A half hour before the men's 2003-04 season opener on Nov. 17, the student section at the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs was filled. A University of Connecticut player, junior Ed Nelson, walked onto the floor in street clothes. Nelson transferred last summer from Georgia Tech. He won't score his first point as a Husky until next season at the earliest because of NCAA transfer rules, but the students gave him a standing ovation. "We finally found something we can call our own in this state," says Jeff Otterbein, The Hartford Courant's sports editor. "Basketball."
Poor little Connecticut. It's rich in wealthy, sports-minded people (auto racing buffs David Letterman and Paul Newman, golf enthusiast Jack Welch), and it's rich, period (the nation's highest per capita income). But take away the UConn men's and women's basketball programs, and what does the state have in the way of big-time sports? There's ESPN, based in the old clock-manufacturing town of Bristol, and then there's...what exactly? The organizers of the venerable Greater Hartford Open golf tournament used to say they ran the annual sporting event with the highest profile in New England, but then last year Tiger Woods attached himself and his charity to the Deutsche Bank Championship, a PGA Tour stop in Norton, Mass., and the GHO lost its claim.
Otterbein's newspaper, the state's largest, has beat writers who cover a celebrated four-some of out-of-state teams—the Red Sox and the Yankees, the Patriots and the Giants—because Connecticut has no major men's pro sports franchises. Then again, Connecticut doesn't need pro sports teams anymore. It's got the Huskies, headquartered near the center of the state, in rustic Storrs. Coach Geno Auriemma's women have won four NCAA championships since 1995, and coach Jim Calhoun's men brought home the '99 title and have been to the Sweet 16 nine other times. In February '95, UConn made history when the men and women were ranked No. 1 in the country at the same time—a feat no school had ever achieved. In this year's preseason polls, both teams were again ranked first. All this winning has given the university a national identity. Last year, for the first time, UConn had more out-of-state undergraduate applicants than in-state ones.
To an outsider Gampel might look like just another modern utilitarian basketball arena, but don't try telling that to a Husky player or fan. Diana Taurasi, UConn's All-America senior guard, stood near the home bench on a recent afternoon. Gampel was empty. She said, "This is where it all happens. This is where dreams come true." It only sounded like a line from a Lifetime movie. That's how she talks and how she feels. Every game at Gampel is a sellout (10,027). Auriemma says the packed houses—and the statewide passion for women's basketball that they represent—are the biggest recruiting tool he has.
UConn basketball has something for everyone. Both teams play about half their home games at Gampel, where students, their faces painted blue and white, fill up the cheap seats ($5 for the men's games, $2 for the women's matches). Both teams play—and sell out—the rest of their home dates about 45 minutes from Storrs, at the 16,294-seat Hartford Civic Center, in the heart of the nation's insurance capital. Thousands of undergraduates come in buses and cars, but the Civic Center games belong to the citizenry at large.
The women's games attract many retirees (with their grandchildren tagging along) who grew up on use-yer-head New England basketball as it was handed down from Naismith to Auerbach, or something like that. In the Coach Geno era you'd be hard-pressed to find any other basketball team, men's or women's, pro or amateur, that plays a more fundamentally sound game. That style reflects the values of its solid-citizen fans. The UConn women prize the smart assist over the easy bucket, graduate in four years and do good works in greater Storrs. There are no player names on the backs of the women's jerseys. To the marketing executives in the WNBA, where Taurasi will work soon enough, there's only one problem with her game—it has no flash. Ten thousand Connecticut grandmothers couldn't care less.
When the men play at the Civic Center, it's Showtime, Hartford-style. The stands are filled with well-mannered white-collar insurance executives who yell things such as "You missed it, ref!" when a call goes against their guys. The team plays a more dynamic game than many NBA squads. The Huskies, in fact, were averaging 86.3 points per game this season through Sunday.
Downtown Hartford's bar-and-restaurant scene would be endangered were it not for the 20 or so annual UConn basketball dates at the Civic Center. About 90 minutes before games begin, most places are filled. At No Fish Today, a small restaurant a couple of blocks from the Civic Center, even the bar stools are reserved before games. "If they took all the games to Gampel, it would be depressing," says the owner, Nancy Tedd.
Despite the state's standing on the per capita income list, it was an economic downturn in Connecticut that helped give the UConn basketball teams their status. In the early 1990s insurance jobs were leaving Hartford. Defense spending was cut, and there were numerous layoffs by major employers in the state, including United Technologies. At the same time the UConn teams were winning, the ticket price was right and the success in basketball helped console the state.
Connecticut Public Television caught the vibe quickly. During the 1993-94 season, the year before the women won their first national title, CPTV started broadcasting a limited number of games. There were some games back then that drew fewer than 1,000 spectators, but tens of thousands of homes were tuning in to watch. "The players were not prima donnas, the coach was charismatic, the viewers were not distracted by professional sports," says Jerry Franklin, the CPTV president. "We were onto something."