A half hour before the men's 2003-04 season opener on Nov. 17,
the student section at the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs was
filled. A University of Connecticut player, junior Ed Nelson,
walked onto the floor in street clothes. Nelson transferred
last summer from Georgia Tech. He won't score his first point
as a Husky until next season at the earliest because of NCAA
transfer rules, but the students gave him a standing ovation.
"We finally found something we can call our own in this state,"
says Jeff Otterbein, The Hartford Courant's sports editor.
Poor little Connecticut. It's rich in wealthy, sports-minded
people (auto racing buffs David Letterman and Paul Newman, golf
enthusiast Jack Welch), and it's rich, period (the nation's
highest per capita income). But take away the UConn men's and
women's basketball programs, and what does the state have in the
way of big-time sports? There's ESPN, based in the old
clock-manufacturing town of Bristol, and then there's ... what
exactly? The organizers of the venerable Greater Hartford Open
golf tournament used to say they ran the annual sporting event
with the highest profile in New England, but then last year Tiger
Woods attached himself and his charity to the Deutsche Bank
Championship, a PGA Tour stop in Norton, Mass., and the GHO lost
Otterbein's newspaper, the state's largest, has beat writers who
cover a celebrated foursome of out-of-state teams--the Red Sox
and the Yankees, the Patriots and the Giants--because Connecticut
has no major men's pro sports franchises. Then again, Connecticut
doesn't need pro sports teams anymore. It's got the Huskies,
headquartered near the center of the state, in rustic Storrs.
Coach Geno Auriemma's women have won four NCAA championships
since 1995, and coach Jim Calhoun's men brought home the '99
title and have been to the Sweet 16 nine other times. In February
'95, UConn made history when the men and women were ranked No. 1
in the country at the same time--a feat no school had ever
achieved. In this year's preseason polls, both teams were again
ranked first. All this winning has given the university a
national identity. Last year, for the first time, UConn had more
out-of-state undergraduate applicants than in-state ones.
To an outsider Gampel might look like just another modern
utilitarian basketball arena, but don't try telling that to a
Husky player or fan. Diana Taurasi, UConn's All-America senior
guard, stood near the home bench on a recent afternoon. Gampel
was empty. She said, "This is where it all happens. This is where
dreams come true." It only sounded like a line from a Lifetime
movie. That's how she talks and how she feels. Every game at
Gampel is a sellout (10,027). Auriemma says the packed
houses--and the statewide passion for women's basketball that
they represent--are the biggest recruiting tool he has.
UConn basketball has something for everyone. Both teams play
about half their home games at Gampel, where students, their
faces painted blue and white, fill up the cheap seats ($5 for the
men's games, $2 for the women's matches). Both teams play--and
sell out--the rest of their home dates about 45 minutes from
Storrs, at the 16,294-seat Hartford Civic Center, in the heart of
the nation's insurance capital. Thousands of undergraduates come
in buses and cars, but the Civic Center games belong to the
citizenry at large.
The women's games attract many retirees (with their grandchildren
tagging along) who grew up on use-yer-head New England basketball
as it was handed down from Naismith to Auerbach, or something
like that. In the Coach Geno era you'd be hard-pressed to find
any other basketball team, men's or women's, pro or amateur, that
plays a more fundamentally sound game. That style reflects the
values of its solid-citizen fans. The UConn women prize the smart
assist over the easy bucket, graduate in four years and do good
works in greater Storrs. There are no player names on the backs
of the women's jerseys. To the marketing executives in the WNBA,
where Taurasi will work soon enough, there's only one problem
with her game--it has no flash. Ten thousand Connecticut
grandmothers couldn't care less.
When the men play at the Civic Center, it's Showtime,
Hartford-style. The stands are filled with well-mannered
white-collar insurance executives who yell things such as "You
missed it, ref!" when a call goes against their guys. The team
plays a more dynamic game than many NBA squads. The Huskies, in
fact, were averaging 86.3 points per game this season through
Downtown Hartford's bar-and-restaurant scene would be endangered
were it not for the 20 or so annual UConn basketball dates at the
Civic Center. About 90 minutes before games begin, most places
are filled. At No Fish Today, a small restaurant a couple of
blocks from the Civic Center, even the bar stools are reserved
before games. "If they took all the games to Gampel, it would be
depressing," says the owner, Nancy Tedd.
Despite the state's standing on the per capita income list, it
was an economic downturn in Connecticut that helped give the
UConn basketball teams their status. In the early 1990s insurance
jobs were leaving Hartford. Defense spending was cut, and there
were numerous layoffs by major employers in the state, including
United Technologies. At the same time the UConn teams were
winning, the ticket price was right and the success in basketball
helped console the state.
Connecticut Public Television caught the vibe quickly. During the
1993-94 season, the year before the women won their first
national title, CPTV started broadcasting a limited number of
games. There were some games back then that drew fewer than 1,000
spectators, but tens of thousands of homes were tuning in to
watch. "The players were not prima donnas, the coach was
charismatic, the viewers were not distracted by professional
sports," says Jerry Franklin, the CPTV president. "We were onto
This season, and for the next four, CPTV will pay an average of
about $800,000 annually to the university for the right to
broadcast about 20 women's games per year. It's a bargain for
CPTV. Franklin estimates that nearly a third of the 52,000 CPTV
subscribers, who pay an average of $60 per year, are on board
only because of women's basketball.
On game days for both teams, every ticket is sold, but the
women's squad reserves seats for Emeka Okafor & Co. (who
occasionally attend) and the men's team reserves seats for the
half-dozen or so women players who show up regularly. For the
folks in the UConn athletic department, the insatiable appetite
for basketball tickets is a nice problem. Having seen basketball
transform their school, they're on to the next thing: UConn
football, which was 9-3 this past season, its second in Division
I-A. Supporters of the program say that the Huskies were the best
team not to get a bowl bid. They're calling all Nutmeggers to
come out and watch. After all, what's there to do in Connecticut
before basketball season tips off?
This is the 25th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: North Dakota
For more about sports in Connecticut and the other 49 states, go
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN STAR TURN Taurasi has led the women to two titles.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN FULL HOUSE The Hartford Civic Center, UConn's off-campus home, may attract a different crowd than on-campus Gampel, but both arenas are always sold out.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (TOP) BIG MAN ON CAMPUS Okafor (50, top) and his teammates have given UConn fans lots to celebrate.
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN SLADE [See caption above]
Downtown Hartford's bar-and-restaurant scene would be endangered
were it not for the Huskies' 20 or so annual dates at the Civic