Dyaisha Fair stuck with her coach. Now Syracuse is in the NCAA Tournament

Dyaisha Fair walked into Syracuse’s practice gym looking to squeeze in an extra workout a few nights before Selection Sunday. The Orange had played only once since the start of March, and Fair, a 22-point per game scorer, sought to maintain her feel around the rim and begin adjusting to the NCAA Tournament’s Wilson-brand basketball. Fair flipped the lights on at the Carmelo Anthony Basketball Center. Then, in an empty gym, she got to work.

Unknown to Fair, coach Felisha Legette-Jack was in her office that evening. She had gone out to dinner with her husband then returned to the facility to think about recruiting. From her office overlooking the gym’s floor, she saw the court lights turn on. She heard a ball bouncing. She noticed the player who she says is “like my daughter.”

“Just to see that warmed my heart,” Legette-Jack said. “It kind of made me emotional because we only have a few games left.”

Legette-Jack and Fair have been connected for five years. Legette-Jack first recruited Fair to Buffalo, where Legette-Jack coached from 2012-2022 and where they spent three seasons together. They won double-digit games each season, and they made the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Fair was a three-time All-MAC guard, making first-team twice. Their bond forged an unwavering belief in each other, with Legette-Jack pouring into the undersized, under-recruited Fair, and Fair showing appreciation back.

When Syracuse hired Legette-Jack to take charge of her alma mater after the ’22 campaign, Fair was confronted with a choice about where she wanted to play her fifth and final season. She could have stayed at Buffalo, but she entered the transfer portal. South Carolina was interested in her. So were Miami and Arizona, among others. Of course, Legette-Jack wanted Fair to consider Syracuse. But she also wasn’t going to limit her star guard. “You have wings. You can fly home or you can fly away,” she told Fair. “But you can never fly without me being in your life. I’m gonna be here forever.”

In the spring of 2022, after contemplating other options, Fair walked into Legette-Jack’s new Syracuse office and sat down at a round table. Fair told Legette-Jack she was thankful for all that she had done for her. For believing in her. For helping her grow as a person. The sentiments were so heartfelt that Legette-Jack figured bad news must be coming next.

“Oh f—. She’s leaving,” Legette-Jack said she thought to herself. Then, Fair unzipped her sweatshirt to reveal she was wearing an orange T-shirt. “I’m staying home,” Fair told Legette-Jack.

They hugged and cried, saying nothing for two minutes. “When you feel what you feel, and it’s real, it reduces you to an emotion,” Legette-Jack said.

Two years have passed since then. At Syracuse, Fair has established herself as one of the best players in college basketball. As Iowa star Caitlin Clark sprinted up the NCAA scoring list to great fanfare, Fair lurked behind in relative obscurity. Nearing the end of her college season, she has scored 3,351 points, fifth most all-time in NCAA Division I women’s college basketball. An NCAA Tournament run by the No. 6 seed Orange, who play No. 11 seed Arizona on Saturday afternoon, could help Fair move into fourth on the list. “We gotta make this thing last longer than one or two games because I ain’t ready for this to end,” Legette-Jack said.

Even when their player-coach relationship does conclude, however, their ties will remain strong. It’s almost humorous how tight they’ve become, though, considering what Fair’s initial impression of Legette-Jack.

Fair admits she didn’t fully understand the college recruiting process. She recalls one grassroots tournament during her junior year of high school when she saw Legette-Jack pop up at many of her games. One evening, Fair told her grandparents, “I think this lady is following me.” This lady ended up being more than just a lady, more than just a coach, to Fair. “She’s also the reason that I play,” Fair said. “She’s who I play for, literally.”

When Legette-Jack took a leave of absence during fall practices because of a non-cancerous brain tumor that impacted her vision and required three surgeries, Fair insisted on visiting the Orange head coach while she was hospitalized. On Legette-Jack’s request, Fair brought her pizza. They talked about how practices were going. Fair wasn’t sure if Legette-Jack would return to the sideline. She was back there before Syracuse’s first game. Still, “it was a scary thing for me,” Fair said. “It made our relationship and our bond stronger than it already was prior to that month.”

Basket after basket, the 5-foot-5 guard takes pride in feeling like an underdog. In the back of her mind, she thought of her scoring chase. But she didn’t let the attention (or lack thereof compared to Clark) alter her mood. “I just used it, like I use everything else, to keep going and be better.”

Legette-Jack gives her star guard freedom on the floor. “Blessed with top scorers, I let them be,” she said. Fair’s burst and ability to finish over taller players stands out. She shoots 66 percent at the rim, nearly 10 percent above the national average, according to CBB Analytics. Her success is key to Syracuse’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2021.

In large part because of Fair, a new foundation has been laid within the Orange. But neither coach nor player wants to think about daily life without the other. “I haven’t really wanted to reflect on it yet,” Fair said. “It brings me to a different emotion so I kind of want to just finish out the year and have my reflecting when I’m finished with this part.”

Legette-Jack said in the summer with the season months in the rearview, she will fully reflect on their journey. But for now, as Legette-Jack briefly ponders Syracuse without Fair, she thinks about a motto she says all the time; a phrase she has framed in her office, she believes at her core, and has instilled into Fair: You are enough.

(Photo of Dyaisha Fair and Felisha Legette-Jack: Rich Barnes / Getty Images)

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