Here was a story of modern college basketball survival. Connecticut was dead in early March, as sure as the bare New England earth was lifeless and brown, awaiting spring. It was a young team with an old coach, beaten down and hopeless, ready for the season to end. And then with each postseason win—first in the Big East tournament and then in the NCAA—came a breath of hope, with each defeated opponent a whiff of belief, until just one other team remained. That one team was Butler, owed deeply by the basketball gods and beloved by America and so, on the last night of a long season, in the national championship game, survival would never be a more daunting enterprise. A title would never be more truly earned.
It would be poetic to say that the Huskies played a masterpiece, but they did not. Appropriately, they survived again on Monday night at cavernous Reliant Stadium in Houston, grinding out a 53-41 victory marked by historic futility. Butler made only 12 field goals—including just three two-point baskets—and shot an all-time NCAA final low of 18.8%. “Our defense,” said freshman forward Roscoe Smith, “was unreal.” It was UConn’s third title since 1999, the most of any team over that span, and the third for coach Jim Calhoun, 68, who has endured a long year of personal tragedy and professional scrutiny to join John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (four), Mike Krzyzewski (four) and Bob Knight (three) as the only coaches with more than two.
Even as the final seconds melted off the clock, a victory safely in hand, Calhoun sprinted up the sideline and dropped to one knee, exhorting his team to provide one final stop in its breathless 11-game, 28-day run through the Big East and the Big Dance. In the stands across from the Connecticut bench, Calhoun's son, Jim, screamed to his mother, Pat, "Look at Dad! He's still coaching." Moments later Pat Calhoun fell into a long embrace with her husband of 44 years, not knowing if it would be the last of their victories together. "If it is the end," she said, standing in a small pile of confetti that wrapped around her shoes, "what a beautiful way to finish."
It was almost surely the final game for Huskies junior guard Kemba Walker, who is expected to leave for the NBA after carrying his team to a title like no player since Kansas forward Danny Manning 23 years ago. In the final, running on fumes, Walker had a game-high 16 points to go along with nine rebounds. "There are no words for this," he said on the floor when it was done. Nearby, his mother, Andrea, spoke in a voice turned hoarse by a night of screaming. "He molded this team," she said, "and they followed his lead."
The emotions were no less raw in the Butler locker room, where the silence of defeat was interrupted only by the occasional sniffles of crestfallen players. A year ago the Bulldogs captivated college basketball nation by reaching the championship game in their hometown of Indianapolis, losing to Duke 61-59 when sophomore Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave caromed off the backboard and rim at the buzzer.
They were not supposed to return. Hayward turned pro and the Bulldogs struggled to a 14-9 record before catching fire. They were the story of the year. Again. And so, Monday’s title game was seen by some as a morality play between a UConn program (and coach) that has been placed on probation for recruiting violations and a Butler program that seems to exemplify the ideals of college sports.
Connecticut, which finished with a 32-9 record, had reached the championship game with a brutal 56–55 win over Kentucky last Saturday night. It was yet another defensive battle that left the Huskies, and particularly Walker, exhausted. Yet they are an uncommonly young team, with seven freshmen. And the fatigue would not last. “The coaches told us to take it easy,” said senior guard and co-captain Donnell Beverly. “But we just did our regular stuff.”
On Sunday night former high school teammates Alex Oriakhi and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel stayed up until 4 a.m. talking about the game. At breakfast the entire team rapped out beats on their juice glasses, playful energy replacing nerves.
Behind the scenes the Connecticut coaching staff had a plan to beat Butler. "On defense it all came down to stopping Shelvin Mack," said first-year assistant Kevin Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran, referring to Butler's 6'3" junior guard, who had lit up Pittsburgh for 30 points and Florida for 27 in the Big Dance. The Huskies would "hedge" against Mack on all screens, moving a big man into his path. (A scouting report left behind in UConn's locker room said, "Stay in the entire possession. They run offense fast and hard and will not quit on a possession.") On offense Connecticut would pound the paint. "Butler's defensive philosophy is to get out on three-point shooters," said Ollie. "But they aren't as concerned with the inside." Oriakhi, a 6'9" sophomore forward, capitalized, finishing with 11 points.
Yet at halftime Butler held a 22-19 lead. Walker came into the locker room first, before the coaching staff, and shouted at the team, “Let’s do this together!” Calhoun followed and demanded defense, as he has done for nearly four decades.
What followed was epic. Butler scored just six points in nearly 14 minutes after halftime, and that three-point lead dissolved into an insurmountable 41-28 deficit. Freshman guard Jeremy Lamb scored all 12 of his points in the second half, Connecticut’s inside players—primarily Oriakhi and the 6’8” Smith—contested every shot, and the Huskies finished with 10 blocks. The most telling moment came with 11:27 to play, when 6’11” Butler center Andrew Smith received an entry pass deep in the lane and passed outside to guard Chase Stigall. “I guess,” said Oriakhi, “he didn’t want to get his shot blocked again.”
It was the first Sunday in March, and the Huskies teetered on the edge of collapse. The day before they had sullied their Senior Day celebration at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs with a desultory 70-67 loss to Notre Dame—their fourth in five games—in which the 6’1” Walker had been the team’s leading rebounder and scored more than half its points. By then Connecticut had squandered all of the surprising promise it had shown in the fall. Unranked in preseason polls, the Huskies won the EA Sports Maui Invitational. They also took five of their first eight Big East games—before losing six of their last 10. “We were way ahead of everybody at that point,” Calhoun says. “Reality would eventually set in.”
UConn ended the regular season with a 9-9 record in the Big East, a ninth-place finish. The conference tournament would begin at Madison Square Garden that Tuesday. Teams at the top of the league standings would sit out the first two rounds and begin competition on Thursday. Connecticut would play from the very start, an embarrassment (and a severe handicap).
The circumstances might have called for rest and regrouping. Calhoun thought otherwise. He scheduled practices for Sunday and Monday and, before the first, gathered the team in the locker room for its usual preworkout meeting. "Don't feel sorry for yourselves," he said. "Don't quit on yourselves. We're not supposed to be playing on Tuesday night. It's a slap in the face for this program. So for the next two days, we're going to get back to who we are."
Connecticut proceeded to practice as if it were October and important games were distant dates on a calendar. The team battled for three hours on Sunday and two more on Monday, miserable sessions with little scrimmaging. "We went after it," says Oriakhi. "The coaches told us, 'Forget about the X's and O's.' We did defensive drills, rebounding drills. One-on-one box-out drills. Three-on-three drills defending the post. It was intense. They were some of the toughest practices we had all year." And with that, Calhoun and his assistants shoved their chips to the center of the postseason table. Their team would either be revitalized or crushed.
Calhoun had faced worse this season. His roommate at American International College in Springfield, Mass., Bob Samuelson, died last Oct. 30 at age 66 of melanoma. His 66-year-old sister-in-law, Eileen Fucile, died on Feb. 21 of breast cancer. Four days before the start of the Final Four, Calhoun sat in the first row of seats at Gampel and became visibly moved while recalling their deaths, admitting to the heightened emotions that come with advancing age.
"Bob and I stayed in touch when I was at Northeastern [1972 to '86], and then when I came to Connecticut, Bob and his family were living in Woodbridge [Conn.], and it was like we had never been apart," said Calhoun, who has survived bouts with prostate and skin cancer. "We all lose people, but for some reason it just didn't seem possible to me. My sister-in-law fought cancer for 12 years."
The day after Fucile died, the NCAA formally announced sanctions against Connecticut—and Calhoun—as a result of the recruitment of Nate Miles, a gifted 6’7” swingman from Toledo. The school was hit with probation and a loss of one scholarship in each of the next two years, and Calhoun was suspended for the first three Big East games of 2011-12. It was a legacy-altering punishment for Calhoun, and he knows it. “Thirty-nine years,” he said, then motioned as if tossing something out a window.
Additionally, on the eve of the Final Four, The New York Times published a story in which Miles, who did not cooperate with the initial NCAA investigation, suggested Calhoun was involved in additional violations. Calhoun called the accusations "as low a blow as anybody has ever put on me."
If Calhoun was beleaguered and his young team exhausted, Walker was there to rescue them. Late last Saturday night, long after Connecticut had eliminated Kentucky, the old coach and the young player were nearly the last bodies left in the Reliant Stadium locker room. Calhoun, his tie loosened, sat on a folding chair and sipped a Diet Coke. Walker, three cubicles away, stripped off his uniform to reveal a layer of padded gear, standard issue for college players trying to survive the nightly pounding. "When did I first meet you?" said Calhoun, repeating a question he had been asked.
Walker smiled. He always smiles. "Junior year," he said. "At the gym."
That gym would be at Rice High in Harlem. "It was smaller than this room," said Calhoun, looking around the dressing area. "I saw Kemba, and I stopped looking at other point guards." Walker laughed out loud. While growing up in the Bronx, he began attracting attention at an early age—but as a dancer, not a basketball player. The son of Caribbean parents (his mom is from St. Croix, his dad from Antigua), he performed island-tinged hip-hop routines with a 13-member troupe that appeared three times on Amateur Night at Harlem's renowned Apollo Theater. "It was intense," recalls Walker. "Full house." By eighth grade, though, Walker had shifted his primary passion to basketball; judging from his animated and electrifying work throughout his junior season and into the tournament, his performance skills transferred nicely.
Walker first came to Storrs in the summer of 2008, before beginning his freshman season, looking for games. Beverly took Walker into his apartment for several weeks. "I remember two things about Kemba," says Beverly. "First of all, he was really into sneakers. He just loved Jordans. He loved talking about Jordans, more than anybody I know. But then when we went to play pickup games, he would take it inside against anybody, even [7'3"] Hasheem [Thabeet]. He was not afraid."
Walker had been playing for several years in summer leagues at Harlem's fabled Rucker Park, so he was unlikely to be fazed by competition at the college level. As a freshman he averaged 8.9 points off the bench while learning from senior A.J. Price (now a second-year guard with the Pacers) on a team that lost to Michigan State in the Final Four. Last year he started all 34 games and his scoring average jumped to 14.6, but this season he developed into a player of the year candidate, pouring in 23.7 points and entering the discussion of NBA lottery picks. The improvement is a function of his tireless efforts to transform himself from a penetrating high school point guard into a scorer who is as dangerous from 25 feet as he is in the lane.
"We've worked with him on his shot for three years," says Connecticut associate head coach George Blaney, 71. "He had too much arc on the ball, didn't hold his follow-through well enough, drifted front to back." Walker would drill with Blaney every day during the season, shooting jumpers from six feet, then eight feet, then 12, then 14, embracing mechanics and repetition. During the summer he was named to the 10-man USA Select team of college players that trained with the U.S. national team before it won a gold medal at the world championships. "You could see the change in Kemba then," says Blaney. "He was a more complete player."
Even before that Walker had begun trying to complete himself in ways that underscore the danger of painting any college basketball program—even one that will go on probation immediately after winning the national title—in broad, cynical strokes. Last spring Walker approached UConn academic counselor Felicia Crump and asked her to help him figure out how to earn his degree in sociology so that he could enter the draft this year and still graduate. Together they built a schedule that required Walker to take courses last summer in Storrs and then a full load in both the fall and the spring. "We're talking about a young man who was just an average high school student, at best, and who had always been more concerned with basketball," says Crump. "I told him, 'If you can do this, you'll leave behind a legacy that's more important than anything you do on the basketball court.'"
Walker took schoolwork with him throughout the Big East and NCAA tournaments, completing short required papers while postponing tests until after the season. He met with his campus tutor on Skype. And in his travel pack is a copy of New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden's Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, a book that Crump encouraged Walker to read as part of an independent study class on racism in sports. Before the Final Four, Crump suggested that Rhoden's book would be the first that Walker had ever made it through cover-to-cover. After the win over Kentucky, Walker confirmed this. "That's true," he said. "You can write that. It is the first book I've ever read."
His work on the court over the final 28 days ranks among the most compelling performances in NCAA postseason history. After those two grueling practices in Storrs, Connecticut won five times in five days to seize the Big East championship and earn a No. 3 seed in the West region. Walker scored a tournament-record 130 points and his magical roll carried straight through to Houston.
Walker's play, as well as his leadership, inspired and emboldened his young teammates. Lamb, a slender, 6'5" wing player, has matured most quickly in the tournament. He scored 97 points in six games, put pressure on defenses with his silky explosiveness and wreaked havoc in the passing lanes with his long, skinny arms. Off the floor he was a source of constant amusement to his teammates, gobbling Gummi Bears and Lemonheads from plastic bags he had stashed in his workout gear, and dancing horribly (according to Walker, the ultimate arbiter of choreographic matters) to Soulja Boy and Roscoe Dash. "Jeremy is just ... weird," says freshman center Michael Bradley, Lamb's roommate.
But weird with a sharply competitive edge. Blaney says that early in the year Lamb "didn't like to hear that he was making mistakes. But he was playing at what we call high school speed." Lamb, who speaks—but not much—in a deep baritone, says, "I'm playing at the same speed right now that I always played at. But I'm knocking down shots, and that makes me look faster."
This team was deemed too young and too playful to get to the final, and its inherent silliness was evident in their pregame rituals. First they would pray, as Walker anointed their foreheads with a drop of water. And then, just before taking the court, they would gather in a circle and dance. First Walker in the middle while his teammates chanted, E-ZPass, K-Walk, K-K-Walk. And then Oriahki: A-O, A-A-O. Finally they would yell Drunk Drive, Drunk-Drunk-Drive as Smith (who had once stumbled into the middle of the circle) pretended to stir a huge pot of food with a giant spoon. And at last: Tastes Good!
When the championship game was over they were eating real food, individual pizzas delivered to the locker room and stacked into a tall, metal warming oven. They tasted good, too. It had been an improbable journey, one win built on top of another until none remained. “I think back to the first game of the Big East tournament,” said Beverly. “We blew out DePaul [97-71] and after that game, we just took this attitude of let’s just keep doing this. And it never stopped.”
Then his coach stopped in on his way to the team bus. He was wearing a tailored blue suit made just for the Final Four, wrinkled from a long night's work. History will judge his career on another day. History will judge this inartistic game on another day. The coach will not wait. "To me," he said, walking down a long wide corridor of a building far from home, "this was beauty."