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Calhoun enjoying Connecticut's wild ride back to the Final Four


My hometown of Boston is not a mecca of college basketball. Here in the Hub we dig the pro game. The Celtics put the NBA on the map, winning 11 championships in 13 seasons in the 1950s and 60s. We've celebrated Auerbach, Cousy, Russell, Havlicek, Bird, Parish and McHale.

Today the Celtics are as relevant as ever, gearing up for a shot at Banner No. 18 with folks named Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Rondo (maybe Shaq, too).

So the college game gets dissed in Beantown. There is no March Madness in Massachusetts. Folks fill out brackets and cheer politely, but our region is not traditionally part of the national noise of the NCAA tournament.

But we have Jim Calhoun. On Saturday Calhoun's UConn Huskies beat Arizona, 65-63, to advance to the Final Four for the fourth time since 1999. The Huskies won the national championship in '99 and 2004.

Let's get one thing straight about UConn: It's not considered part of the New England sports landscape. The University of Connecticut is in Storrs, Conn., and does not attract a Boston following. The Boston Globe and Herald do not staff UConn regular season games. Hub television stations don't cover the Huskies. There are no Duck Boat parades in Boston when UConn wins a national championship (men's or women's). You'll find as many Yankee fans as Red Sox fans in most parts of Connecticut.

But Jim Calhoun belongs to Boston. And we take some pride when one of our guys keeps showing up in the Final Four.

Calhoun was born and raised in Braintree, Mass., just a few miles south of Boston. He was a three sport star at Braintree High, home of the Wamps. He earned a degree in sociology at American International College in Springfield. That's fitting because basketball was invented in Springfield and Springfield is home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, where Calhoun was enshrined in 2005.

Calhoun's first coaching job was at AIC. In 1971-72 he was back in the Bay State League, coaching against the Braintree Wamps for Dedham High. Then it was on to Northeastern University on Huntington Avenue in Boston.

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Coaching Northeastern is tough. It's an urban college with zero share of the Boston sports market. In my early days as a reporter for The Boston Globe, I remember Calhoun and young Boston University coach Rick Pitino practically begging people to come to their games. Things would change dramatically for both once they got out of Boston.

Calhoun's greatest player at Northeastern was Celtic first-round pick Reggie Lewis. Lewis became an NBA All-Star before dying of a heart condition in 1993. By that time, Calhoun had moved to UConn, where he was making the Huskies into a national powerhouse.

Powered by their presence in the Big East, Calhoun made UConn a destination for high school talent. When he started winning at Storrs, he didn't have to beg anyone to come to the games anymore. The Huskies draw more reporters than any New England team. Not even close.

There are some great moments when you win two national championships and go to three Final Fours, but Calhoun seems to be enjoying his 2010-11 team more than any other. Saturday's win in Anaheim (a true road game given that the entire crowd was rooting for Arizona) was UConn's ninth victory in 19 days.

The Huskies went 9-9 in the Big East this season and were seeded ninth in the conference tourney. That's why they had to win five games in five days to capture the Big East tournament championship. The Big East sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tourney this year, but nine of them were gone in the first weekend. Now it's just UConn, the first team in NCAA history to win nine tournament games in 19 days.

"It's joyous to me,'' Calhoun said in Anaheim. "It's great. I keep calling them an old-fashioned team, and they don't play old-fashioned basketball, but they do have values; they want to win and they want to help each other.''

These Huskies are led by the indomitable Kemba Walker and fearless freshman Jeremy Lamb. That duo scored 99 of UConn's 139 points in Anaheim.

Calhoun is 68 and has been through some adversity. He is a prostate cancer survivor and last month was sanctioned by the NCAA for recruiting violations. He lost some scholarships and is suspended for three games at the start of next season. He's lucky he didn't get sidelined for the 2011 postseason. This would have been a lot to miss.

"I've been fortunate over 39 years to coach some teams that did a lot of wonderful things,'' Calhoun said. "But for this team to win nine games in 19 days in tournament play is very special. These brothers, this unique group of young men, have given me a thrill beyond compare. I haven't experienced anything like this.''

He'll be taking his Boston accent to Houston this weekend. Our guy in the Final Four.