Betwixt and Between For too long the Nutmeg State was lost in a sports no-man's-land

January 12, 2004

Forever, it seemed, Connecticut didn't do fun and games. The
postwar sports boom happened everywhere else: College basketball
was the ACC and UCLA and Indiana. College football may just as
well have been played on Pluto. The pros were closer, but to see
homegrown heroes such as Calvin Murphy or Bobby Valentine or
Mike Gminski, we had to leave the state. We produced some great
Olympians, even trendsetting sweetheart Dorothy Hamill, but
their names became linked with other places, where they trained
or won medals. The national pastime? We had one big connection
to the heart of the game, but it was nothing to brag about.
Jackie Robinson died in Stamford, his hair the color of snow.

But that was appropriate, somehow. We're one of the original
13 colonies, after all, and until recently we always acted our
age. We sold insurance. We watched our home prices rise. When
it came to play, we mostly observed from the porch, an old
uncle too stiff to loosen his tie. Wedged between warring
neighbors Massachusetts and New York, Connecticut split the
difference: Our south belonged to the Yankees, our north and
east to the Red Sox. Our take on the NFL, NBA and NHL followed
suit, and that endless battle between arrogance and
quaintness--the two main strains in our character--left little
energy for in-state sports. We're America's suburb, remember. By
the time we got off I-95, we just wanted some sleep.

Connecticut didn't discuss its shortcomings much. We talked about
the football Giants--Andy Robustelli! Connecticut guy!--or the
'69 Mets, or Yaz and the Rocket as ours. But they weren't. The
Hartford Whalers, memorable mostly for their bombastic team song,
were ours: They played in a shopping mall and bolted in 1997
after 25 years without leaving a mark. Four Little League World
Series champs were ours. The University at Storrs? It was never
like the beloved state bastions of Michigan or North Carolina or
Alabama. UConn was everybody's safety school, with a nickname
seemingly cribbed from Alaska, of all places: UConn Huskies, get
it? No kid dreamed of playing at Storrs.

If you were any good, you left. Hamill had to practice in New
York, then Colorado, to become world-class, and her famous wedge
cut was fashioned by a Manhattan hairdresser. Steve Young played
quarterback at Brigham Young. Murphy made his name at Niagara
University and then with the Houston Rockets.

We were a state with no identity, no signature moments and not
even a grand symbol like the Liberty Bell. Connecticut is the
Nutmeg State, and I'm here to testify: It's not easy identifying
with a spice. The UConn women began winning basketball
titles--four and counting--in 1995, and that has been sweet. But
let's face it, no one in Boston or New York was raging over the
fact that our women could play hoops.

Fortunately, something bigger was happening. UConn men's
basketball coach Jim Calhoun--yeah, he was from Massachusetts,
but remember: Bear Bryant was born in Arkansas--showed up in
Storrs in 1986 and began to win. In '90 the Huskies rose to No. 3
in the nation before losing to Duke by a point in the NCAA
tournament, and Calhoun spent the rest of the decade piling up
Big East titles and galvanizing state pride like nothing else in
our history. Then in '99 the Huskies won the national
championship and did so with a flourish, paying back Duke with a
77-74 shocker in the final.

"Everybody talked about the little state that never could
compete," Murphy says. "That win still gives me a big sense of
pride."

It should: Murphy had a small hand in the title, even from as far
away as his NBA home, Houston. Jake Voskuhl, the starting center
for UConn's championship team, grew up in Texas and starred in
Murphy's youth program. "I taught Jake how to play basketball and
sent him on to my state," Murphy says, and at that we both laugh.
There's something very Connecticut about that, the quaint side
anyway, and that it touches us tells you how small-time we
remain. Bragging's fun, but being No. 1 was never the point; we
just wanted to get off the porch. It's nice, finally, to be in
the game.

S.L. Price, an SI senior writer, grew up in Connecticut.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

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