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May 07, 2004

Little Connecticut Gets Big

by David Greenbaum

Although Connecticut is the third smallest state in the union, the UConn men’s basketball program proved it is the biggest basketball program of all. And they proved it on the largest stage in the biggest state of the Lower 48.

Being a transplanted UConn alumnus living in Houston, I made sure I was going to be there to witness the bigness.

I matriculated at UConn when the Big East was just a descriptive term in some sports executive's mind. In those days UConn played in the Yankee Conference and mixed it up with such stalwarts as U-Maine, U-Vermont and U-New Hampshire.

Those UConn teams were chock full of the Connecticut Class S and Class M high school basketball studs, the smallest and usually the least talented of the basketball divisions. In those days UConn didn’t have the quicksilver point guards, the skywalking power forwards and the 6’10” front line players.

UConn played in the venerable fieldhouse, a creaky old building that also hosted all of the university physical education classes. At halftime of the UConn men’s basketball games the administrators would open the doors and let the students (with proper UConn ID) in free. So after a hard night of studying or hanging at the Student Union right across the street, we would zip up our down parkas, pull our wool hats down over our ears and take the short, cold walk across the street to watch some competitive but non NCAA tournament caliber basketball.

I graduated and some years later ended in up in Houston. In the 80s in Houston, before the proliferation of the internet and home computers, I attempted to keep up with the team but it wasn’t easy. UConn’s mediocre basketball exploits didn’t get a lot of play in the Houston media.

In the spring of 1990 (I still remember that day) I received a call from the Hawk, a friend and fellow alum still living in Connecticut, who told me UConn was currently ranked #3 in the country and they would be playing Syracuse in the 1990 Big East finals on TV.

I turned on the tube and watched UConn beat the ‘Cuse. It was one of the most exciting UConn basketball moments I can recall. Because we used to get consistently hammered by Syracuse…and also by Georgetown, St. Johns, Villanova, Boston College, Providence, Pittsburg and Seton Hall. In fact, the entire Big East used to have their way with UConn. But now we were Big East champions and nationally ranked. Amazing. But UConn basketball still hadn’t registered much of a blip in Texas.

As the years went on and UConn got better I, like all UConn fans, squirmed at the near misses on the bumpy road to the promised land of the Final Four. We remember [email protected]*#&% Christian Laettner’s twisting double pumper that found the bottom of the net. Donyell Marshall’s 2 missed free throws with no time left on the clock in regulation that snatched overtime defeat from the jaws of victory to Florida. Florida played basketball? And UCLA scoring 108 against an incredibly talented UConn team and once again denying the Huskies a trip to the Final Four.

All of that was resolved in 1999 when UConn finally made the Final Four and defeated the highly favored and “unbeatable” Duke team. Sweet.

But 2003-2004 was even more amazing because UConn was now the favorite. UConn was now the big, bad Huskies. On the cover of Sports Illustrated as pre-season favorites to win it all. UConn was stocked with high school studs and All Americans. And UConn was big in Texas because Emeka Okafor, the biggest of the UConn stud basketball players, was a Houston product.

So it was my job as a UConn Texan to drive to San Antonio and support the Huskies at the Final Four. In San Antonio the UConn fan presence was incredible. There were UConn fans, hats, shirts, everywhere. In San Antonio I learned the proper UConn fan banter/response. When approaching a fellow UConn fan, if you yell UCONN you will get “HUSKIE” as a response. Okay, not really creative but nonetheless effective and inspiring to UConn fans.

There were UConn cheers on the famed Riverwalk prior to the game. There were UConn cheers along the walk to the Alamodome. And there was a UConn presence everywhere inside the Alamodome. But I must admit the Georgia Tech fans were more visibly recognizable as they were all wearing yellow shirts while the UConn fans were split in their decision to wear either blue or white shirts.

But visible fan appearances didn’t matter much after tip off as UConn began to dominate the game. Even from my “cheap” seats in the upper endzone I could clearly see UConn slowly take control of the game and build a substantial half-time lead. For the second half we moved into the UConn bleacher area and succumbed to the second half slow torture of watching a Georgia Tech team gamely eat into a 25 point second half lead and make the game interesting. I believe everyone in the UConn bleachers was thinking there is no way UConn can lose this game with a 25 point second half lead but …

When GT missed their last 3 pointer and the game was finally in hand the UConn bleacher fans were more relieved than ecstatic…initially. But then the realization that the Huskies had accomplished the task quickly bubbled to the top of the emotional ladder and all was once again right with the UConn nation.

UConn was the biggest basketball program in the nation. Shoot, UConn was even big in Texas.

And that’s saying somethin’ pardner.

David Greenbaum is a UConn alum, a long time Huskies roundball fan and, despite his age, is still a reasonably decent recreational basketball player. He has lived in Houston and the South since the 80s.

NOTE: Any and all views, thoughts, opinions and advocacies as stated in this article are those of the author, and not College Athletics Clips.