What endures from UConn's victory is the gallery of fascinating personalities that make up this team. "They beat you not with plays, but with players," Ohio State assistant Paul Biancardi said after the Huskies' victory in the semifinals. If the 1998-99 Blue Devils could be likened to a high-quality but somewhat arid series on PBS, then the Huskies were The Young and the Restless, trouble and intrigue bubbling beneath the surface.
Voskuhl, their 6'11" center, even looks like a soap opera hero, a larger-than-life stunner with killer blond hair (a little gel and a little water before the game keep it in place) and a soft, I'm-here-for-you-baby mien. He talks openly of being saved last summer at Family Bible Church in Sugar-land, Texas, near the small town of Katy, where he was born. Several hours before Monday's game Voskuhl had an hourlong heart-to-heart with his pastor, Kerry Lucas, on the telephone. Did Lucas have any advice? "Yes," says Voskuhl. "Stay out of foul trouble." Praise the Lord. Though Voskuhl, as usual, had little statistical impact on the game (two points, three rebounds, two blocked shots), he also had only three fouls, and, in his 28 minutes, contributed mightily to the double team that discombobulated Brand.
Hamilton, for his part, got his pregame inspiration from his paternal grandfather, Edward, who died last summer after a long battle with lung cancer. Before the game Hamilton's father, Richard—from whom he got his nickname, Rip, because Dad was a good playground player whose jump shot ripped the nets—said to his son, "Grandpa wants a national championship." Hamilton said he was thinking of his grandfather throughout the game. They became extremely close last summer when a broken foot Hamilton suffered in the trials kept him from playing for the U.S. team in the world championships in Greece. "It killed me not to play, but I got to see my grandfather just about every day until he died," says Hamilton. "I'm told things happen for a reason. Maybe they do." On Hamilton's upper right arm he has tattooed a remembrance, in the form of a cross with the inscription EDWARD HAMILTON, OCT. 9, 1922-SEPT. 25, 1998.
Without a doubt, though, the Huskies get most of their colorful personality from their firebrand leaders, the 19-year-old El-Amin and the 56-year-old Calhoun. Though the UConn party line makes it sound as if coach and point guard are locked in perpetual embrace, theirs is not a one-note relationship. At times during the season (though not in the tournament) El-Amin could be observed tuning out Calhoun during timeouts, turning his back and gazing elsewhere as the coach drew up a play. That's probably to be expected of a young man who has issued this proclamation: "I've said it before, and I'll say it again—all this team was missing to win the national championship was a player of my stature and my capability."
At the same time, Calhoun is a strong personality who isn't about to allow footprints on his back, even from a player of El-Amin's, ahem, stature and capability. "Jim gives Khalid freedom of expression," says UConn associate head coach Dave Leitao, "but occasionally Khalid steps over the freedom-of-expression line." During a practice in Storrs before the tournament, for example, El-Amin and Hamilton were arguing loudly—as is their wont—about the score in a shooting game when Calhoun told them to go to the baseline to begin another drill. They ignored him and continued arguing. "Get the f—- to the baseline" Calhoun exploded. This time they listened.
El-Amin might be a handful for a coach, but there is something irrepressible—and irresistible—about him. Hamilton remembers the first time he met El-Amin, at the Adidas ABCD camp for marquee players in the summer of '95. The stocky point guard from Minneapolis arrived two days late but immediately began running the show. "It was wild," said Hamilton, who was on El-Amin's team. "We were all disorganized, but here comes this kid who says, 'Rip, you go there and do this, and you, we need you over here.' He told us exactly what we needed to do to win, and we did what he said and we won. I couldn't believe it."
It's hard to believe a lot about El-Amin. He has fathered two children with two women, one of whom, Jessica, is now his wife. They have separated in the past, but they are currently living together. Then there is his distinctive body type, one more suited to making cannonball dives into a pool than efficient forays into the lane. (The UConn media guide lists him at 5'10", 203 pounds, but on close examination there's a suspicion that you should subtract an inch and add seven pounds.) Throw in the fact that he was raised as an orthodox Muslim—his father, Charles, was an imam, as is one of his brothers, Makram—and fans in hostile arenas have found El-Amin among the nation's most inviting targets for abuse.
He endures the insults with a cocky smile, a bring-it-on-suckers look in his eyes and a flashy playing style, all of which inflame his antagonists even more. He has been called a refrigerator with a head and a Cabbage Patch doll. He has watched as fans waved pizza boxes and toy pigs in his direction. He won't talk much about his married life or his religion, but he doesn't duck the avoirdupois issue. "I don't have a so-called point guard's body," he said in the tournament's grandest understatement, and he concedes that he would probably be a better player if he lost a few pounds. During a give-and-take session with reporters on Sunday, the questions about his weight reached a kind of Sally Jesse Raphael critical mass. The final one was: Do you consider yourself an overweight sex symbol? El-Amin, who had already discussed Slim-Fast (he doesn't use it), looked the interrogator straight in the eye and said, "I'm married, man."
Anyone who thinks El-Amin is a clownish, junk-food-eating cartoon character badly misreads him. He is a clutch player who thrives on pressure—"I can always count on him in the big games," says Freeman. "It's when the spotlight's not on him that I worry"—and cares deeply about the game. Hamilton calls him "our Energizer Bunny" but he's also the team's emotional catalyst. It's not uncommon for El-Amin to get so worked up that he breaks down in tears in front of his teammates. The last time it happened was three weeks ago, in the locker room at the West Regional in Denver, before the Huskies went out to play New Mexico in the second round. "He brought so much emotion to us that we started out with a 17-0 run," remembers Freeman. The Huskies won 78-56, and El-Amin had 21 points, seven rebounds, two assists and only one turnover.
There were no tears from El-Amin before the championship game, and, as usual, no fear either. Following the critical traveling call on Lang-don as the clock wound down, El-Amin was fouled with 5.2 seconds left. It was a tense moment, but Freeman wasn't worried, for the spotlight was shining brightly on you know who. The Huskies' leader stayed back from the line for so long that a referee had to motion him forward. El-Amin walked slowly toward the line, lifting his right arm in an exaggerated practice stroke. His first practice dribble slipped out of his hand and almost squirted away. He took a couple of more dribbles, cupped the ball in his right hand and stroked it. Good. He turned and thumped his chest at Avery, who was standing nearby, then repeated the preshot ritual. Good again, and the Huskies led 77-74. Duke had time for only one more mad Langdon rush to the hoop—he was stripped and never got a shot off—and it was all over.