By Mary Paoletti
I was introduced to UConn when I was sixteen.
My dad and I went to a college fair together where I would supposedly meet my perfect match. I was skeptical. First of all, I was a teenager a class of the most suspicious and stubborn humans on the planet. Secondly, walking through aisles of overeager college recruiters is like (how I can only imagine) walking through the Red Light District with Euros hanging out of the zipper of your pants.
You dont exactly feel special.
But I was with my dad; he knew what I was looking for.
Hows your basketball team look this year? hed ask.
Most recruiters were caught off-guard. Theyd tug on their university-issue polo shirts and shuffle through their pamphlets. Several of the pamphlets included statistics on that years incoming freshman, but not the kind that listed weights, heights, and high school shooting percentages.
Was your school named one of the top-25 research institutions in the country? Great. But at what number is the mens hoops team projected in the APs preseason poll?
Teen-me nodded during the inquiries and kept my arms defiantly folded. I was pretty smart and my dad was (and is) exponentially smarter, so I kept to scanning the three-sided poster boards for photos of practice facilities and let him do the talking.
Keep in mind, I wasnt looking for a champion because I played; I was looking because I watched. Religiously.
I grew up in a basketball house. My dad loved the sport on every level and bonded with his three kids by teaching us how to play in the driveway or taking us to local high school games to watch. For my size, I was a remarkably talented spectator.
But there were rules.
At live games you dont get up for anything. A bathroom break at halftime is fine, but popping out for Twizzlers and a Coke, or meeting friends by the water fountain to gossip during play? Dont even. It would be like interrupting Easter Mass to phone a bet in to a bookie.
At home we rooted for the Blue Devils. Our schedule revolved around Dukes. Mike Krzyzewskis rule was irrefutable; Dick Vitales orgasmic rants werent annoying, they were charming; the Cameron Crazies didnt represent a freaky cult, they were a part of storied tradition.
Unfortunately, I wouldnt be a part of the Duke tradition. I was pretty smart, remember, not a total dork.
Still, stopping at UConns table was baffling.
The Huskies won a title in 1999. But a Big East school? I cocked one eyebrow and looked over at my dad. The recruiter was delighted with our priorities.
Theyve built a brand new football stadium in East Hartford, the guy gushed.
Where does the mens basketball team play? my dad asked.
Some kind of soliloquy followed on Jim Calhoun, a No. 7 ranking, and an on-campus pavilion, but I wasnt listening. I was scanning the fair for cute boys who didnt want to go to a school located on a Connecticut cow farm. I wanted ACC hoops. My dad didnt want to pay for plane tickets every time I got homesick.
UConn got my application in 2003 early action.
I was accepted when the Huskies were 7-1.
By March, UConn was 27-6 and Big East tourney champs. My icy little heart was melting, drip by drip, with every Ben Gordon jumper. Josh Boone didnt have great hands, but did have 6 feet and 10 inches of potential and two more years of eligibility. A lot of the guys were underclassmen, in fact, and would be there the next season.
I was starting to think of myself as a Husky.
On April 3, 2004, UConn tipped off against the No. 1 team the country: Duke. I was distraught. For the first 27 minutes I see-sawed between my childhood sweetheart and my betrothed. With less than three minutes to play, the Blue Devils were up by eight.
Dukes big men were dropping like flies, fouling out with alarming consistency. Each time one of them sat, I cheered and then felt nauseous. Connecticut All-American center Emeka Okafor had played just 22 minutes because of foul trouble and, I dont know, a shattered spine or something. But he put the Huskies onto that broken back of his and carried them to a 79-78 win.
My school was gunning for a national championship.
I was in love.
Little did I know it was an abusive relationship.
I meetMidnight Madness with a heart full of hope. This is our year, I think.UConn cruises through the cupcake non-conference schedule, blowout byblowout, with poise, explosive offensive and oppressive defense.
Then it falls apart. By the Big East Tournament, Im battered; by April Im broken.
Connecticut comes crawling back every October.
Imsweet-talked by promises of returning starters, underclassmen withpromise, and top freshman recruits. Im told that things are going tobe different this time. Like a fool, I believe. All it takes is a123-71 win over Quinnipiac in December and Im drooling by New YearsDay.
Somehow, I never see the uppercut coming.
2004-05: Seven players return from the championshipteam. Add freshman Rudy Gay and ACC Rookie of the Year transfer EdNelson and theres a lot to feel good about. I camp outside theHartford Civic Center on February 13 for the UNC game at 5 a.m. Whena local cop says the neighborhood gangs would love to hurt me, I flexmy biceps and bark.
Two wins over Syracuse during the regularseason are cheapened by a 67-63 loss that bounces the Huskies from theBig East Tournament.
But thats easier to take than watching N.C.States elderly Julius Hodge convert a three-point play with 4.3seconds left. The 65-62 loss knocks UConn out of the NCAA tournament.
It is my initiation into hell.
2005-06:A brilliant year. With a Maui Invitational Championship appetizer,UConn loses just once in its first 26 games. I am drunk with power.
OnThursday, March 9, Gerry McNamara hits a 3 with 5.5 seconds left inregulation to tie the Huskies in the Big East quarterfinal game. Theninth-seeded Orange goes on to beat No. 1 Connecticut 86-84 inovertime.
It getsworse. UConn faces George Mason in the Elite Eight that year. Imthrilled! What the hell is a George Mason? Answer: The ColonialAthletic Conferences Cinderella assassin, sent to murder my Huskies bytwo points in overtime. I wander the Connecticut campus for an hour indumb shock afterwards, ingest roughly 8,000 calories at South dininghall that night, and boycott the rest of March Madness.
2006-07:A 17-14 overall record, 6-10 in conference. Elimination from the BigEast tournament by Syracuse yes, again this time, by 13 points. Notournament, no NIT, no postseason, nothing. For a while, I refuse tobelieve that this year of my life is real.
2007-08: Its asolid bounceback season. UConn finishes 13-5 in the Big East and earnsa No. 4 seed for the national tournament. So when the Huskies tip offin a first-round match up against San Diego, Im excited.
Junior point guard A.J. Prices knee explodes with 9:39 to play in the first half.
Itsaround now that I start to wonder if someone is out to get me. DeJonJackson hits a jumper with 1.2 seconds left in overtime to lift the13th-seeded San Diego Somethings to a 70-69 victory. Per usual, I wantto die. But only a little bit this time.
2008-09: A preseasonNo. 2 ranking in the country is soothing. Rather than be content tohave of the most useless 7-footers in the history of collegebasketball, UConn and Hasheem Thabeet rip it up for a 27-3 record andthe Big East quarterfinal game. To try something different, UConn playsSyracuse. My boys battle the wretched Orange for 40 minutes ofregulation play and six overtimes. When it ends, Syracuse wins 127-117and I am collapsed in front of the TV, exhausted, in a pool of my owntears, saliva and vomit.
UConn loses in the Final Four to Michigan State.
2009-10:January 27, Providence, RI: The only Connecticut basketball Ive seenlive since graduating in 2008. The Huskies get brutalized 81-66 by thebottom-feeding Friars in front of my face. Weeks later, St. John's another Big East weakling spanks UConn in the first round of theconference tourney by 21 points. Its a 2 p.m. game; Imdrunk before 4.
People tell me the Huskies are invited to the NIT. I cant hear them because my sensibilities are drowned in shame.
At noon today the ninth-seeded University of Connecticut Huskies will take on a god-awful DePaul team to open the Big East tournament. Really, DePaul is terrible. The Blue Demons are 7-23.
Naturally, Im expecting the worst.
UConn entered this season unranked but not unloved. The Huskies are currently No. 21 in the country, 21-9 overall and .500 in the Big East because I have willed them here. I ridiculously claimed they could win the Maui Invitational in November; they did. I put my old blinders on and blasted the analysts who said UConn wouldnt beat Texas, Villanova, Georgetown and Syracuse.
They did lose to Syracuse. (And to Louisville, Notre Dame, Marquette and St. Johns.) But still I profess undying loyalty to the freshman, declare my desire to adopt Kemba Walker as a son, and make bets with WVU fans that blow up in my face.
Im going to be a basket case today.
This is not our year. While Ill brag to anyone within earshot that UConn is going to win and keep winning, theres a part of me the part that gave me a seizure when I visited San Diego and induces PTSD when I meet someone named George that expects the Huskies to lose. Probably not to DePaul, but later . . . on a 3-pointer drilled by a 27-year old Gerry McNamara in the 86th overtime frame.
And it will hurt.
Schedules for the 2011-2012 NCAA basketball season should come out in September. Ill call my dad the minute it happens. Hell tell me that Duke is going to be better than UConn and Ill tell him hes crazy. Ill tell him in a voice several octaves too high -- that Shabazz Napier is going to lead the Huskies to their third national title.
Maybe they will. Or maybe Im stupid.
Love does that to a person.