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Diana loved it, Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch. " Duke was such a kick, man," she exults. "All the stuff those guys were screaming...." It perfectly illustrated what Auriemma tells his top recruits: "You're an artist, right? You need a stage. And if you think you're a great performer, you need the biggest stage. You wanna be on the stage in St. Louis—" He pauses, considering the possibility that someday there will be a player in St. Louis he covets. "I got nothing against St. Louis, you understand, but you wanna be on the stage in St. Louis or on Broadway?"
Certainly UConn is the Great White Way of women's basketball. "Everybody brings their A game against us," Diana says, licking her chops. All the home games are SRO. And many on the road, like Duke, bang out too. And in Durham, as the crowd screamed at Geno, Diana led the Huskies to a huge upset, 77-65. Her teammates were getting better, but they had to because Diana was injured and in pain. She had a bad back, a bum ankle and a foot problem called plantar fasciitis, which, in English, means your heels feel like they're on fire. Her coaches figured she was operating at only two thirds of her potential, but behind those searching almond eyes she wouldn't reveal anything. Sometimes Geno would force her to sit out practice on threat of being kept out of a game.
Geno has had so many All-Americas, but sometimes he would simply watch Diana in awe. "I love going to practice every day," he says. "I love watching the kids get better. I tell you what's worth everything: when one of your players says, 'I could never have been this good without you.' " But Diana was beyond that. It wasn't so much that he was coaching her as that she was channeling him. "I'll say, 'D, I've got this vision in my head' about, say, coming over the top, and right away she'll just say, 'Uh-huh.' She just sees it before I can say it. Not only that, but she takes it from where I saw it and goes to another level." Geno shakes his head. "Next year I'm gonna say the same thing to some normal kid, and she's not gonna say 'Uh-huh,' and then I'll know, I finally gotta forget about D."
For all she could do, though, Diana's injuries never really healed last year, and the Huskies finally fell apart—once, in the last few minutes of the Big East championship game. After 70 straight victories they lost to Villanova, but Geno convinced them that it was a blessing in disguise. Sure enough, Diana then led them to another national title. The year before, the Huskies had been a juggernaut. This squad was different. It was not a one-woman team, you understand, but rather one woman's team. At the buzzer of the NCAA championship game, Diana flew into Dailey's arms. "I get it, CD!" she screamed. "I finally get it!"
It was all stren'th now; there was no weakness left, Backeast.
Playing on teams was what confirmed young Geno as an American. Being a part of something, sharing the camaraderie. Team is sacred to him. He was actually best at baseball, but basketball "seduced" him, he says. Baseball was too much of an individual game for him; football had too many players. "But basketball," he says, almost in reverie. "Basketball. If just one fifth of the guys don't do their job, your possibility of winning goes down drastically."
He fit in on the team. "You see, that made me bigger than I was—and not just because I was only five-seven. I was satisfied passing the ball to guys who were open, helping out on defense. The team was what I lived for. I wasn't going to get the Diana Taurasi [glory]. I needed the team."
Geno knows it sounds crazy, but there is still a part of him that regrets that the military draft ended just in time to spare him from Vietnam. He would have loved being with the guys in basic training and in battle. "Look, I didn't want to get shot or anything, but...." But, you see, combat must be the ultimate game, platoon the ultimate team.
The UConn women don't wear their names on their uniforms. The coach has a long, semicomical explanation that he gives fans when they ask about it. But then he sighs and draws his finger across his chest and says, "The short answer is, If s all about what's across here." UCONN. One year, by mistake, the uniform company shipped the jerseys out with the players' names on them. The team voted to send them back. Geno says, "I tell 'em when I recruit 'em, look, after a big game you're gonna have to go into that media room, and you might be looking at 20 TV cameras, and if you win, here's what you say: 'I couldn't have done it without my teammates' And if we lose, you say, 'I blew it.' "
Walt Frazier was Geno's favorite player. This figures. Frazier had this dichotomy to him. Off the court he was all show, the Beau Brummel, cool, hip, today. Clyde. But on the court he was Walt, the consummate playmaker, solid, controlled, classic. As a coach, for much the same reasons, Geno is very much an heir to Al McGuire. McGuire had the glib patter, the showman's persona. But on the court he was the opposite: conservative and controlling. Geno is much more adaptive in his strategy than McGuire was, but he has the same split personality. He's the snappy barker out front, but once he gets you into the tent, he's quite traditional, jammed up with values and do-right. On a team trip to Europe a few years ago the Huskies hardly ate any of the strange food prepared for them at a stop in Belgium. Geno marched them all into the kitchen and made them apologize to the cooks.