Sad news today for college basketball fans. After three previous bouts with cancer, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun announced that he will take a medical leave of absence.
Despite the fact that Calhoun might have cost me the biggest break of my writing career, I still love the guy. He's scary as shit, but a real class act.
I met the UConn coach at the Division II championship game in Springfield, Massachusetts in March of 2007. I smelled like an airplane bathroom and cat food. The night before, I had slept in the back of a rented Mustang on Main Street of downtown Springfield and was in awful shape when I showed up at the MassMutual Center to watch the faith-based underdog Barton College face off against the Minnesota juggernaut Winona State, a team that entered the game reigning champions on a 57 game win streak.
At this juncture in my college basketball road trip, which consisted of blogging 100 college hoops games in 100 days, my partner and I were pretty sick of each other. So, after partaking fully in the pregame media meal, I went off on my own to find a seat at the scorer's table.
And who did I see sitting not six feet from each other? Manute Bol and Jim Calhoun. Now I'm a Washingtonian who grew up loving the Bullets, so seeing Bol in the flesh was pretty awesome and I went for his interview first. That didn't go so well. Rheumatism and the effects of a bad car accident had hobbled the seven-foot-seven Sudanese stud, and his accent and soft demeanor made conversation nearly impossible. (In the pic below, guess which one I am...)
Calhoun watched in amusement as I doggedly stuck with this awful interview and when I was done, he graciously granted me five minutes of his time. Now anyone that has seen Calhoun deal with the tenacious mob of reporters at the Hartford Civic Center knows that he has the capability of cutting a man down to size with his sharp tongue. (Evidence below.)
On top of that, an argument over Calhoun's reputation with a good family friend who happens to be a high-powered literary agent cost me a chance to get a juicy book deal. I won't lie, there was a part of me that hated Calhoun for a long time due to this missed opportunity, as well as UConn's victory over Duke in the 1999 NCAA Championship.
But the one-time grave digger was honest and patient and funny. After telling me how shitty I looked, Calhoun said he enjoyed the DII basketball:
Then we sat down and watched one of the best college basketball games I've ever seen as Barton point guard Anthony Atkinson scored ten points in the last 45 seconds, including a buzzer beating lay up to lead the Bulldogs to a title.
"I played Division II basketball for AIC (American International
College). Played against Frazier and Sloan. I'm also here for the
quality of basketball. Both teams really execute well. To some degree
this basketball is more pure because kids aren't thinking about going
to the next level. And it's very entertaining. I'm not rooting for
either team, I'm just here to watch the basketball."
So now, whenever I think of cranky Calhoun, I remember a pleasant interview, a miraculous championship contest and the potent smell of body odor, all of which make me want to see the guy back on the bench in Storrs soon.
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