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THE GLORY OF UCONN BASKETBALL

by Terese Karmel, Features Editor, Willimantic Chronicle

March 10, 2005

 
One of the most rabid Red Sox fans in this part of the world had a double celebration October 27, the night the team won the World Series.

And that other celebration involved another team near and dear to the heart of Wayne Norman: The UConn men's basketball team.

For as he put the finishing touches on a book "Hoop Tales: UConn Huskies Men's Basketball," the Red Sox were celebrating their first World Series since 1918 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

"I was somewhat distracted," Norman said of his efforts to finish the book that he co-wrote with longtime friend and associate Robert Porter. Despite computer problems, "I finished it that night about 2:15 in the morning," Norman said.
 
The book is the first in a series of "Hoop Tales" about legendary college basketball teams published by Globe-Pequot Press.

Despite only getting about two hours sleep that night, "I was flying," Norman recalled.  Two hours later, he was at his usual spot behind the microphone for "The Wayne Norman Show" on WILI-AM, his command post since August 24, 1970, when Eastern Connecticut listeners first heard words from his rich radio voice.

But it's in another capacity--with a more far reaching audience--that Norman and Porter happened to write the UConn book, a lively, penetrating look at the highlights of games, teams, and personnel over the past 50 years. Both men are walking encyclopaedias of UConn sports history. Norman has been the color analyst for UConn radio football and basketball broadcasts since 1979, working for the most part alongside play-by-play man Joe D'Ambrosio. Porter, a life-long Huskies fan and 1971 graduate of UConn, did play-by-play broadcasts of Husky basketball games for the campus radio station WHUS while in college.

"That was a banner year," Norman said, referring to 2004, which for him included the book contract which he and Porter signed in the late spring, the Red Sox World Series and the unprecedented UConn men's and women's NCAA basketball championships. (He also broadcast ECSU baseball's second place finish in the NCAA Division III World Series in
Wisconsin.)

But for those of you who may be tempted to think the men's basketball book begins with Rip Hamilton and the 1999 national title and ends with Emeka Okafor and the 2004 national title, there is far more to the tradition that is UConn basketball history and the book hits all the highpoints. The format is of 11 individual "stories" or chapters, each of which can stand on their own, rather than a continuous narrative. This way, only the best and the brightest could be featured.

"The best part of writing it was being reminded of some of the great moments in UConn basketbal history that had gotten hazy over the years," Norman said. Norman was still living in California in 1954, when the book opens. In the first chapters, the authors write of a UConn upset of the then-powerful Holy Cross team, the premier squad in New England (remember Bob Cousy?), in Worcester on February 27, 1954, a game which the authors assert "established UConn as a successful and serious regional power." The Huskies were 20-2 as they headed into Worcester to face the likes of Tom Heinsohn and Ron Perry, Sr. After a tight, seesaw affair, Connecticut emerged with a 78-77 win, ending the Crusaders' 47-game home win streak.

A Dom Perno steal from Bill Bradley of Princeton in 1964 tips off a chapter about Connecticut's upset victory over the Tigers in an early round NCAA game. They eventually lost to Duke in the regionals, but as those familiar with more modern UConn basketball history know, the Huskies were to get their revenge on the Blue Devils in both the 1999 and 2004 Final Fours.

Of course both of those distinguished events are covered thoroughly in the final two chapters of the book ("The Promised Land--The 1999 Championship" and "The Second Crown--The 2004 Huskies"), but there are also lively written "you are there" accounts of the Dee Rowe years, "A Man From Boston" (Jim Calhoun) and his success, the 1988 NIT title, and the 1990 Dream Season in which Tate George's buzzer shot on a Scott Burrell 80-foot pass vaulted the Huskies to the regional finals (where they lost to Duke on another miracle shot).

Ray Allen gets the most attention of present and former players (in a chapter "Ray Allen and Big East Dominance."), but the 177 page manuscript is full of the names of the great and not-so-great who wore the Husky blue and white--names like Wes Bialosuknia, Toby Kimball, Bill Holowaty, Tom Penders, and the coaches Fred Shabel, Dee Rowe, Perno, and Calhoun.

In all, the book is the result of more than 40 past and present interviews with former players and coaches. Many of the interviews Norman had on tape from games he covered; others are from fresh interviews. What comes across in the years since they played is the undying enthusiasm and love the basketball veterans have for the school and the team. Some examples:

Gerry Besselink, a mountain of a player from Canada, remembering how effective fromer assistant coach Howie Dickenman was "with big men like me."

Khalid El-Amin thinking back about the 1999 championship team: "What we had at UConn was a special bond. I've been on many teams, but at UConn it was more than coach-player roles. We were a tight knit family."

And so it goes through the decades to the 2004 championship year when Rashad Anderson talks of giving the game ball to Emeka Okafor: "I told him he had to give me his shoes to put in a case," Anderson said after that game. "Right after the game I got them. They're home in Florida in a trophy case."

The whole book is in effect a trophy case of highlights of a superior basketball program.
But perhaps it's one historic photograph that sums up the success of UConn men's basketball: This is of Jeff King, who has since passed away, and Phil Gamble, high atop the Madison Square Garden backboard celebrating the 1988 NIT championship victory, called by the authors "that first sweet taste," that is still being savored.

"UConn Huskies Men's Basketball" is available on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com and at the UConn Coop and other bookstores.
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