Forever, it seemed, Connecticut didn't do fun and games. The postwar sports boom happened everywhere else: College basketball was the ACC and UCLA and Indiana. College football may just as well have been played on Pluto. The pros were closer, but to see homegrown heroes such as Calvin Murphy or Bobby Valentine or Mike Gminski, we had to leave the state. We produced some great Olympians, even trendsetting sweetheart Dorothy Hamill, but their names became linked with other places, where they trained or won medals. The national pastime? We had one big connection to the heart of the game, but it was nothing to brag about. Jackie Robinson died in Stamford, his hair the color of snow.
But that was appropriate, somehow. We're one of the original 13 colonies, after all, and until recently we always acted our age. We sold insurance. We watched our home prices rise. When it came to play, we mostly observed from the porch, an old uncle too stiff to loosen his tie. Wedged between warring neighbors Massachusetts and New York, Connecticut split the difference: Our south belonged to the Yankees, our north and east to the Red Sox. Our take on the NFL, NBA and NHL followed suit, and that endless battle between arrogance and quaint-ness—the two main strains in our character—left little energy for in-state sports. We're America's suburb, remember. By the time we got off I-95, we just wanted some sleep.
Connecticut didn't discuss its shortcomings much. We talked about the football Giants—Andy Robustelli! Connecticut guy!—or the '69 Mets, or Yaz and the Rocket as ours. But they weren't. The Hartford Whalers, memorable mostly for their bombastic team song, were ours: They played in a shopping mall and bolted in 1997 after 25 years without leaving a mark. Four Little League World Series champs were ours. The University at Storrs? It was never like the beloved state bastions of Michigan or North Carolina or Alabama. UConn was everybody's safety school, with a nickname seemingly cribbed from Alaska, of all places: UConn Huskies, get it? No kid dreamed of playing at Storrs.
If you were any good, you left. Hamill had to practice in New York, then Colorado, to become world-class, and her famous wedge cut was fashioned by a Manhattan hairdresser. Steve Young played quarterback at Brigham Young. Murphy made his name at Niagara University and then with the Houston Rockets.
We were a state with no identity, no signature moments and not even a grand symbol like the Liberty Bell. Connecticut is the Nutmeg State, and I'm here to testify: It's not easy identifying with a spice. The UConn women began winning basketball titles—four and counting—in 1995, and that has been sweet. But let's face it, no one in Boston or New York was raging over the fact that our women could play hoops.
Fortunately, something bigger was happening. UConn men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun—yeah, he was from Massachusetts, but remember: Bear Bryant was born in Arkansas—showed up in Storrs in 1986 and began to win. In '90 the Huskies rose to No. 3 in the nation before losing to Duke by a point in the NCAA tournament, and Calhoun spent the rest of the decade piling up Big East titles and galvanizing state pride like nothing else in our history. Then in '99 the Huskies won the national championship and did so with a flourish, paying back Duke with a 77-74 shocker in the final.
"Everybody talked about the little state that never could compete," Murphy says. "That win still gives me a big sense of pride."
It should: Murphy had a small hand in the title, even from as far away as his NBA home, Houston. Jake Voskuhl, the starting center for UConn's championship team, grew up in Texas and starred in Murphy's youth program. "I taught Jake how to play basketball and sent him on to my state," Murphy says, and at that we both laugh. There's something very Connecticut about that, the quaint side anyway, and that it touches us tells you how small-time we remain. Bragging's fun, but being No. 1 was never the point; we just wanted to get off the porch. It's nice, finally, to be in the game.