The Uconn Huskies did not rise to prominence until after I left the State, seldom to return, in the Fall of 1989. During my formative years, Uconn was coached by Dom Perno, and served quite effectively as a Big East doormat. They fielded players like Earl Kelly, Karl Hobbs, Gerry Besselink and one notable NBA player, Cliff Robinson. On a rare Big East night, the planets would align and the Huskies would snatch an upset, believed at the time to be some sort of breakthrough, win, then soberingly lose their next three conference games.
The breakthrough came in the form of Jim Calhoun, a quintessential hard-nosed product of the northeast. He brought a pressing defense, competitive resilience (he still holds a meaningful lead over cancer) and players….from everywhere. Ray Allen from South Carolina, Rip Hamilton and Donnyell Marshall from Pennsylvania, Khalid El-Amin from Minnesota, Donny Marshall from Washington, Jake Voskhul and Ameka Okafor from Texas, Brian Fair from Arizona, Nadev Henefeld from Isreal, Ben Gordon and Kemba Walker from New York, and Calhoun’s likely successor Kevin Ollie from Los Angeles. Under his watch, Uconn won three National Championships, numerous Big East titles and became a factory for the production of NBA players.
At some point, a momentum is created in these matters that makes it seem logical, even proper that some of the Nation’s best basketball talent would play at Uconn. The seismic scale of this momentum shift cannot be fully appreciated until you visit the Uconn campus.
It’s located in a place called Storrs, Connecticut. I have been there twice,. It’s supposedly twenty minutes from the insurance capital of the world, Hartford, but it feels more like forty minutes mainly because there is nothing, but quaint and utterly boring farm lands along the ride. I did not see a McDonald’s or suitable pizza anywhere on campus. It is not uncommon for snow to fall or temperatures to dip below freezing. This is the sort of campus on which drinking becomes a religion and Spring Break akin to a prison break.
There is no glorious tradition. No fertile recruiting base to lock down. No warm weather or scantily clad co-eds. No proximity to a metropolitan city. Just Calhoun and his Court of Dreams. If you come, we will win and send you to the league. For over twenty years, he did just that and became intertwined in the State narrative.
Connecticut, with the exception of the hockey team formerly known as the Hartford Whalers, has no professional sports. It sits between New York City and Boston. Most sports fans in the state gravitate to one or the other, and pre-Calhoun there was simply no other option. Calhoun gave us Tate George’s buzzer beater against Clemson, and absorbed Christian Laettner’s buzzer beater two days later. He gave us Uconn basketball.
After winning his first National title, Calhoun wrote a book. He included several letters he received from Uconn fans, who spoke of the pride and fulfillment the team gave them. I read this book in a Barnes and Noble across the street from Daytona International Speedway and got misty-eyed as I read in these stories, what I heard in the voices of my parents when they talked Uconn basketball, or the pride I would see in my dad when he would wear a Uconn shirt down here in Florida and someone would comment about it.
Thank you coach. I hope you enjoy your retirement.
Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.