April 5, 2011
HOUSTON — In one of those simple, brilliant leads that occasionally grace the sports pages, 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 concisely captured the sweeping nature of 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. 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 improbable achievement and crowning moment of a remarkable young athlete's life came together in one sweet, sweet embrace.
Confetti fell from the rafters. Tears gathered in their eyes.
A young man and an old man hugged, and it was beautiful. For the record, at that moment, Kemba, hobbling slightly, fatigued, was the old man. Calhoun, at 68 the oldest coach ever to win a national championship, never looked younger.
Knowing of the deaths of two people close to him, knowing of the NCAA violations case, knowing of the up-and-down ride of a young team turned champion, Kemba smiled at his team's achievement.
"We made coach's year," he said.
"I needed this team," Calhoun said.
What seemed impossible once has been made possible three times, by players like Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, by players that came from all over to gather in Houston. And now, too, by players like Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb. What seemed impossible once has been made possible by the fiercest competitor, the best winner and the worst loser Connecticut has ever known.
On Sunday, Calhoun talked about pumping gas, making candy, cutting stone and collecting metal in a shipyard among the many jobs he held to help support his family after his dad had died. It hardened him. And it hardened his view of himself. He still calls himself a high school coach. He still says he isn'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.
"My dad told me something a long time ago — you're known by the company you keep," Calhoun said. "This is awful sweet company.
"My legacy? Who writes your legacy? If it comes to my legacy all I ask is talk to my players."
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 really thought a national title was possible?
The game was invented in Springfield, and a state's 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 bridged American sports culture. Indiana's Knight won three times in 12 years, an imperfect man with a perfect season. More recently, Coach K won three in 11 years and four in 20 at Duke.
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. Calhoun went out of his way to thank Dave Gavitt the other day for the vision that became the Big East Conference. UConn basketball doesn't turn into what it became without the Big East, no way, no 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. Again, Monday night, Calhoun would brag about the Big East.
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 there 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 suddenly, at least by historical perspective, came about quicker than 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. Great defense. Bad shooting. The stadium sightlines. Tight rims. Tighter players. Whatever the reason, Butler ended 12-for-64. Make no mistake, most of America was pulling for Butler. With most of America playing to the stereotype that Butler was Simon pure and David small, that UConn was the cheatin' Evil Empire, this game surely will be labeled on talk radio and in newspaper columns as the worst, ugliest final ever played.
Nothing should clog the arteries of joy for this UConn team. These Huskies did nothing wrong. They had nothing to do with NCAA violations. The way they won nine games in 19 days, the way they fought through exhaustion on the Final Four weekend, relying on defense to a glorious finish, was nothing short of beautiful.
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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