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IT WAS THE FIRST SUNDAY IN MARCH, AND THE HUSKIES teetered on the edge of collapse. The day before they had sullied their Senior Day celebration at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs with a desultory 70--67 loss to Notre Dame—their fourth loss in five games—in which the 6' 1" Walker had been the team's leading rebounder and scored more than half its points. By then Connecticut had squandered all of the surprising promise it had shown earlier. It had taken five of its first eight Big East games—before losing six of its last 10. "We were way ahead of everybody at that point," Calhoun says. "Reality would eventually set in."
UConn ended the regular season with a 9--9 record in the Big East, a ninth-place finish. The conference tournament would begin at Madison Square Garden that Tuesday. The four teams at the top of the league standings would sit out the first two rounds and begin competition on Thursday. Connecticut would play from the very start, an embarrassment (and a severe handicap).
The circumstances might have called for rest and regrouping. Calhoun thought otherwise. He scheduled practices for Sunday and Monday and, before the first, gathered the team in the locker room for its usual pre-workout meeting. "Don't feel sorry for yourselves," he said. "Don't quit on yourselves. We're not supposed to be playing on Tuesday night. It's a slap in the face for this program. So for the next two days, we're going to get back to who we are."
Connecticut proceeded to practice as if it were October and important games were distant dates on a calendar. The team battled for three hours on Sunday and two more on Monday, miserable sessions with little scrimmaging. "We went after it," says Oriakhi. "The coaches told us, 'Forget about the X's and O's.' We did defensive drills, rebounding drills. One-on-one box-out drills. Three-on-three drills defending the post. It was intense. They were some of the toughest practices we had all year." Calhoun and his assistants had shoved their chips to the center of the postseason table. Their team would either be revitalized or crushed.
Calhoun had faced worse this season. His roommate at American International College in Springfield, Mass., Bob Samuelson, died last Oct. 30 of melanoma at age 66. His 66-year-old sister-in-law, Eileen Fucile, died on Feb. 21 of breast cancer. Four days before the start of the Final Four, Calhoun sat in the first row of seats at Gampel and became visibly moved while recalling their deaths, admitting to the heightened emotions that come with advancing age.
"Bob and I stayed in touch when I was at Northeastern [1972 to '86], and then when I came to Connecticut, Bob and his family were living in Woodbridge [Conn.], and it was like we had never been apart," said Calhoun, who has survived bouts with prostate and skin cancer. "We all lose people, but for some reason it just didn't seem possible to me. My sister-in-law fought cancer for 12 years."
The day after Fucile died, the NCAA formally announced sanctions against UConn—and Calhoun—as a result of violations found in the recruitment of Nate Miles, a gifted 6' 7" swingman from Toledo. The school was hit with probation and a loss of one scholarship in each of the next two years, and Calhoun was suspended for the first three Big East games of 2011--12. It was a legacy-altering punishment for Calhoun, and he knows it. "Thirty-nine years," he said, then motioned as if tossing something out a window.
Additionally, on the eve of the Final Four, The New York Times published a story in which Miles, who did not cooperate with the initial NCAA investigation, suggested Calhoun was involved in additional violations. Calhoun called the accusations "as low a blow as anybody has ever put on me."
IF CALHOUN WAS BELEAGUERED AND HIS YOUNG team exhausted, Walker was there to rescue them. Hours after Connecticut had eliminated Kentucky, the old coach and the young player were nearly the last bodies left in the Reliant Stadium locker room. Calhoun, his tie loosened, sat on a folding chair and sipped a Diet Coke. Walker, three cubicles away, stripped off his uniform to reveal a layer of padded gear, standard issue for college players trying to survive the nightly pounding. "When did I first meet you?" Calhoun asked Walker, repeating a question he had been asked.