Pretty much everyone who even remotely knows me, knows that I’m a huge UConn basketball fan. I am obsessed with March Madness, running my own bracket pool for friends & family every year for the past decade. I have more UConn t-shirts and accessories than I know what to do with, especially since I now live in Los Angeles and only make it to games when I go home for Christmas. I know the final score from our first national championship game, because my dad chose it as his vanity license plate (“UC 77-74”). I will defend the Huskies against any controversy, can recite players’ names from decades ago, and the UConn fight song and crowd cheers have been a part of my DNA since birth. I’m pretty sure I would indeed bleed blue if I ever got in a knife fight with a Duke fan (TBD) and I know that the freshest ice cream you will ever taste is at the UConn Dairy Bar in Storrs.
But I am not a UConn alum. I was never a student at UConn. People who aren’t from CT are always shocked to find this out, just assuming that my rabid fandom was a result of actually going to UConn. But for those of us from CT, being a UConn fan is a fact of life. It’s not about where you went to college. Connecticut is UConn and UConn is Connecticut. It defines us, it unites us, and in years like this one, it inspires and galvanizes us.
To understand UConn fans you have to understand Connecticut, a tiny state in Southern New England, barely distinguishable on a map of the U.S. It’s not a destination for most people. It’s a place you are from. What’s so awesome about little ole Connecticut? Not a lot, to be honest. But that’s what makes what we do have so special to us. We don’t have a big, exciting city. We don’t have national parks or killer ski resorts or fancy beach resorts. Unlike some of our louder neighbors, we fly under the radar. Our charms are more subtle, from the quiet rivers and lakes to the quaint historic towns with communities so tight everyone knows each other’s extended families. We call our subs “grinders,” serve our lobster rolls hot and buttery, and sometimes can’t pronounce the letter “t” in the middle of words (just ask us to say “New Britain”).
We don’t get a lot of national recognition. But what we do have is college basketball. Dual men’s and women’s championship wins for the second time in 2014, from arguably the best men’s and women’s college basketball programs of the past 15 years. There is no longer anything subtle about UConn basketball.
We haven’t had a pro sports team since the Hartford Whalers left almost 20 years ago, although the Whalers spirit is still alive and well. The Hartford Whalers brand and logo are as popular as ever in the Nutmeg State, a testament to the fact that we hold on dearly to what is uniquely ours. We know loyalty. I dare you to blast “Brass Bonanza” from the speakers in any bar in CT and not cause a riot. Geographically and spiritually, CT is split between Boston and NY, which makes for a lot of spirited team rivalry discussions. But UConn is what brings us together.
We love not just our UConn men, but our UConn women. Granted they are the most successful women’s basketball program in history, but I think a large part of that is the fans’ support and influence. UConn women’s games sell out the stadium and air on TV. What star female basketball player wouldn’t want to go to a school where the community, the school, and the men’s basketball program are all behind you 100%?
Some of my fondest early memories are going to UConn basketball games at the old Field House, before Gampel Pavilion was built. My dad, who actually is a UConn alum (Class of ’71) and mom have been season ticket holders for 40 years. Going to the games with my dad was a privilege, and not just because I got to watch my favorite team play a game live and in person. Going to a game was a foray into an adult world I wasn’t usually a part of. I could cheer along with the cheerleaders, shake hands with Jonathan, and gasp whenever the students’ section chanted a bad word (usually “asshole” although the “airball” chant was also thrilling because it was a taunt, and as a kid even taunting is taboo and exciting). UConn games were my first experience with drunk people, something that seemed foreign and even a little bit scary to me (“Daddy, why does that guy’s apple juice smell so weird?”)
The UConn players were my first celebrities. I knew all of their names, stats, hometowns, anything else I could find out in a pre-internet era where the newspaper was your Bible and the game programs were precious keepsakes. I once ran into Donny Marshall at a 7-11 and had him sign my dollar bill with the clerk’s Sharpie, a dollar bill that I kept proudly displayed on my bulletin board until my parents sold my childhood home in Wethersfield recently. I had crushes on the cute ones, respected the most talented ones, and thought Calhoun was larger than life.
In high school my favorite part of going to games was seeing “Big Red” lead the U-C-O-N-N cheers from his seat. He was just a fan, but a fan everyone knew and loved (except my dad, who claims Big Red = Big Ego). My favorite part of my parents going to games without me was the fact they were frequently on camera, since their seats were behind the UConn bench. My brothers and I could watch them on TV from our house in Wethersfield, which meant the most fool-proof way to have your friends over unsupervised without getting caught. (“Are your parents coming home soon?” “Nah man look, they’re right there eating a hot dog.”) Games at Gampel were especially clutch, since it meant a 40 minute drive back from Storrs after the game was over, giving us ample time to kick everyone out and clean up the beer bottles once the game ended (sorry Mom & Dad, just blame Brian).
When it came time for me to apply to colleges, Syracuse was one of the contenders due to their strong TV/Film program. My dad was terrified at the thought of a King kid wearing Orange and cheering for ‘Cuse at the Carrier Dome, but even more horrified at the possibility of writing out huge checks to his nemesis, meaning he’d be monetarily supporting Boeheim’s program. I didn’t even apply to UConn because I wanted to broaden my horizons, but after getting wait-listed at my top choice I distinctly remember my dad saying “Let me make a few calls to UConn admissions.” In the end I landed at an affordable state school in Virginia (James Madison Univ) which without a D1 presence in sports was in no way threatening to my allegiance to UConn. I don’t even own one single JMU t-shirt.
People who have only recently grown interested in college basketball don’t realize that UConn is a relative newcomer to the world of winning championships. In the 80’s it wasn’t even on our radar to win a national championship. Winning a regular season Syracuse game was enough to cause unbridled excitement on the Storrs campus. 1990 was the first year we won the Big East tournament, and then made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tourney. In those days that was a big enough feat to garner a nickname of “The Dream Season.” It wouldn’t be until nine years later that the dreams would loom larger into a National Championship win, followed by two more titles in 2004 and 2011.
We weren’t supposed to win in 2014. The women have become expected to win. But the men’s program was supposed to be nearly dead.
It’s been a sad, scary few years for us Nutmeggers. The recruiting violations, the academic probation and post-season ban, and Calhoun, the only coach I’d ever known, was retiring. And on top of all that The Big East, the conference UConn helped define and vice versa, was crumbling. I was scared. And I was pissed. But mostly, I was sad.
The Big East is a conference that molded my early years of college basketball and formed our deepest rivalries. And then essentially the Big East as we knew it ceased to exist. And it was heart-breaking. We now play in a brand new conference against some teams I’ve barely heard of, teams that are halfway if not all the way across the country. It’s hard to be excited about beating teams you didn’t even know existed, in a conference that no one seems to recognize.
Last year, with all these strikes against UConn and with the departure of Calhoun, I was genuinely depressed about the possibility that our basketball program was going into a deep hibernation. I thought it would be a long time before I could proudly declare my love of UConn and not be met with cynicism, negative attitudes, and comments like “yeah you guys had your moment, whatever.”
To lose our college basketball program was to lose a large part of who we are, not just as fans or alumni, but as a state.
And then Kevin Ollie came along. And Shabazz Napier, like a true UConn fan, stayed loyal to his team and didn’t transfer last year like he could have (and like five other players did). He had faith in this team, in this program, and in his new and untested coach. Ollie told them they could win this thing, against all odds. Prior to the tournament none of us thought it was possible, even I had them losing to Iowa State in my bracket. But they proved everyone wrong.
Coach Ollie and his team brought UConn basketball back on the map, sooner and more powerfully than anyone could’ve ever imagined. For this, Coach KO has in just two short years cemented his status as a true Connecticut Hero.
To know college basketball now is to know UConn basketball. Husky Nation is no longer on the sidelines, in the shadow of schools like Syracuse or Duke. It’s not an option to not know who the Huskies are.
When people ask where I’m from and I say Connecticut, they usually just say “Oh.” Maybe now they’ll say “Oh, like UConn?” And I’ll proudly say, “Yes. Connecticut as in UConn.”