How do you lead your team to a national championship? You start by eating a proper pregame meal. More precisely, you eat a proper pregame meal properly—the same way you've eaten every other pregame meal all season. That means exactly the same number of pieces of chicken, which, alas, on Monday afternoon, the good people at the Plaza San Antonio hotel didn't seem to have for their fastidious guest, Connecticut center Emeka Okafor.
Okafor asked if he might have one more piece. As the kitchen tried to oblige, he waited patiently. The dining room emptied of coaches and teammates. The 6'10" junior lay his head on the table and briefly snoozed. Finally after 20 minutes the requisite piece of chicken arrived. He had to complete the cycle he goes through, explained Ted Taigen, the Huskies' academic adviser. He's very linear and meticulous. He sets things out for himself and just follows through.
Connecticut, 82-73 victors over Georgia Tech in the Alamodome on Monday night, had been, for much of the season, neither linear nor meticulous. The Huskies had been a maddening team of detours and stall-outs, of shaky free throw shooting and inexplicable losses. But throughout, bad back permitting, the lead Husky slogged indomitably forward. And in the title game, his chicken-fried wait over, Okafor led the way with 24 points and 15 rebounds. Facing the rare center with a height advantage, the Yellow Jackets' 7'1" Luke Schenscher, Okafor tossed in field goals that bookended the 21-6 first-half run on which the game turned. He added two blocked shots, and in Georgia Tech's 38% field goal percentage there's an implication of uncounted alterations, intimidations and "rearrangements," in the wonderful phrase of Dee Rowe, the former UConn coach. "He's there," Rowe says. "Beware. And don't go there."
The world Okafor and his teammates now sit astride is lousy with shortcuts—Enron and Martha Stewart shortcuts; Baylor and Georgia and St. Bonaventure shortcuts—that might allow you to get to the Life and the Show, but in the end won't give you much to show for your life. Okafor's instinct is to sight goals and reach them, one after another. The ball is there; get it. A tide is there; claim it. The shortest distance between a man and his goal needn't be a shortcut but the most direct legitimate distance. In his family's native Igbo language, his given name Chukwuemeka (Emeka to an adoring state; Mek to his coach and teammates) means God has done wonderfully well. That may sound like a burden, but Okafor treats it as prophecy.
People close to Okafor carry around storehouses of tales about him, and on Monday they spilled forth. When his sister, Nneka, rebounded for him on a playground in the heat of the Houston summer, he had to plead with her to stay longer than the mere hour she could tolerate. When Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun suggested during the preseason that Okafor take out a policy to insure against a career-altering injury, he initially resisted, insisting he'd be happy to use his brain to make a living. When he had to write a term paper for his favorite college course, an honors class called Roman Civilization, he chose as his topic the life and culture of the ancient gladiators. "Combat, man, combat," he said after the title game, confirming that he identifies with the noble warrior. "Our lives were never at stake, but competition-wise, we'd go out and do battle. No guts, no glory."
Back in December, Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson had declared that the Huskies might be as good as any team his Sooners had played in the last 10 years. "Expectations were so high that we were made almost godlike," Calhoun says. "People wrote that we weren't going to lose a game in the Big East." Why then, in the preseason NIT, did they struggle to beat Yale and get smoked by Georgia Tech? In February, UConn suffered back-to-back losses at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, but it was their next game, a desultory 76-63 victory over Miami at home, that took Calhoun to the edge. "I went bonkers on the sideline," he says. "No matter what we did, it wasn't right. The team walked into the locker room afterward looking like they'd lost by 40. Everyone was expecting Attila the Hun." Instead, Calhoun cracked a string of jokes. He pleaded with his players to find within themselves the emotion and passion that they'd need as the season reached its climax, and he pledged in return to check his own temper, if only they met him halfway. "It was corny and funny," Calhoun says, "and they just started laughing at me and enjoying themselves. They do have emotion and passion. I just had to back off to let it come out."
In the team's regular-season finale at Syracuse, Okafor reaggravated a stress fracture that had caused spasms in his lower back. He was unavailable for the Huskies' Big East tournament opener against Notre Dame, and before the game the coaching staff smelled fear among the players, a foreboding that the team would be going home early. Yet the Huskies reached the final without Okafor, then welcomed him back and beat Pittsburgh by making up an 11-point deficit over the final nine minutes. Okafor's absence for those two Big East tournament games "showed me something in the team," junior guard Ben Gordon says, "that I didn't even know we had."
Okafor fouled out of the Big East final with slightly more than two minutes left and UConn's comeback incomplete. It was Gordon who closed out the Panthers, scoring 15 points in the final 11:12, a development that delighted the coaching staff, which had been pleading with him all season to be more assertive. He followed that up by being named Most Outstanding Player of the Phoenix Regional, and scored 21 in the championship game, firing in three treys. "I've pushed and prodded and loved that kid for the last three years," says Calhoun, who once mockingly suggested that Gordon inquire about season tickets, so often did he turn into a spectator.
Calhoun's concerns about his players' mental makeup resurfaced during the NCAA tournament. He hadn't liked the Huskies' body language and attitude before their opener with Vermont, so before UConn's second-round game with DePaul he made sure a locker room TV was tuned to the duel between Syracuse and Maryland, "to give them a feel for what they're involved with here." When the Huskies reached San Antonio after thrashing Vanderbilt and Alabama in the Phoenix Regional, he even brought his players on stage at the Thursday Final Four Salute, an NCAA function that's normally coaches-only. Where UNLV's 1990 national champions—a team to which UConn had been compared in terms of sheer talent—were remorseless in their run to the title, these Huskies, impressive as they were, let their vulnerabilities play near the surface, whether in the form of Okafor's tender back, or point guard Taliek Brown's complaints about his rough treatment in Internet chat rooms, or accounts of the players-only meetings that were convened after every loss. Leave it to Okafor to cut to the essence of all those fits and starts: "We wouldn't be here if we'd gone undefeated in the regular season," he said last week. "Because the losses helped us learn so much."
A loss in the tournament may provide similar learning experiences, but there's no opportunity to set things straight in another game. And Duke, the Huskies' semifinal opponent, would nearly give Connecticut just such a lesson in its sternest test since the Big East final. With only 3:56 gone, Okafor picked up his second foul; he would sit for the rest of the half while Duke used a 15-1 run to build a 41-34 lead. Okafor watched helplessly. He kneaded a towel, then turned imploringly to his teammates, with palms upturned and open. "I mean, it was eating me, eating me up inside," he would say later. "I blew off steam for like two or three minutes. But I knew I couldn't stay sour-faced for the whole half. I didn't want to be a cancer on the team."