Matt Fortuna, from New York City, has worked for four years at The Daily Collegian, currently serving as arts editor after covering and editing sports for three years. His freelance work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The New York Times and the Detroit Free Press, among others. Previously, he’s held internship positions at the Altoona (Pa.) Mirror and with MLB.com in Pittsburgh. This summer, he will return to MLB.com as an associate reporter covering the Yankees.
Nate Mink has worked four years at The Daily Collegian, currently serving as a copy editor after providing football coverage the last two years. His freelance work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press and Baltimore Sun, among others. Previously, he’s held internship positions at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., and the Philadelphia Daily News. This summer, he will work as an associate reporter with MLB.com in Philadelphia.
By Nate Mink
Special to NCAA.org
HOUSTON — They made their way through the crowd, down the stairs, to the lower level of Reliant Stadium, ready to join the school’s third national championship team on court as confetti fell.
Donyell Marshall, Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon and Rip Hamilton were among the group of Jim Calhoun-coached NBA talent in the building Monday night, here to welcome the newest members into the fraternity of Connecticut basketball lore.
Fourteen names in all, but one stands above the rest, the catalyst of one of the most remarkable postseason runs in college basketball history.
Allen. Hamilton. Gordon. Okafor. That’s the company Kemba Walker keeps. Names that when mentioned in Storrs, Conn. elicit wide eyes and a smile to accompany the thought of greatness.
“Oh man, I don’t know. I don’t know,” Walker said with a hint of disbelief when asked what returning to campus years later will feel like. “I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be special. I’ve worked hard to get to this point so people will remember me. There’s no other way that people can remember you than a national championship.”
Said junior reserve Ben Stewart: “It’ll probably be the same, if not more, like when Ray Allen comes back to campus. It’ll just be a buzz. He’s a household name now, especially in Connecticut. Anywhere he goes out there, we go out to the malls here, people are crawling all over him.”
The postseason run led by Walker has spawned an encyclopedic search by scribes to determine if anything like this has been done, the timely baskets despite the fatigue of 11 wins in four weeks, despite being the target of every opponent’s scouting report.
“It was an amazing run,” first-year assistant coach Kevin Ollie said. “This team broke records and he was the leader of this team. He’s gonna go down in some NCAA history with this run, especially that Madison Square run. If not the NCAA, surely the Big East. He put on a show and never looked back.”
Always looking forward with him was Jim Calhoun, the 68-year-old coach who has had to endure the death of his sister-in-law and college roommate on top of NCAA major violations within his program. The resulting sanctions have left Calhoun with a three-game suspension next season, scholarship reductions for the next three years and recruiting restrictions.
But there the two were Monday night, the last to climb the ladder at each basket, scissors in hand, snipping the final strings of nylon and raising the two largest chunks of net high toward the Connecticut faithful. The celebration was as fine a salute as there is for two Husky legends whose futures aren’t known.
Walker appears headed toward the NBA draft, though an unsettling labor condition may deter players from leaving school early. Calhoun, who has battled health setbacks in recent years and is staring NCAA sanctions in the face, may opt out of a five-year contract extension he signed after last season and retire.
“When I walked out tonight, saw Ben Gordon, all the kids came to our game, Charlie V., Rip Hamilton, all those guys, it reaffirms that this is a great, great job to have,” Calhoun said. “Sometimes you kind of need that. When a team gives you that, this is as sweet a ride as I’ve ever been on my life.”
The discussion of Calhoun’s legacy is a bit more complicated than the talk surrounding Walker, who is scheduled to graduate from UConn in just three years and has captivated a nation with his smooth, stylized dribble-drive and knack for hitting the big shot late.
Calhoun has a suggestion for anyone interested in discussing his legacy: Talk to any of the players he’s coached in 25 years at Connecticut, any of the coaches he’s dueled with.
“My dad told me something a long time ago,” Calhoun said. “You’re known by the company you keep. That’s awfully sweet company.”
And, from the second-son reference he gave introducing Walker as winner of the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard Monday morning, Walker is as sweet as any.
“Coach Calhoun knows how to bring the best out of his dogs, from Ray Allen to Ben Gordon,” said Hamilton, who helped give Calhoun his first national championship in 1999. “You see Kemba out there doing the same thing. It was special because you know what it feels like to be in that situation going through the Big East tournament, win a national championship, and he showed why he’s the best guard in the country.”
Andrea Walker, Kemba’s mother, has given her son an even higher distinction.
“This is just absolutely amazing,” she said on the court during UConn’s championship celebration, unsolicited by reporters. “New York City is going berserk right now. Amazing. My son has brought New York City back.”
Along with the coach and team from New England.
Nate Mink is a senior in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.