TSL Big Dance Throwback Tourney Titans: Point Wing Billy Owens Talks Nasty 90s Big East

Billy Owens was the personification of what some call a point wing (s/o to Sandy Dover). These are players having the ability to lead from the point guard position but do it all over the floor with a wing body. 

From 1988-1991 he became a Syracuse Big East legend — averaging 17.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.7 dimes for Jim Boeheim after previously leading Carlisle High School to 3 straight Pennsylvania State Championships. The first to average 20 points a season under Boeheim, Owens is also a player his iconic coach learned lessons through, and in years moving forward, Coach Boeheim paired athletic scoring versatility on the wings with shooters talented enough to open the entire floor versus anyone in the league. 

Billy Owens was a generational player for Jim Boeheim and Syracuse in the Big East during the 1990s.
Billy Owens was a generational player for Jim Boeheim and Syracuse in the Big East during the 1990s. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images)

Sometimes we are robbed of the future and if not for knee issues, the next generation of hoops fans would remember just how naturally skilled Billy Owens was outside of his time with the Orange. A coach on the floor just by action, Billy Owens was one of the best to ever do it in the Big East. The National Player of the Year in 1990-91 spoke to TSL of his days at ‘Cuse and thriving in the Big East Conference. 

How did playing at Syracuse impact your life?

It was a great impact for me because I came from a little town in Carlisle, PA. People know my talent and how driven I was but the speculation was how I would perform vs. other great talent. There was no bigger talent than me in the Big East back then because it was so competitive.

Playing in a competitive league showed everyone the heart I had and also that Billy Owens could really play the game of basketball against real competition despite coming from such a small town.

When you walked on campus for the first time, did you realize what was about to happen even after the recruiting war?

No not really because I was the type of player where I just wanted to play basketball. All the other stuff didn’t bother me and didn’t really excite me that much going into it.  When I got there and saw how crazy students were about Syracuse basketball and football, I realized it was going to be a fun year playing with Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, Stevie Thompson, Herman Harried…guys like that.

I was excited because I knew we were going to do a lot of good things that year. Being the number one or number two player in the country, it kind of humbled me because I was already getting a bunch of attention in high school.

Do you remember that first practice?

I remember our first pick up game. It was a 3-on-3. Sherman Douglas, David Johnson and I on one squad. Derrick, Stevie and I think a walk-on on the other. Derrick and I got into it. Threw the ball at each other. They had to break us up a little bit (Billy laughs).

Who won the game?

We did! Sherman started it. He was talking a lot of trash. Talking about we got a newcomer (Billy). Derrick wasn’t having that. He said it was his team.

Was the alley-oop something you all sought to use as a weapon?

Sherman loved throwing it. We’d get the ball to him or he’d get the ball in the middle on the break and what was crazy was that Derrick wanted the lob, Stevie wanted it as well and I definitely wanted it. We basically fought each other to get to the rim.

That’s why I think we were so good. We were well conditioned because we ran so much. We all wanted that ESPN highlight dunk. It was something we never practiced. It was just something we had the knack of doing. Sherm would put it right there. All we had to do was get in the vicinity of the basket.

What was the personality of your team?

We all stuck together. We all had our little crews. Derrick had his little crew that didn’t consist of basketball players. My crew was mainly football players because my brother was on the squad. It seemed like Sherman was always to himself. He and Herman Harried hung out a lot. I really didn’t hang out with Sherman.

We’d meet up, but it wasn’t like we hung out all the time at each other’s house. I stopped by occasionally, but I hung out more at Derrick’s house. Herman Harried’s house too. We had our little cliques. We were in each other’s face every single day because we saw each other in practice. When there was a party, we always met up.

Jim Boeheim had all this crazy, versatile talent. What was some of the stuff he did with you all that he probably wouldn’t have done with past teams?

Boeheim is laid back. When Boeheim would cuss you out to play hard, it didn’t work. Boeheim knew what he had to do. He knew he had a bunch of ego guys; a bunch of All American guys who may have thought they were the best one on the team. He actually just had to get us to play anyway he knew how, and he worked. Sure, he pulled each person in the room and said you are going to do this or you’re going to do that. We are not going to go anywhere unless you do what you are supposed to do. I don’t think he was too vocal for the egos we had.

As long as we played hard on the basketball court, Boeheim didn’t care what we did. As long as we brought it. We could complain. There were some practices where Derrick didn’t feel like practicing, but Boeheim knew how to push his buttons to make him practice hard.

Same with me. If he saw you going through the motions and not giving 110%, he knew how to push my buttons too. Boeheim is an NBA coach. He gets the talent so he already knows that if we stayed healthy, we’d get to the next level. That’s why I always told him that if he ever left Syracuse, he needs to go to the NBA and bring me along with him as an assistant (we crack up)!

Jim Boeheim gets a lot of criticism. Why does he get that flack?

It’s not his fault. Believe me. I always kick myself. I struggle to this day thinking of all the talent we had and we didn’t reach the Final Four. I blame myself for not getting there. Illinois beat us. We were loaded. We had a great year. We didn’t lose that many games. When it came to the big games, we just couldn’t get over the hump. I’m so disappointed because of that. We did have great teams. We should be way more accomplished.

Growing up, it was all about the Big East. We had our pick of who we wanted to dig for that year. Whether it was Georgetown, your squad, St. Johns or Villanova here. We ached for Cuse when you all didn’t win. Could see you walking off the floor saying “Damn!” I think it was your last ride.

My last ride was when Richmond put us out.

That’s right. That was the game.

I blame Boeheim for one thing and that is he didn’t pair me with a shooter. Melo had McNamara. He could shoot the ball. I had great players with me but they were all around players. I really think we could have got something done if we had that one great shooter. I was doubled constantly or the defense would shade to me where I couldn’t kick it out to that open man. Carmelo told me personally that if he didn’t have Jerry McNamara he wouldn’t have won a championship.

The first time you played against a Georgetown or a St. Johns. Do you remember those games and what do you remember about them?

I remember the first Georgetown game was away. They smashed us at the Capital Center. It was a big thing because Alonzo Mourning and I were going up against each other for the first time in the Big East. It was Sherman’s senior year and of course Derrick was in the mix. They just beat us. I was so up for the game because before I got there, I didn’t know about Georgetown vs. Syracuse.

The fans would let you know that they hated Georgetown. They hated Georgetown more than anything. St. Johns was always very competitive. Even PITT was competitive. They hated Georgetown with a passion.

Alonzo and I were friends. We played against each other in high school and in all kinds of basketball camps. It’s not like I hated Alonzo. I wanted to beat him. I wanted to dunk on him because he was a shot blocker. Syracuse University hated Georgetown. That’s just the way it was.

What happened in the rematch at the Carrier Dome?

It was a payback game. There was like 33,000 in the Dome. You couldn’t hear nothing. We ended up beating them. We always split with Georgetown. They got us in the Big East Tournament that year too. I lost to Georgetown just two times in my career.

What was it like to play a Georgetown team?

They really didn’t talk. They played hard. You knew they were coming at you. They were cocky and then you saw Big John Thompson over on the side. They were a good team. When Mutombo joined the crew, it was almost a wrap.

There were no easy buckets inside. Georgetown was more business-like than anything. John Thompson had those boys playing hard for him. I don’t know if they were scared of him or what but he had those Georgetown teams ready to play and they played smart basketball.

Then you had Coach Carnesecca. What was it like playing a St. John’s squad?

Defensively, we knew they were going to get a lot of ball movement. We knew they were going to play the game the right way. You never had a St. John’s team that forced shots. They had it all. When they wanted to run, they could run. You know Louie would be on the sideline very tense, very exciting, very upbeat. He was definitely a leader. He was a great coach. I wish I would have visited. They wanted me but I never visited.

They had good history with Walter Berry and Chris Mullin. Malik Sealy. Jayson Williams. Boo Harvey. Those type of players. It’s New York. You’re going to New York playing in the Garden. That’s the best stage I ever played on. We lost a few in the Garden.

It was like the Chicago Bulls. Every team got up to play them. Teams did the same to us. We caught their best shot. We couldn’t take no games off or they would come in and get us. I’m sure other teams in the Big East had that too, but it seemed like every game we played in the Big East was a huge game.

Boston College too. I never lost to Seton Hall. I know they got up to play us. I knew Terry Dehere wanted to beat us. We never lost to them. PJ Carlesimo is a great coach. He screamed a lot, but he was a great coach.

He’s probably screaming right now. Talk about those moments before the Big East road games.

The only thing I remember that got me hype was my first year. Herman Harried. He ran up the tunnels. He’d always be right behind me. The whole time we were stretching, he’d be in my ear. “Billy, you know you nice! They can’t mess with you!” Telling me I better not lose this game. This was my first year there! He would get me so hype and so geeked, I would be too hype. I would go 100 miles an hour right away. All in my ear. “They can’t mess with you!! Go out there and bust they ass! You were the best high school player in the country!” He said it all.

As far as the fans, they were always there. I don’t know how they did it, but they always had our backs no matter where we were. We always had a little crew that always showed up for games to cheer us on. We knew we were playing for the school but also our fellow students. Maybe if we just would have toned it down a bit.

The pressure of putting on that Syracuse jersey was amazing. It’s something we wanted and we tried to rep the school to the fullest every single time out. We didn’t know the time we were in but looking back on it, that was such a great time.

If you can’t handle the pressure, do not go to Syracuse. You are expected to win 20 games every year. You are expected to be in the big dance every year. If you are a top player, you are expected to be damn near perfect out on the floor. If you don’t have the heart and again if you can’t handle the pressure, don’t go to Syracuse.

Who defended your versatility the best?

If you put a big guy on me I went around him. if you put a smaller man on me, I’d post him up. Maybe the guy was Brian Shorter. He played physical. He gave me the most problems. That is if you called 19 points against him a problem. He was 6’5”. He had good feet and he was strong. He played hard all the time. There was no break. When he played against me, he got up to play against me. It was a battle every time.

Is there a game that sticks out in your mind?

It was definitely an away game. It was in the paper not too long ago. I had 36 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 steals, 5 blocks. I want to say it was a Boston College game. Demetrius Nichols beat me by one point for leading scorer. He had 37, but he didn’t fill anything else on the stat sheet. It was all points. I felt like if I closed my eyes and threw the ball up, it would go in.

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