HOUSTON — In one of those simple, brilliant leads that occasionally grace the sports pages, Hartford Courant beat writer Michael Arace sent 17 words back to Connecticut from St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 29, 1999.
“The UConn Huskies won the national championship Monday night.
“It has been written in your lifetime.”
The 17 words were 98 years in the making, of course, yet they so concisely captured the sweeping nature a most unlikely achievement.
Jim Calhoun’s first grandchild, Emily, had been born that month in 1999, 24 days earlier to be exact, and as she sat there with the other five Calhoun grandchildren Monday night at Reliant Stadium, a thought flashed through the mind. Emily’s grandpa stood to win three national championships in her lifetime.
Yes, the first one took forever.
And three happened in the blink of a young girl’s eye.
As Kemba Walker fell into Calhoun’s arms and buried his tired head into his coach’s shoulder after UConn’s 53-41 national championship victory over Butler, both the import of a coach’s most improbable achievement and crowning moment of a remarkable young athlete’s life came together in one sweet, sweet embrace.
What seemed impossible once has been made possible three times, by players like Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin, by players like Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon and now by players like Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb. What seemed impossible once has been made possible by the fiercest competitor, the best winner, the worst loser, Connecticut has ever seen.
On Sunday, Calhoun talked about pumping gas, making candy, cutting stone, collecting metal in a shipyard among the many jobs he held as he hardened his youth in support of his family after his dad had died. He called himself a high school coach. He said he wasn’t coaching blueblood.
Yet as he peered through the shining moment of a special night in Houston into the rising sun of the morning, Jim Calhoun can see his face on the Mount Rushmore of coaches. Up there with John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only men ever to win three national titles. Amazing.
UConn had been playing basketball since 1901, back when it was called Connecticut Agricultural College and it played a single game that year against Windham High School. Ninety-eight years would pass before the school won its first national title.
All those decades, the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, folks in our state grew up and grew old, worked and retired, lived and died. It went on for generations. Who among them, from Thompson to Greenwich, from Stonington to Danbury, thought a national title was possible?
The game was invented in Springfield and their savior eventually would go to college there, at AIC, but the legends would lie to the west. At Kentucky, Rupp won three in four years during the Truman administration and, in 1958, would add a fourth in 11 years. Wooden, of course, won 10 times in 12 years, at UCLA with names like Alcindor and Walton between 1964 and 1975. His record was one that bridged American culture, a record never to be broken. Indiana’s Knight won three times 12 years, an imperfect man with a perfect season. More recently, Duke’s Krzyzewski won three in 11 years and four in 20.
These men had nicknames for the ages. Baron of the Bluegrass, Wizard of Westwood, the General … UConn only had the Yankee Conference and bus rides to Orono. With Dave Gavitt’s son, Dan, at the press conference, Calhoun went out of his way to thank Gavitt for the vision that became the Big East Conference. UConn basketball doesn’t turn into what it became without the Big East, no way, now how. Not even the Maniac, Brainiac From Braintree could have built all this without a league that would give and take so much each winter.
Yet there was a time when Calhoun himself looked as if he could leave the game unfulfilled. For a time he was called the best coach in America without a Final Four appearance. He denied such a tag bothered him, but he also cried that day in Phoenix when the Huskies beat Gonzaga in the 1999 Elite Eight.
And now here he was on Monday morning at the ceremony to honor Walker as the winner of the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard.
“He’s as fast as you ever seen,” Calhoun would say, “and he might be quicker than that.”
Yes, the long, forever road that it took for UConn to gain national respect, at least by historical perspective, suddenly has brought dividends that never could have been expected.
On March 10, Walker broke Gary McGhee’s ankles with his step-back, last-second shot to beat Pitt. He did nothing but break hearts since then. Broke them in New York. Broke them in Washington. Broke them in Anaheim and, finally, in Houston.
Perhaps it’s fitting we bring up names like Adolph Rupp, because this game played like the 1946 national title game. Nobody could score. There was good defense. There was bad shooting. The difficulties of shooting in a dome, with the sightlines and slight breeze, are evident. The rims seemed tight. The players definitely were. Butler had a three-point lead at halftime after sinking only six baskets. At one point in the second half, the Bulldogs were 8-for-52.
Make no mistake, most of America was pulling for Butler. In was never accurate to portray Butler as David, the Bulldogs made the final last year, but convenient stereotypes rule the national landscape. Butler was Milan High. UConn was the Evil Empire. Butler was good. UConn was bad. UConn was the cheater, although, in truth, NCAA violations had nothing to do with this team.. Even on Monday night, Nate Miles, who had been at the center of two years of hardship, contacted The Courant. He’s not making any further claims to the NCAA. And now, media and folks, far and wide will call this the worst title game ever.
There will be nothing to clog the arteries of joy for this UConn team. The way they played nine game in 19 days. They way they won them all and then in two exhausting fights to the finish, the way they outlasted Kentucky and Butler.
Derrick Williams’ three or Jamelle Horne’s three at the buzzer could have gone in for Arizona in the Elite Eight and UConn could have gone home. They didn’t.
DeAndre Liggins’ three, although contested big-time, could have gone in for Kentucky in the Final Four and UConn could have gone home. It didn’t .
Shelvin Mack’s did make a three- pointer from the top of the key to beat the buzzer to give Butler a 22-19 halftime lead. But it was a three-pointer that hurt no more than a rubber dagger. Butler could do no further damage.
Yes, the UConn Huskies won the national championship Monday night.
It has been written … three times in Emily Calhoun’s lifetime.
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