UConn Magazine: Basketball Capital of The World

We might as well just change Storrs’ name to this. As Jim Nantz writes here, “People don’t say Duke and UConn in the same sentence often enough, but they need to now.”

Andre Jackson Jr. after winning the NCAA championship

(Photo courtesy of Austin Bigoney)

Connecticut is not a big state. Our population is less than half that of New York City, and our square mileage could comfortably fit inside some national parks — with plenty of room left over for Rhode Island.

When Connecticut residents travel overseas, we’re prone to offering a half-apologetic, “Between Boston and New York” when someone asks where we’re from, because why would anyone in Dublin or Tokyo or Lagos or Santiago or Jerusalem know where Connecticut is?

We’re not especially famous for the things that draw huge crowds of tourists: no colossal statues, no splendid ruins, not even a really big canyon. It’s honestly a little weird how much we go on about pizza. Decades ago, we were known for the things we made. Now the only traces of those things are the nicknames for towns where mills and factories once hummed with activity: Silk City, Thread City, Brass City, the Hat City of the World.

There is one thing we do have, though: college basketball.

Over the last 35 years, we’ve been better at that, on both the women’s and men’s sides, than any other college or university in the country.

You know how many schools have men’s and women’s teams that have won championships in the same season? Just one. And we’ve done it twice (in 2004 and 2014).

In the winter of 1995, for the first time the UConn men’s and women’s teams were both ranked first in the national Associated Press poll. The Daily Campus ran a headline: THE BASKETBALL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. Of course it was half joking, the kind of self-deprecation Connecticut people deploy whenever it starts to feel like we should perhaps be proud of something. But it was four years after that headline that the men won their first national championship. The year after that, the women won their second. Over the next 20 years, they’d combine for another 12. This April made the grand total 16.

That matters to people here, because UConn’s success belongs to everyone in the state. We started as a farm school in an orphanage with fewer than a dozen students. The people of Connecticut built this place, over 140 years, into a great public university.

On the Sunday after the win over Miami in the Final Four this year, the priest at my parish in Manchester stood out front after Mass and said, “Have a blessed week and go Huskies!” to everyone. A waitress scrawled “GO HUSKIES” on my check at lunch, a silent fist-bump for the UConn hoodie I was wearing. People hung UConn flags on their houses and put new bumper stickers on their cars. Expat Nutmeggers in Georgia, California, Texas, and Japan messaged me with nervous excitement ahead of the championship game. When the team clinched the win that Monday night, a big party next door erupted in cheers. One of my neighbors drove up and down the street, honking his horn like a lunatic.

Connecticut people know a basketball game isn’t going to fix any of our problems. It won’t bring back the mills, it won’t make the cost of living cheaper, it won’t give us a really big canyon for tourists to visit.

Read on for more.