SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Bobby Davis was a basketball-crazy teen who was handed a virtual all-access pass to the world of big-time college hoops by Syracuse assistant coach Bernie Fine. As a ball boy for Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim’s squad during the 1980s, Davis heard halftime locker-room tirades from the legendary coach, took shots at practice, sat courtside, hit the road and ate nice dinners.
Davis, now 39 and the prime accuser in the sexual abuse scandal at Syracuse University, says the indebtedness he felt toward Fine made it hard to break from the man he claims molested him throughout his teens and into his late 20s.
“I wanted to be around basketball so bad,” Davis said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“As I got older, I understood more that Bernie had this power. You almost feel it’s like a cult in a sense. You don’t know how to get away,” he said. “And as more and more time went on, you feel indebted to him. You feel like you owe him. He’d always remind me of all the good things he did for me: ‘I’m the first one who got you a steak dinner. … I took you to these restaurants. I took you to these hotels.'”
Davis and his stepbrother Mike Lang claim they were repeatedly forcibly touched in the 1980s by Fine, who has since been fired. Davis and Lang last week filed a defamation lawsuit against the university and Boeheim, who initially called Davis a liar and opportunist looking to cash in on the publicity surrounding the Penn State sex abuse scandal.
Fine has denied the allegations. He has not spoken publicly in the month since the allegations were raised, and his lawyers declined to comment Thursday.
During an interview Wednesday night with the AP, Davis said the abuse would sometimes occur in Fine’s campus office with secretaries just beyond the closed door, in Fine’s home, at Syracuse University basketball camp and at a fraternity house. After he became a ball boy around age 11, Davis said, he went everywhere with Fine. He fetched cookies for news conferences and shadowed the team.
“I was in there during halftime speeches when Boeheim was kicking over chalkboards and screaming and swearing,” Davis said. “I was part of everything for a long time. He’s (Boeheim) seen me everywhere.”
Davis’ claim that he was always hanging around is crucial to his defamation lawsuit, which contends Boeheim “knew or should have known” about the alleged conduct of his assistant.
Davis said Boeheim saw him lounging on Fine’s hotel room bed in New Orleans in shorts and a T-shirt during the 1987 Final Four. He said Fine had gotten up to answer the door and was exchanging some paperwork when Boeheim spied him.
“I just remember him … kind of itching his head and looking, glancing at me, and I just felt like an uneasiness, an uncomfortableness,” Davis said.
Boeheim has denied going to Fine’s room or seeing Davis there.
Davis and Lang went public with their allegations on ESPN last month. District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said earlier this month that Davis was credible, but he couldn’t investigate under state law because the statute of limitations had expired. Two other men, Zach Tomaselli of Lewiston, Maine, and Floyd VanHooser, who is in prison on a burglary conviction, have also accused Fine, though Fitzpatrick has said that there is evidence that undercuts Tomaselli’s claim and that a “fourth accuser” he did not identify lacked credibility.
Federal prosecutors are investigating.
Boeheim, in his 36th year coaching Syracuse, vehemently supported his longtime assistant when the accusations broke and said Davis was lying. “The Penn State thing came out, and the kid behind this is trying to get money,” he told the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Amid criticism from victims’ rights advocates, Boeheim later apologized and said he spoke out of loyalty and was basing his comments on a 2005 university investigation that failed to corroborate Davis’ claims.
Davis met Fine in the early 1980s at a park that was a basketball hangout for neighborhood kids in a working-class section of the city.
“I was up at Sunnycrest playing and Bernie was up there playing, and he got me on his team,” Davis said. “They never would let me play because I was young. And he goes, ‘Oh, you can play with me.’ … And Bernie was a big guy and they respected him up there. I remember he was actually pretty good.”
Afterward, Fine invited him over for a barbecue dinner with others.
Davis said Fine began abusing him around the time he became a ball boy in 1983. Fine turned into a father figure, and as Davis spent more time at the older man’s house — actually living there sometimes — the abuse escalated from touching outside the pants to inside, according to Davis. Some of the abuse would occur in Davis’ bed in Fine’s basement while Fine’s wife, Laurie, was home, Davis said. During the summer or holiday breaks at Syracuse, Fine and Davis would stop at the house of the fraternity he advised, Davis claimed.
“He would always say, ‘Bobby, come in here. Come in this room. I’m up here.’ And I’d be like, ‘OK,’ and I knew what was going to happen. He was going to try to do something,” Davis said.
Fine’s house has been widely described as a place where team members, program staffers and kids were constantly coming and going. People came by for dinner or to lounge on the big couch to watch TV. The refrigerator was stocked with Gatorade, and his attic was packed with sneakers, basketball shorts and other gear that kids would often try to raid, Davis said.
Davis said he never saw another boy being abused but claimed he saw Fine rubbing the legs of other youngsters.
Fine would promise to give Davis the same type of orange sneakers worn by the team if he kept his grades up — a promise he delivered on every year Davis was a ball boy.
Davis recalled Fine asking another boy for his report card.
“That’s the only things that I’ve ever put two and two together — that I saw him do similar things like that, that he did to me, to other kids,” Davis said.
Davis said the sexual contact continued until his late 20s. He said it was eating him up and he eventually got tired of being controlled by Fine. His last contact with Fine was after Davis moved to Utah in 2003, after he tried to interest Syracuse police in his case. He called Fine to confront him.
“I called him and I said, ‘Bern, you need to get help. I’m doing this because I want you to get help, you know.'” Davis recalled. “And he just said, ‘Oh, you’re trying to hurt me and my family. Just stay away.’ He got mad at me.”
Davis hung up.