That first game of basketball I saw, an Iverson vs. Allen instant classic that went down to the last shot ("Junkyard Dog" Jerome Williams pulling a Charles Smith), was Calhoun's second Big East Championship (despite Dickie V's proclamation) and really my first dip into the mania of fandom. As an Iverson fan, I was devastated.
I'm not a kid anymore, no, but still and always since a diehard hoops fan, weaned on those Long Island Rail Road trips in the '90s and '00s to the Garden for an evening (or an afternoon!) of basketball under the bright lights of the Garden, the Mecca, the World's Most Famous Arena. Even when the Knicks fell off in the 00's with the Layden years and the Isiah years, we (I use that word for all New Yorkers) still had the Big East Tourney come to town for that great week in March. Every year or so it seemed, the Huskies were a team to be reckoned with.
Like that '96 game, the UCONN fans always have the strongest and most vocal presence at the Big East Tournament - take it from a guy who has been to at least a game in 9 of the last 12 Big East Tournaments, and 6 Championship games. The UCONN folks always rallied for their team, lead by that stocky guy in the sweatshirt who would lead the crowd in the "U-C-O-N-N UCONN! UCONN! UCONN!" chants.
UCONN basketball and their fans were such a fixture in those tournaments, and of course Calhoun IS UCONN basketball. Thus, the Big East Tourney being encoded in my basketball DNA, I for one am sad to see him go. Calhoun won five more Big East chips, made four Final Fours, and won the Big Dance three times. From that Rip Hamilton team (and my man Khalid El-Amin, giving hope to short, pudgy kids everywhere!) to the Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon years (Gordon was a true stone cold assassin back in the day, a guy whose hand I shook on Draft Night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden while hanging with his crew from Mount Vernon), to the truly amazing run through the Big East and NCAAs the Huskies took just two years ago with Kemba Walker, the UCONN Huskies have been, if not the preeminent, one of the premiere college basketball teams in the country.
A long list of NBA players and classic college names from Yore (Taliek Brown, anyone?) have passed through a tiny state school in Storrs, Connecticut for no reason other than the fact that Jim Calhoun was the head coach. Facing health problems and a postseason ban, Calhoun announced today he was stepping down, closing a remarkably successful chapter of entertaining basketball that I grew up on. I don't know what is next for UCONN, but thank you for the great teams and the great memories, Jim.