green. When he lost that position, Orr fell out of coaching. And then Patrick Ewing got the Georgetown job.

Louis Orr’s jersey is honored at Syracuse. He owes his basketball life to Jim Boeheim. And he’s going to coach at . . . Georgetown?

“If I backed up my life, every job I took surprised me somewhat,” Orr said. “You can’t really prearrange, in coaching, where you go.”

Which doesn’t mean his decision is without ramifications, particularly from Boeheim.

“He’s already done busted my chops,” Orr said.

“I’m sure Big John was tougher on him than I was,” Boeheim said. “I’m sure he looked at Patrick like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

What Patrick Ewing did was hire someone he trusted explicitly, a confidante beyond reproach. And what that brings to Saturday’s Georgetown-Syracuse game is a little bit of extra flavor to a rivalry that is already spiced with paprika and cayenne pepper.

In so many ways, Louis Orr is Syracuse basketball. But in every way Saturday, he wants to beat Syracuse basketball. This is dogs befriending cats, Republicans reaching across the aisle to Democrats, Coke helping Pepsi with its marketing.

The Orangeman is a Hoya, and if that’s the case, what in the world makes sense anymore?

“At the end of the day,” Orr said, “these are the kind of games you want to play in and you want to win.”

And then he headed out on a recruiting trip for Georgetown, trying to lure players to the Hilltop who might otherwise end up at his alma mater.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.