Jerry McNamara of Syracuse remembers the “wonderful environment” in Albany in 2003

ALBANI — Syracuse assistant basketball coach Jerry McNamara was honored Thursday at Albany Capital Center, a short walk uphill where he helped the Orange team reach the Final Four as a player 19 years ago.

McNamara starred as a freshman guard on the 2003 Syracuse team, who beat Auburn at Sweet 16 and Oklahoma at Elite Eight in front of orange-garment crowds at MVP Arena (then Pepsi Arena) to earn a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Syracuse, who also had future NBA star Carmelo Anthony, knocked out Texas and Kansas in the Big Easy to win their first national championship.

McNamara, who returned to town to receive the Inspiration Award in “Coaches Against Cancer Basketball,” brought to mind the local stadium advantage Orange had in Albany.

“The crowd,” said McNamara. “The fact that once the arc came out that year, we knew we would be in the East if we advanced to Sweet 16, coming here. We knew that would be a huge advantage for us. We obviously had a great fan base. I just remember the cheers,” “Let’s go Orange” here. Incredible environment. I remember the Oklahoma game, kind of pulling away fairly easily in the second half (win 63-47) and like the last six or seven minutes of that game, knowing you’re about to go to the Final Four , knowing that you’re about to go to the Final Four.

The NCAA Championship returns to the MVP Arena in March for the first time since 2003 with first and second round matches.

McNamara, 39, is entering his twelfth season as an assistant under Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, the Hall of Fame who recruited and coached McNamara from Scranton, Pennsylvania, while McNamara scored 2,099 career points and became a fan favorite.

Could McNamara ultimately be a successor to Boeheim, 77, who is entering his 47th season as Syracuse’s leader? Boehm told ESPN Radio in Syracuse this past March that there was “a plan in place” for his retirement and successor. He declined to reveal when he will retire or who will be his replacement. He said he would have some input into the process but wouldn’t have the final say.

“I think that’s something he obviously should make clear to a lot of people before I definitely share his plan,” McNamara said Thursday. “He should make it clear, not me.”

McNamara admitted that he considered leading the program one day.

“I mean, sure, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t,” McNamara said. “I love Syracuse. I am very confident in what I bring to the table and my knowledge, more than anything else in terms of work ethic. I love Syracuse. I have been very fortunate to raise my four children there, to win a national championship, to be in four multiple finals. It has given me So many great memories… That’s the goal, to be head coach, and yes, I love Syracuse as much as anyone else can.”

Syracuse assistant coach Adrian Autry, a former Orange player also entering his twelfth season as an assistant, is another clear internal candidate.

The Orange, knocked out of the 16-17 season, has a staff that includes top guard Joe Girard III of Glens Falls, who averaged 13.8 points per game last season.

“I love working with (Gerrard),” McNamara said. “I love being around him. I love his energy. I can see his rejuvenation. He’s really excited for this next year, and he’s worked hard to position himself well to have him.”

McNamara spoke about the importance of receiving the Inspiration Award. He said his family has had cancer in the past three years.

“It means a lot,” he said. “I’ve been a part of the Coaches Against Cancer events ever since I came to Syracuse and Coach Boeheim got involved in that as a player. And the difference it can make and how much money is raised and is being raised in the right hands.”

McNamara said Boeheim’s contributions to the fight against cancer outweigh anything he accomplished on the basketball court.

Also Thursday was honored by the American Cancer Society Anthony Marino, executive vice president for the Northeast, who received the Champion of Hope award. Marino founded “Basketball” after seeing McNamara speak at an event in Syracuse. Basketball has since raised more than $2.5 million over 17 years.

Tamarack students Evan Franz and Joseph Karista have participated in the Fighting Spirit Award for their ongoing battles against cancer.

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