Paoletti: Top of the world


Paoletti: Top of the world

By Mary Paoletti

SOMEWHERE, MASSACHUSETTS -- I'm not sure what just happened. I'm crying. I'm slumped down on a couch that is not mine, hands latched onto my skull like, if I let go, my brain will jettison out of my head.

I think I'm happy.

I think UConn just won the NCAA National Basketball Tournament.

Two friends are staring at me from their respective seats. They were waiting for some Technicolor reaction; this is probably anti-climactic.

"Is she crying?" Liz asks.

"Yeah," Eric says. He takes a photo of me with his cell phone. They both think it's funny. Whatever. It probably is.

Im as surprised as you are.

Not you bandwagon jumpers who didnt watch a regular-season game all year but got a chubby for Connecticut in the Final Four. My 3-seed school was the mathematical favorite Monday night; I get it. Doesnt mean I like you.

I, like everyone else who isnt a total moron, woke up after the Maui Invitational.

UConn versus Michigan State, November 23.

The unranked Huskies had built a lead over Tom Izzos projected title favorite, but let it slip during the waning minutes. I thought nay, knew theyd blow it.

Typical, I swore from where I stood on my couch.

Thats when Kemba Walker slapped me upside the head with a fallaway jumper his 29th and 30th points to put the Huskies up 68-67 with 52 seconds left.

Boom. Drilled. Right in the Giff-ey.

They dont quit. They dont quit, I mumbled. It was infatuation all over again. Still, something was different. It felt like they loved me back.

I didnt feel a championship in my heart, though. Elite Eight? Hell, yeah. But the hand that penned UConn in as National Champion in one of my brackets wrote slowly.

Connecticut has had more overall talented teams than this one and failed (lookin at you, 2005-2006). And so we fans have fallen into a routine a miserable part of us gets used to disappointment and even comes to expect it. Before long, our expectations are safely and grossly lowered, weighted down by cynicism.

The scene following Connecticuts Final Four win over Kentucky was ugly.

Why? I wailed. I dont understand whats happening! Why are they winning? My tears formed little puddles on the hardwood floor where I cowered.

I am an awkward winner.

I let myself believe UConn would beat Butler when just 4:54 remained.

Brad Stevens knew earlier. Shawn Vanzant missed a triple a killer opportunity to cut UConns 39-28 lead -- and Connecticuts token foreign kid, Niels Giffey, grabbed the defensive rebound.

CBS lingered on a shot of Stevens. He looked like he had gotten one of those Kemba Walker reality-smacks that Id felt in November.

Game over.

Cue confetti, court-rushing and crying Mamas.

I cried again. I bawled awesomeness. I sobbed and snotted excellence into tissues and probably all over Erics and Lizs shoulders.

Way down in my gut, there was a pang of something else.

It was the realization of why I was so pissed my senior year when UConn lost to San Diego in the first round. Beyond the obvious shame of losing to the 13th-seeded Chinchillas.

Unlike in professional sports, theres a clear-cut us and them among NCAA sports fans. You who are accepted and attend the University of Wherever have a four-year window to see a championship as a student spectator. When you get your diploma, you surrender your spot in the student section. Youre booted back outside and the experience is never the same, no matter what the alumni club says. They only want your money.

I was a Husky once. Now I watch them with my nose pressed against the glass.

Dont get confused -- Im rabid with joy. Monday night was the happiest of my life as a sports fan. If you think Im complaining then youre not listening.

Its just different.

In 2006, UConn narrowly avoided tourney semifinals elimination by Washington and its albino-sniper, Ryan Appleby. When the OT win was secured, my roommate Amanda and I rushed out of the house. We hopped in her car, cranked open the windows and cruised campus.

Sounds stupid, right? Well, everybody did it.

If you werent already on campus, you went you were pulled there. We Huskies formed a pack. Car horns honked, strangers high-fived or hugged, and some joyfully considered arson.

Those were our boys. That was our team representing our school.

You cant even imagine the warmth of our bond as you watch us celebrate. You also cant feel the heat from the couches and cars were setting on fire, which is probably good.

I watch Jim Calhouns postgame speech and the net-cutting on TV. I hop in my car at around 1 a.m., leave the windows up, and drive.

I drive the nearly deserted roads from Somewhere, MA back to My Town, MA. Turns out, blasting The Champ is Here when you're alone actually make you feel kind of dumb.

I think about old friends. I think about Amanda (now in Maryland) and the way we ran victory laps around the coffee table after UConn beat Albany in 2006s first round. I wonder who she watched the Butler game with.

For the first time since graduation I miss kids I went to college with, and for no other reason than that one time we saw Rudy Gay and Charlie Villanueva cut the line at South dining hall, or that morning we camped outside of Hartford Civic Center at 5 a.m. because Rashad McCants and UNC was in town, or those hellacious days we weathered a hurricane while waiting for mens basketball season tickets.

I realize Im not two hours away from Storrs, Im three years out of college.

Luckily, championships outlast nostalgia. And my UConn hoodie still fits.

Go Huskies!

Mary Paoletti can be reached at Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

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