STORRS — Larry Brown got a chance to see Jim Calhoun Sunday.
"He gave me a half-assed wave," Brown said after his SMU basketball team squashed No. 21 UConn 64-55 in front of 10,167 Gampel Pavilion fans who had been amped to honor their 1999 national champions. "I know how competitive he is.
"Shoot, I walked down his street [Jim Calhoun Way] … All of coach Calhoun's guys are so competitive, except Emeka."
We'll get to Emeka Okafor, the author of the 2004 national title in a bit, but this was a day reserved for the first national championship, a day when the 1999 team and Khalid El-Amin were inducted into the Huskies of Honor. Richard Hamilton's name already was on the Gampel wall, but this was his first game at Storrs since he left UConn and that brought its own set of emotions.
"I've been [at games] at Hartford," Hamilton said. "There's nothing like playing on campus, with the student body. Here's special. I'm going to make it my duty to get back more.
"It's the first time I drove by [the practice facility nearing its completion]. It's a whole different campus since I left in '99."
Serendipity has its privileges and Hamilton was thrilled to see Calhoun and Brown on the same February afternoon.
"You've got my two favorite coaches of all-time in the building," said Hamilton, one of only 40 players to win both an NCAA and NBA title. "Both guys I got an opportunity to win the championship with [he won with Brown in Detroit in 2004]. That's crazy. It's one of those magic moments, something that couldn't be planned."
Hamilton, El-Amin, Kevin Freeman, Jake Voskuhl, Ricky Moore, all the starters and most of the 1999 team were in attendance for the halftime induction. Hamilton raved about how none of his teammates seemed to have aged, adding, "Coming into college Khalid looked like he was 28 already."
There was a flood of memories. I came armed with two questions.
For Rip, exactly how close were you to leaving for the NBA after your sophomore season in the spring of 1998?
"I put all my eggs in coach's basket," Hamilton said. "I had one foot on the university campus and one foot out the door. I put all my trust in coach Calhoun. Everything he told me in his office after that three-hour, four-hour conversation came true. When you're 20, sometimes you think people are just talking to be talking. But everything he told me came true."
The national title came true. The NBA and the NBA title came true. The All-Star Games came true. The $109 million in career earnings came true. For Hamilton, for the school, for the state, the 77-74 victory over Duke changed everything. That Duke team was going to go down as one of the great ones in college history until a certain night in St. Petersburg, Fla., ended with El-Amin rushing at the CBS cameras screaming, "We shocked the world!"
Which leads to the second question: Did you plan that moment, Khalid?
"I didn't plan any of it," El-Amin said. "I know I said we were planning to shock the world before the game. But it just hit triple zeros. The adrenalin was going through me. It was something that happened spontaneously."
Hamilton scored 27 points and was named Final Four most outstanding player. Trajan Langdon, dogged all night by Moore, turned the ball over twice in the closing seconds. Duke's 32-game winning streak crashed. El-Amin hit two free throws with five seconds left and all he was thinking was, "I've taken a million free throws, this is just one million and one."
So how much do they still rib the Duke players about all this?
"All the time," Hamilton said. "They can't even look me in my face. That's how I like it. Duke has got so many great players in the NBA … I'm always hard on Elton [Brand]. Like, hey, you never beat me regardless of all that praise you all got, whether you got the Wooden Award, we got the ring at the end."
El-Amin, not surprisingly, extended the needle.
"Not only Duke players, Duke fans," El-Amin said. "I definitely rub it in whenever I can."
"My rookie year I played in Chicago with Elton, so we kind of laughed about it," Voskuhl said. "I think those guys took it personal. That was a big loss for them. When you look at it on paper, they were a more talented team. No one would argue that. They had five guys go in the top 13 of the draft that year.
"But we were a better team, a tougher team than them collectively. I think everyone thought we'd lose that game except for us."
Everybody remembers El-Amin running with the ball, his hand raised, screaming. And when you set the moment to "One Shining Moment," Hamilton says he'll never forget it. But he remembers something else. Calhoun's attitude before the game.
"Usually, he's always on pins and needles," Hamilton said. "That was the first game where he told us just to relax and play. That really was the big thing for us. We really believed we could win. We thought we were the best team in the country. We thought Duke was getting all the praise but we didn't mind that."
The last game Hamilton played at Gampel the Huskies lost to Miami on Senior Night. He says it would become a source of motivation.
"Coach came in afterward and told us, 'Don't think you're as good as you think you are. You still have to put out the work,' " Hamilton said. "We did and we got the championship."
Voskhul, 36, is retired after nine years in the NBA. El-Amin, 34, who has played in a half-dozen countries after a brief NBA career, is recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured left quadriceps. Hamilton, 36, was waived by the Bulls last summer after 14 seasons in the NBA, but still wants to play. He doesn't need the money. He wants to play for a team that could get him a second ring. "That," Hamilton said, "is how you build your legacy."
Brown said he has been calling NBA team about signing Hamilton. He said Hamilton has never been out of shape a day in his life. Then he went into the riff about the ultra-competitiveness of Calhoun's players, except …
"Emeka is just a talent, the greatest guy, fun to be around, not one of those guys who grew up wanting to play every second of every game," Brown said. "I love being around him. Rip wants to be great. He's such a fierce competitor. I can't believe he's not playing for someone."
To a man, the 1999 team talked about how much a day like this means.
"Means the world," El-Amin said.
To a man, they knew how much the first championship meant for a burgeoning program that hadn't gotten to the Final Four.
"I was a student of the game, I knew about the Final Eights and the tough losses to Duke," El-Amin said. "I definitely wanted to make the Final Four not only for coach, but for the state of Connecticut."
To a man, they talked about what a strong job Kevin Ollie is doing — although the Huskies turned in a horrible shooting performance Sunday.
"KO has done an excellent job," Hamilton said. "It's hard to follow coach Calhoun, That's huge pressure."
El-Amin is interested in coaching. Hamilton gave four "nahs" before adding he didn't want to throw any possibility out the window.
So what made that UConn team great in 1999? El-Amin pointed to the summer trip to Israel as vital time for the team to bond. Voskuhl pointed back even further, to the meltdown that core group suffered as freshmen in the 1997 season.
"Coach was pounding us," Voskuhl said. "Either everyone was going to quit or everyone was going to say, 'Screw the world, we're going to do this.' "
They would do the latter.
Hamilton has never watched replays of the national championship or the deciding game of the 2004 NBA Finals. He says he wants to wait until his young children grow.
"I hope they'll watch and say, 'Dad was pretty good,' " Hamilton said.