HARTFORD - As members of UConn’s 1999 national championship men’s basketball team gathered for a reunion Sunday, everyone seemed to have a favorite memory of the title run.
Khalid El-Amin’s “We shocked the world!” scream after the final buzzer of a 77-74 win over Duke in the title game was on the tip of many tongues.
Rashamel Jones’ heave of the ball towards the roof of Tropicana Field after he forced Duke’s Trajan Langdon into a turnover to end the game got plenty of votes.
Richard Hamilton’s innumerable big shots and tongue-wagging celebration on the floor did, too.
But for coach Jim Calhoun, when he thinks of the Huskies’ conquest, he usually thinks of Tunnel Road in Vernon and Reed Road in Tolland.
It was the fans who gathered to welcome the Huskies’ home the day after their national championship victory in St. Petersburg, Florida - specifically those gathered along the overpasses along I-84 to greet the team bus as it drove from Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks back to campus - that Calhoun likes to think of.
“It was a special time for us and a special time for the state,” Calhoun said. “I’ve never been through anything like that before or since, even afterwards with championships. This state was different.”
Gathered with many of the players who were part of that run Sunday at the XL Center, including Hamilton and El-Amin, Calhoun was rather emotional. Especially when discussing the homecoming they received.
“Even now I get goosebumps,” Calhoun said.
The celebration was staged to honor the 20th anniversary of the Huskies’ triumph, but many of the participants admit it doesn’t seem so long ago. The Husky players certainly seemed to act is they were still teammates on Sunday.
“It was like yesterday,” El-Amin said. “We go years without speaking to each other but when we get back together it’s like a day hasn’t passed.”
Outside of Connecticut, few gave No. 2 UConn much of a chance to beat No. 1 Duke in that championship game. The Blue Devils were 9.5-point favorites and had lost only once that season.
After his team beat the current Huskies 64-60, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin pointed out that it was the Bearcats who gave Duke its only other defeat in that 1998-99 season.
“A little bit of trivia for you guys,” Cronin said with a smile.
But the Huskies had confidence in themselves before facing off with coach Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch.
“The Duke team was a more talented team than we were, but we were a better team,” center Jake Voskuhl said.
Calhoun, as he is prone to, may have stretched the truth a bit on the eve of the game to make the Huskies feel that even the Duke players and staff didn’t think it would be much of a game.
As the Huskies were getting ready to practice the Sunday before the championship game, they expected to have to wait for Duke to finish practice before taking the court. But the Blue Devils, for whatever reason, were not on the court. Calhoun took the opportunity and ran with it.
“I said ‘Hell with them. They think they don’t have to practice to play us?’ “ Calhoun said. “They might have practiced, I have no idea. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?”
The story of UConn’s title might also have been ruined had Hamilton opted to leave UConn after his sophomore season and enter the NBA Draft.
“I was real close. Me and Kevin (Freeman) talked about it. I talked with my parents about it,” Hamilton said. “Then I had a sitdown with coach. I was kind of dodging him.”
Hamilton knew Calhoun would do everything he could to convince the lanky shooter to return to Storrs for a third season. And in the end he did.
“Believe it or not, he promised me we would win a national championship,” Hamilton said.
The current Huskies continue to struggle and don’t seem to resemble the likes of the 1999 squad but members of the latter are seemingly supportive of Dan Hurley’s efforts thus far and have faith things will turn around.
“It think all programs go through it, where you’re trying to rebuild, where you’re trying to get it back to the glory days,” El-Amin said. “It’s part of nature. It happens. And I think we’re on the right track. We’re going to be back.”
Calhoun points out that his first season at UConn in 1986-87 didn’t go nearly as well.
“First year we were 9-19,” Calhoun said. “So (Hurley has) three or four on us already.
Maybe there are banners draped over highway signs on Tunnel Road and Reed Road ahead for Hurley in the future, too.