The thought came to connecticut coach Jim Calhoun on Wednesday night last week. He was walking out of the Providence Civic Center, thinking about other times he had visited the place, about how-far he had traveled.
"I remembered going there long ago, as a high school coach, just to watch the games," he said. "This was the mecca, the home of New England college basketball. Providence College. This was where the good teams played. To be there then and to see those teams...and now, to go there. Favored. Expected to win."
The idea was almost startling. His team, the Huskies, was ranked seventh in the country and featured a pair of guards, senior Chris Smith and junior Scott Burrell, who could play for anybody. A 97-86 win over Providence in overtime that night had been greeted with hard questions. What was the matter? Why hadn't Connecticut won by more? Was someone hurt? The improbable dream of a decade ago, beating Providence in Providence, was regarded today as the norm. An overtime win was somehow disappointing. Calhoun's Huskies occupied the seat of regional basketball excellence. His team. "It's crazy, isn't it?" he said. "You start out, and everyone's just happy to win. Now people wonder why you don't win by more. Crazy."
Another overtime win, 83-77 over Boston College in Hartford last Saturday, moved Connecticut's record to 15-1, the best start in its history. The drums would grow louder. Calhoun's team now had the noisiest following in New England. His team had one of the largest contingents of sportswriters, sportscasters, people wearing sponge-rubber bones on their heads. His team was at the top of the Big East standings.
"Joe Concannon, a sportswriter for the Boston Globe, tells a story about me that describes the change," the 49-year-old Calhoun says. "I guess I've always talked a bit. Concannon tells how he came out of Punter's Pub in Boston the day after I got my first college job, coaching at Northeastern. He ran into me on the street. I started talking, telling him about how we were going to do this and do that and what an opportunity Northeastern was...and I didn't stop for an hour and a half, carried away. He says he was trying to get away and couldn't. Now, he says, he sees me, and I'm still talking, and people are all around me, writing this stuff down in notebooks!"
The casual talk on a street corner has become a nonstop basketball sermon. An entire state of true believers has gathered to listen. Huskymania. Smith, Connecticut's top scorer (22.8 points per game), dribbles right, stops, shoots. The 6'7" Burrell puts down a baseball glove after a summer of pitching Class A baseball in ?the Toronto Blue Jays' system—he was 1-2 and has a fastball that has been clocked at 95 mph—and becomes Connecticut's second-highest scorer and leader in steals with 47, also tops in the conference. A top-drawer class of freshmen arrives to provide instant help. One of them seems to play like...Dr. J? A small patch of good old Midwestern passion for the game seems to have broken out on the hard New England soil and stuck.
"It's one good thing after another," Tim Tolokan, Connecticut's associate director of athletics, says. "The TV ratings...we played Illinois on a Saturday afternoon. Four o'clock in the afternoon. We were opposite an NFL playoff game. The Hartford station did a 40 share. The press...we have so many papers in Connecticut covering us, I'm almost embarrassed to ask for so many credentials when we go on the road. We have as many as 20 papers staffing our games. The fans...we're sold out. All home games. You can't get a ticket. I've heard the Hartford City Council would like us to play all of our games in Hartford."
A two-year-old gym, Gampel Pavilion (8,241 seats), sits on the campus in Storrs, a college town 35 miles northeast of Hartford, where the Civic Center (16,294) is filled for nine Husky dates. All the pieces of a big-time sports program suddenly are in place. The merchandising. The corporate packages. The alumni contributions. The works.
"Leonard Hamilton became the coach of Miami last year after being at Kentucky," Calhoun said. "He came up here and said, T never knew all this existed.' A lot of people don't know, it's happened so fast. It's the phenomenon of television going into homes. It's the interest that always existed here in basketball. It's these kids playing the games. It's everything together. We have credibility. We can captivate this entire state."
Calhoun is in his sixth season at Connecticut. When he arrived after 14 successful but quiet seasons at Northeastern, he was told that the situation could either turn out very well or drive an otherwise healthy man to an early grave. The Huskies, despite a basketball tradition in the state and at the school—Connecticut had been champion of the old Yankee Conference 18 times—were far out of sync with their brethren in the high-powered Big East. Local recruiting, which had been fine in the Yankee Conference (UConn was a charter member of the Big East in 1979-80), wasn't enough to enable UConn to compete with the more notable names in the new league. Calhoun was given an unusually long (seven-year) contract to try to find an answer.
"I was at the meetings when he was hired," Tolokan said. "I remember a lot of people wanted to give him a five-year contract. Dee Rowe, who had coached here, stood up and said it had to be seven years, that we were so far behind that it would take at least seven years for us to catch up."
Seven years? In Calhoun's second year the first important moment arrived. UConn won the postseason NIT championship, beating Ohio State 72-67 in the final at Madison Square Garden. A sign commemorating the feat was placed on Interstate 84 at the exit to Storrs. An idea was established. Winning was possible.
Seven years? In Calhoun's fourth year, 1989-90, the Huskies tied for the regular-season Big East championship, won the Big East tournament and advanced to the final eight in the NCAA tournament, where they lost by a point to Duke on Christian Laettner's awkward jump shot at the buzzer. That fourth year was a walk on strange and different clouds.
"There was a flow to that team, the way it played," Calhoun says. "We may be 15-1 now, but I don't sense that we have the same sort of flow yet. That team...I remember Gale Goodrich came up to me at the NCAAs and said he had been rooting for us because we played the same way his teams had played at UCLA for John Wooden in the 1960s."
The season of flow gave an idea of how a good Calhoun team would play. Speed would be an asset. Defense would be a gruesome constant. Size would not be so important. A good Calhoun team would press you, trap you, make you run. A good Calhoun team would be smart, patient on offense, but also very quick. A good Calhoun team also would tell you, if you were a high school senior looking for a place to play basketball, that Connecticut just might be the place.
"That team opened doors to us in places we never had been," Calhoun says. "We could go national. We could be Kansas, North Carolina. We capitalized. While the iron was hot, we went ironing."
Recruiting now is almost a two-year process, with many high school players signing early letters of intent in November of their senior year, so the freshmen of this year—eight of them are in the Huskies' program, including starter Donyell Marshall—were the recruits from that season of flow. These were the top-line kids who watched that team on television: kids from Reading, Pa.; Los Angeles; Atlanta; Phoenix; Jacksonville; and Federal Way, Wash. These were the kids who had never been available to UConn, kids with basketball pedigrees, players in the all-star games and summer camps.
"I'd never heard of Connecticut until that year," Marshall, a 6'9" forward with a touch of Julius Erving elevation to his movements, says. "But I saw 'em, and I liked the way they played, and I liked Coach Calhoun. My mother liked the way he talked to everyone."
The kids have given an infusion of talent and enthusiasm to an already solid roster. In addition to Smith and Burrell, 6'9" senior center Rod Sellers and 6'7" junior forward Toraino Walker are starters, veterans from the season of flow. Freshman guards Brian Fair and Kevin Ollie and forward Don (not to be confused with Donyell) Marshall provide the depth. The mix has gelled faster than expected, although most preseason prognosticators did have the Huskies ranked in the Top 20.
"I thought we'd be tough, but 15-1 has to be unexpected," Burrell says. "I knew our four starters would be good, and Donyell...wait until he's a senior. I wouldn't want to be driving to the hole if he were around."
"We can score points," Calhoun says. "This is the best offensive team I've had. What worries me, though, is that sometimes we score too easily. We take things for granted. Our defensive effort isn't what it should be. We were good early in the season on defense, but lately the adrenaline isn't there."
The worries—and the strengths—were on parade last week in the two overtime wins. In Providence the Huskies were never able to create defensive havoc and had to wait for the Friars' Trent Forbes to miss a jumper at the regulation buzzer before they could cruise to the win. In Hartford three nights later the wait was for Boston College guard Gerrod Abram's shots to miss in the waning moments of the second half. Again Connecticut controlled the extra period. Smith was a point Walker (21) and Sellers played in the season of flow, a year that Calhoun hopes to repeat. guard master at the end. Burrell dunked the final shot of the game, two hands, fast break, an exclamation point that sent the Hartford Civic Center crowd howling and kept Calhoun talking.
"I don't know how good we are," he said after the game against the Eagles. "A lot of times your early record is determined in June when the schedule comes out. We still haven't made the tough trips. To Georgetown. To Syracuse. To St. John's, Seton Hall. Arc we this good? 15-1? We shall see.
"I want us to just relax and play. I think this team is just learning how to be good. Before this, it was fun. Now it's responsibility. I want us to be loose. I don't want anyone to feel responsibility for the whole state of Connecticut or anything.
"Aw, " he finally said. "A win is a win. A month from now nobody will remember how we got it...."
Especially at the new mecca.