Connecticut pride: Silly Putty, Frisbees and college basketball champs

Wednesday April 9th, 2014

The UConn men and women both won national basketball titles in 2004 and did it again this season.

For most of the last century, Connecticut was an American boy's bedroom, the place where "Lolly Pops" were patented (in New Haven) and Pez were dispensed (from a plant in Orange) and Erector sets (from Westville) made every child a mini-Trump.

From here, Frisbees (born in Bridgeport) flew onto America's roofs, as Wiffle Balls (made in Shelton) flew over them. If you found it in the backyard or the bedroom closet anytime in the American century, chances are it came from Connecticut, which in 1943 gave the world the greatest of all possible gifts: Silly Putty.

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It has caught most Americans by surprise that this goofy adolescent grew up to become a basketball star, but it's always that way with the neighbor kids, isn't it? "It never occurred to me that infants grow up," Mark Twain wrote when he was a famous Connecticut resident, as beloved in his time as Kevin Ollie is in ours. "These unexpected changes, from infancy to youth, and from youth to maturity, are by far the most startling things I meet with."

America's bafflement is understandable. Connecticut had no real business becoming the nation's foremost repository of basketball glory, sandwiched as it is between Massachusetts and New York, double-teamed by the birthplace of basketball and the self-proclaimed World's Most Famous Arena.

But over the last two decades, as the UConn men and women played in 13 NCAA national championship games and won all 13, Americans who had never thought of this state -- smaller in square mileage than all but Rhode Island and Delaware -- began asking residents like me: What's in the water there?

Answer: We don't drink water here, subsisting mostly on Naughty Nurse Amber Ale (from Hartford) and Kitty Piddle Soda (from New Britain). This is a state, in short, that doesn't take itself too seriously, except in parts of Greenwich, and isn't overly impressed by the Huskies' success, if Derek the RA is to be believed.

If Connecticut were more self-important, instead of embracing its ballers it would celebrate our countless dweebs, eggheads and poindexters -- men like Noah Webster and his dictionary, or Eli Whitney and his cotton gin, or Charles Goodyear, who vulcanized rubber but remains second in the state's affections for achievements in rubber. General Electric engineer James Wright -- while trying to make a synthetic rubber during World War II rubber rationing -- accidentally invented Silly Putty, for which we're eternally grateful.

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Still, Goodyear's vulcanized rubber made the hockey puck possible, which in turn made the Hartford Whalers possible. If Connecticut was a car, its hood ornament would be the Whalers' exquisite logo, which is more popular now than it has ever been -- seen everywhere, sold everywhere, though the team itself left in 1997 for North Carolina, a state that fancies itself the center of the basketball world, despite the ACC getting trumped by the AAC (which has two national titles in its fabled five-month history).

So North Carolina got the NHL and Hartford's rebound romance became basketball, conducted in the Whalers former home, now called the XL Center, where the UConn men and women play roughly half their home games. This week, the men beat a team from Kentucky in their national championship game and the women beat a team from Indiana in theirs, meaning Connecticut has vanquished the only two other states (after North Carolina) with any claim as basketball capital of the United States.

Connecticut has only 3.5 million people, and little beyond statehood that unites them, and even less in the way of national identity. Before basketball, whenever you thought of Connecticut -- and we realize you never thought of Connecticut -- what came to mind? Gordie Howe? Insurance? ESPN?

If you live here, the first thing that comes to mind might well be the Bob-o-Pedic mattress, from Bob's Discount Furniture. Bob Kaufman is a UConn alumnus, class of '74, and stars in his own ubiquitous television spots that are the one thing all Connecticut residents have in common. Bob and basketball dominate our sense of self.

Others in the state and beyond might prefer to think of Yale, or Barney the purple dinosaur, or submarines, or the Colt .45, or the artificial heart, or even the hamburger, invented according to legend at Louis' Lunch in New Haven.

But the hamburger, while suitably American and unpretentious and great, has other claimants. Basketball is beyond dispute, settled every year with a final score. It's still hard to fathom how basketball became Connecticut's game, Connecticut's thing, but nobody's really concerned with the hows and whys and wherefores today.

It's enough to say this: As with Silly Putty, an egg hatched, and something wonderful emerged.

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