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College basketball: Syracuse’s quiet man steps to the front

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Reporters who cover Syracuse regularly remember a shy, almost self-conscious young C. J. Fair who came into the Orange men’s basketball program four years ago without the hype of some of SU’s great players of the past.

Fair spoke in such muted tones that you had to stand right next to him to understand the words. He has never been a polished speaker, but a kid who got his point across in as few sentences as possible.

His game on the court back then resembled his off-court persona. Fair played quietly, going about his business without much fanfare. Although he played in every game his first two seasons, the 6-foot-8 native of Baltimore never sought the spotlight, but provided valuable contributions whenever coach Jim Boeheim called on him.

Last season, Fair emerged from that quiet place to lead the Orange in scoring (14.5 points) and rebounding (7.0). He scored in double figures in 33 of SU’s 40 games, and became an All-Big East Conference performer.

Fair saved one of his best performances for last, scoring 22 points and grabbing six rebounds in SU’s loss to Michigan in the national semifinals.

Still, it was the loquacious point guard Michael Carter-Williams or the shot-making senior James Southerland that the media usually sought out after games because they were a much better quote than Fair. Just because he was the leading scorer, Fair was not the No. 1 offensive option because SU’s offense ran through its veteran guards.

When it came time for Fair to make a critical choice of whether to enter the NBA Draft or return to SU for his final season, Fair was torn. His parents wanted him to come back to school. Scouts differed in their opinion on where he would be drafted. And although Boeheim wanted Fair to come back and lead a team with high expectations, he always told Fair to do what was best for him and his family.

“It was the most difficult decision of my life,” Fair said. “You hear so much different stuff from different people, it’s hard to know who to believe. I know coach was looking out for my best interests, and so were my parents.”

In the end, after changing his mind several times over a critical weekend a few weeks after SU’s loss in the Final Four, Fair called Boeheim and made it official. He was going to wear an Orange uniform one more season.

“I believe that C. J. will be a very good NBA player some day,” Boeheim said. “But if you’re not going to be drafted in the first round, it makes your road a lot tougher. If he has another season like he did last year, he’s sure to rise way up on the draft boards.”

Fair said that fact that some of the players he went against during the season were getting more draft hype bothered him at first. “I know I’m as good as a lot of those guys,” he said. “But my time will come. I’m confident of that.”

Just as Fair’s game has expanded over the last four years, so has the confidence in his abilities. He’s never going to be a cocky, self-assured player like a Carmelo Anthony or a Carter-Williams. But he has become a quiet, effective leader for an Orange squad in need of a veteran’s leadership.

“C.J. is not an in-your-face type of guy,” said SU guard Trevor Cooney. “But when he does say something, you listen. To him, it’s always about the team and whatever he does is just secondary.”

Boeheim said while Fair may never be the spectacular All-American that’s on SportsCenter every day, “he’s a kid who just finds a way to get the job done. He knows how to play the game and plays off others very well. Last year, he was our second or third option most of the time. This year, he’ll be the first.”

Fair said he relishes the chance to have the ball in his hands more often. “I think it will bring out the best in my game,” he said.

That game has become a lot more well-rounded. Most of his scoring the first two seasons came on offensive rebounds or transition hoops. But last season, while taking just 11.5 shots per game, he stepped out to the perimeter with resounding success.

Fair hit 46.9 percent of his 3-point attempts, going 30 of 64. He also got to the free throw line more often, making 75.5 percent of his 155 shots.

“You wouldn’t believe all the time he spent in the gym working on his shot,” said SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins. “C.J. was determined to become a better player, and he put in all the time necessary to make sure that happened.”

Boeheim said the fact that Fair “has improved every season” makes it almost a sure bet that his first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference will be one to remember.

He’s already impressed ACC people, who voted him Preseason Player of the Year. Fair said it’s a real honor, but that what he does on the court will tell a lot more than what people think of him.

“If I can help this team make history in its first year in the ACC, that’s all I could ask,” he said. “I know my role is a little different this season, and I’m ready to be more of a leader.”

That doesn’t mean Fair will talk any louder.

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