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April 03, 2004

UConn Loyalty Can Be A Fleeting Thing

I go way back with my beloved UConn Huskies.

My matriculation at UConn occurred during the turbulent late 60’s / early 70’s. A middling student, my few priorities in life included chasing young women, avoiding academic ejection, beer consumption and UConn basketball.

This was a tumultuous era. Viet Nam was an everyday reality. There was divisiveness, dissension and protest. Kent State, President Nixon, Mayor Daley.

Nevertheless, the world of sports chugged along. The Amazin’ Mets won a World Series, the Jets won Super Bowl III and Mario Andretti won the Indy 500. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Gibson, Joe Namath and Bobby Orr were the stars of the day.

In college basketball, UCLA was in the midst of winning six straight NCAA men’s basketball championships. The nation was captivated by three concurrent superstars—the Three M’s—Pistol Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy and Rick Mount. There was no three point shot, no shot clock, and dunking was prohibited.

Back then UConn played in the venerable Yankee Conference, with natural geographic cream-puff rivalries versus such formidable opponents as the Maine Black Bears and the New Hampshire Wildcats.

Things were simpler then. UConn was a big fish in the small pond of New England basketball. Most of the players were actually from the state of Connecticut. They played all their home games in the cavernous Field House, which felt more like an oversized armory than a basketball arena. Most of the fans were actually students. How novel.

Then things got slick. A marquee coach. The Big East. National (even international) recruiting. A new Hartford Civic Center. Television. A new smiling Husky icon. Huskymania. And a competitive women’s basketball team as well.

Many of us Old Timers stayed around for the ride. And what a ride it was. Consistently winning teams. Bragging rights. Beating Georgetown and Syracuse regularly. In the run of it during March Madness. Players from the Sudan, from the Middle East, from Eastern Europe, from Texas, from the Deep South, second generation Nigerian. Now maybe 10% of the spectators are bona fide UConn students or alumni. Heady stuff.

And then the 1999 National Championship (in a score-settling championship game victory over arch-rival Duke). Yippee. Chest-beating. Basking. I was as guilty as the worst of them.

These past few years the Husky faithful have been elevated to a far different place. Grand expectations. Soaring standards. The pursuit of excellence.

Those who know me will attest that I have not been one of the more loyal Husky fans. More than once have I weakened and leaped off (but then back on) the UConn bandwagon.

I am also one of the more unforgiving fans, susceptible to irrational and unfounded grudges and reprisals. Like many UConn fans, I have recurring nightmares about the horror of pretty boy Christian Laettner sinking an off balance shot at the buzzer that enabled the reviled Duke to eliminate UConn in 1990 tournament.

This unleashed a decade-plus unremitting misery of cold sweats, sleeplessness, memory loss, Pavlovian fear of buzzer sounds and the irrational postulation of an anti-UConn conspiracy theory.

The Laettner shot also spawned a forever loathing of the evil Duke among legions of the Husky loyal. This is a loathing that surpasses even the bitterness that UConn fans once harbored for the Georgetown Hoyas.

But here is now, and now is tonight. And tonight, UConn takes on the evil Duke in what most view as the NCAA de facto championship game.

There will I be, sitting solo on the family couch (no one will sit near me because I swing my arms and jump around erratically during UConn games). I’ll be wearing my UConn sweatshirt and my lucky UConn Teddy Bear will be in my lap. If I were a betting man, I would wager a large sum on the Huskies.

I do not know if I will be on or off the UConn bandwagon tomorrow.

(Infante, Editor of College Athletics Clips, claims allegiance to the Huskies dating back to his boyhood in the early 60's when games were televised to a largely disinterested state, and UConn stars included Toby Kimball and Wes Bialosuknia.)