Why UConn fans love Jim Calhoun

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The job of a sportswriter centers about one’s ability to remain — or at least appear — unbiased and impartial.

Once you pick up the pen, you put down the pom-poms because, as you all know, there is no cheering in the press box.

But the problem with that theory is that every single hack that strings words together about sports was originally a fan. They probably still are fans. There’s no possible way to build a life around watching and interpreting games without, in some way, loving those games and the teams involved and the players that take center stage.

I grew up playing basketball in Connecticut. From a sporting perspective, my state isn’t much more that the Border War between Boston and New York; between the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Celtics and the Knicks, the Patriots and the Giants or Jets. The passion of those separate fan bases for whatever team it is they root for is as intense as that of the kid that grew up in the Bronx or in Southie. We wore the jerseys. We watched all the games on Yes! or NESN. We ran our mouth when our favorite team won and jawed back even more when our favorite team lost.

And while we were always fans of those teams, they were never “our” team the way that kid from the Bronk can call the Yankees “his” team or the kid from Queens can call the Mets “his” team or the kid from Boston can call the Celtics “his” team. For many, a trip into the city to catch a Saturday afternoon game came in lieu of a vacation once you factored in the tickets, the parking, the program, Dad’s beer and your hot dog and nachos.

That’s why Jim Calhoun is so revered in the state of Connecticut.

Because he took a program that was no different that Rhode Island or UMass or, for that matter, Boston College or Rutgers and turned it into one that trails only Kansas, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina in wins since 1989 and has more national titles since 1999 than any program in the country. In fact, the only other programs that have ever won as many three national titles in their history are all considered “blue-bloods” —  the four teams listed above, plus Indiana and UCLA.

Jim Calhoun gave us “our” team.

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I still remember the exact moment when I fell in love with the Huskies.

It was the 1996 Big East title game. Ray Allen’s UConn team was taking on Georgetown and Allen Iverson in a game that tipped off around 9 p.m. At the time, I was just a couple of weeks short of my 10th birthday and my little brother had just turned eight. Staying up late enough to watch the end of a game was not commonplace in our household.

But I bartered and I negotiated and I argued my way into convincing my dad to let us stay up until it became a 10 point game because, in my ten year old mind, a ten point game all but meant the game was over. Late in the second half, Georgetown went up 11. Possession by possession, I convinced my dad to let me watch one more possession, and slowly but surely, the Huskies trimmed the lead down until, with about 17 seconds left on the clock, Allen drove middle, found himself stuck in the air, and threw the ball at the basket.

Off the rim.

Off the backboard.

In.

UConn still had to survive a fadeaway 17 footer from Iverson and a blown layup from Jerome Williams, but they did, sending the Huskies to their second ever Big East tournament title.

We all have those moments in sports where we’ll never forget exactly where we were when we watched them. Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria in last year’s. Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius homering in the bottom of the ninth in back-to-back World Series games. Jordan crossing up Byron Russell and drilling the game-winner in 1998.

For me, nothing will ever top that shot from Ray-Ray, even if there have been hundreds of moments throughout Calhoun’s illustrious career that could be considered on par:

The scrum that led to Rip Hamilton’s game-winner over Washington in the second round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. Khaled El-Amin screaming “We shocked the world!!” after beating Duke in the 1999 title game. Taliek Brown banking in a 35-footer as UConn beat Pitt in double-overtime in the 2002 Big East title game. A second win over Duke in the 2004 Final Four, overcoming an eight point deficit in the final three minutes, en route to a second national title.  AJ Price’s emergence as a star in 2008 during UConn’s trip to Indiana. Price carried the Huskies to a 68-63 win over Eric Gordon’s Hoosiers despite having sat out for two years — laptops and brain hemorrhages — and dealing with the suspension of Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins. The six overtime game. And, of course, the UConn Fighting Kembas. I was five years old for “The Shot”, Tate George’s game-winner against Clemson in the 1990 tournament, but that would be on this list for just about any other UConn fan.

Calhoun gave us those moments.

Calhoun is the reason that we experienced those joys.

Was he gruff? Yeah. Was he a curmudgeon? Most definitely. Did he run a dirty program? Unfortunately, yes. But in the end, that doesn’t matter to us. 20 years from now, no one is going to remember who Nate Miles was and no one is going to care that Calhoun stole Wiggins from St. John’s or that there is an NCAA rule against scheduling exhibitions with AAU teams because of money that may have changed hands during Rudy Gay’s recruitment.

We’re going to remember each and every one of those moments that made growing up a UConn fan one of the most amazing experiences one could ask for.

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In recent years, my fandom has waned. For starters, I eventually ended up playing college basketball, and while it was on a level a long, long way from the Big East, it still meant that I had practice every day during and games every weekend during basketball season. Throw in the fact that I went to a college that didn’t have cable in the dorms at a time when you couldn’t find every game streaming online, and it was tough to stay connected with a team that you never got a chance to watch.

Once I started writing about hoops, it became even more difficult to keep that kind of passion alive. I found myself actively trying to disconnect during UConn games. All things equal, I want to see UConn win. That cord will never be severed, and anyone that’s ever been a fan of any team in any sport should be able to understand that. But, more than anything, the result has been that I’ve become more critical of UConn than any other program in the country. I’m much more likely to take out a chainsaw and shred the Huskies in a post than I am to glorify or hyperbolize how good the team is. (This column excluded.)

But I still get chills when I go back and watch highlights of those old UConn teams.

You can vacate wins. You can call Jim Calhoun dirty. You can say that he’s worse than John Calipari.

None of that will matter for UConn fans.

He gave us our team.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

 

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.