Practice is barely a few minutes old and UConn coach Jim Calhoun is not happy. He may not be ready to blow a gasket -- yet -- but with his team dripping from exhaustion during a morning workout and showing the same sluggishness and inability to finish that led to a dismal 17-14 finish last season, Calhoun looks up and sees the same problems that caused the Huskies to have their worst season since 1997. There is one bright spot, however: A.J. Price.
As Calhoun is busy yelling about finishing and his teammates seem to be busy trying not to throw up, Price is clapping and slapping hands with everyone around him, bouncing in the middle of hanging heads. Calhoun can't help but smile inside, for this is the player he's wanted to lead the Huskies for three years.
To be excited for the return of the old A.J. Price, you have to know the A.J. Price that Calhoun recruited from Amityville (N.Y.) High in 2004. He was Rivals.com's 32nd-ranked overall recruit (one behind Corey Brewer), No. 7 point guard (Drew Neitzel was No. 13), and part of a UConn recruiting class that included Rudy Gay.
Even his home life appeared perfect. His mom, Inga, quickly became a permanent feature on the sidelines and outside the locker room, and his dad, Tony, who had led Penn to the Final Four in 1979 was often with her. When Price brought his charmed life, flashy play and unbridled confidence to Storrs, Calhoun expected him to step in as a leader from Day 1.
"I saw him in high school and I thought he had this swagger about him, this positive swagger, this confidence," Calhoun said. "That's what made him so good."
Some people at UConn point to the pressure, others point to the A.J.-does-no-wrong attitude that seemed to follow him everywhere. Either way, this is where the good life ended for Price. As a freshman, he was stricken with a near-fatal blood vessel abnormality in his brain. Instead of basketball, he was undergoing radiation to stop the bleeding in his brain.
He slowly started to recover, but before he could be cleared to play he got involved with what is known at UConn as "laptopgate." Price and then-teammate Marcus Williams were charged with trying to sell laptops stolen from dorm rooms and then lying to police. Price was given probation and community service and was suspended from the team for the 2005-'06 season.
Price apologized, served his punishment and finally, two years after his celebrated entrance to UConn, he made his return last season. Immediately, Calhoun expected big things out of Price, but it was too much too soon.
Price points to his legs being gone after two years away from the game, throwing off his shooting, speed, stamina and defense. He was timid and ineffective and averaged just nine points and 3.6 assists a game. As he failed, the Huskies failed.
"I just assumed he'd be able to overcome [everything that had happened]," Calhoun said. "A number of things happened, the main one being he lost his confidence ... and that's something you can never really get back."
As this season starts, no one but Price seems to remember that. Coming out of the makeshift tunnel at Midnight Madness last Friday night, he got a huge cheer and stopped to put his arm up P-Diddy in Times Square style.
The A.J. Price everyone still holds dear is still that recruit out of Amityville. Lucky for them, these days, Price is feeling more confident and more like that player. Because that Price doesn't want to let down his coach, his teammates, and most importantly his family. He worked "harder than he had in his life" in the offseason to get his legs back -- and with it came everything else.
"I didn't want to be left with that was my last thought, that I stole laptops," he said. "I wanted to come here to place that I chose to come to from the beginning where everything is great and I have a chance to be a great. Last year I felt pressure to do certain things, this year I just have to play basketball."
As telling as the first day of practice was, the old Price is back to bring UConn to where Calhoun told the nearly-packed arena the Huskies belonged: the NCAA tournament. And with the help of a more experienced squad (last year the Huskies had three sophomores, including Price, and two freshmen in the starting lineup) and the tough memories of the downfall in January after 11 wins in a relatively easy December motivating them all offseason, the Huskies could be a factor in the Big East. And Price looks finally ready to lead them.
"I'll tell you one thing," Calhoun said, "I know that guy I saw today was not the guy I saw at any time last year."