Basketball Capital of
The World

By Tom Breen ’00 (CLAS) with CBS Sports' Jim Nantz
Photos by Austin Bigoney

An enthusiatic Andre Jackson Jr. during the end of the men's 2023 championship game

Andre Jackson Jr.

Connecticut is not a big state. Our population is less than half that of New York City, and our square mileage could comfortably fit inside some national parks — with plenty of room left over for Rhode Island.

When Connecticut residents travel overseas, we’re prone to offering a half-apologetic, “Between Boston and New York” when someone asks where we’re from, because why would anyone in Dublin or Tokyo or Lagos or Santiago or Jerusalem know where Connecticut is?

We’re not especially famous for the things that draw huge crowds of tourists: no colossal statues, no splendid ruins, not even a really big canyon. It’s honestly a little weird how much we go on about pizza. Decades ago, we were known for the things we made. Now the only traces of those things are the nicknames for towns where mills and factories once hummed with activity: Silk City, Thread City, Brass City, the Hat City of the World.

There is one thing we do have, though: college basketball.

Adama Sanogo and Jackson Jr. celebrate during the parade held in hartford in honor of the 2023 championship game

Adama Sanogo, Jackson Jr.

We showed off.
You showed up.

Over the last 35 years, we’ve been better at that, on both the women’s and men’s sides, than any other college or university in the country.

You know how many schools have men’s and women’s teams that have won championships in the same season? Just one. And we’ve done it twice (in 2004 and 2014).

Alex Karaban and AD David Benedict embrace after an emotional win

Alex Karaban and AD David Benedict.

In the winter of 1995, for the first time the UConn men’s and women’s teams were both ranked first in the national Associated Press poll. The Daily Campus ran a headline: THE BASKETBALL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. Of course it was half joking, the kind of self-deprecation Connecticut people deploy whenever it starts to feel like we should perhaps be proud of something. But it was four years after that headline that the men won their first national championship. The year after that, the women won their second. Over the next 20 years, they’d combine for another 12. This April made the grand total 16.

That matters to people here, because UConn’s success belongs to everyone in the state. We started as a farm school in an orphanage with fewer than a dozen students. The people of Connecticut built this place, over 140 years, into a great public university.

Donovan Clingan clings to the championship trophy during the plane ride home.

Donovan Clingan.

On the Sunday after the win over Miami in the Final Four this year, the priest at my parish in Manchester stood out front after Mass and said, “Have a blessed week and go Huskies!” to everyone. A waitress scrawled “GO HUSKIES” on my check at lunch, a silent fist-bump for the UConn hoodie I was wearing. People hung UConn flags on their houses and put new bumper stickers on their cars. Expat Nutmeggers in Georgia, California, Texas, and Japan messaged me with nervous excitement ahead of the championship game. When the team clinched the win that Monday night, a big party next door erupted in cheers. One of my neighbors drove up and down the street, honking his horn like a lunatic.

Connecticut people know a basketball game isn’t going to fix any of our problems. It won’t bring back the mills, it won’t make the cost of living cheaper, it won’t give us a really big canyon for tourists to visit.

Jordan Hawkins, Joey Calcaterra

Joey Calcaterra.

Even so, that week in April, strangers had something new to talk to each other about. People wore UConn gear to their jobs. No one was being self-deprecating. No one was apologizing for being from Connecticut.

And that weekend, on a perfect spring Saturday, tens of thousands of us gathered for a parade to cheer on the national champions. It didn’t take place “between Boston and New York.” It happened in the capital city of the state of Connecticut. You know: The Basketball Capital of the World.
—Tom Breen ’00 (CLAS)

We showed off.
You showed up.

Breen’s connection to UConn began when he was an infant, and his mother would bring him to campus while she took classes for a master’s degree, leaving him at the office of his father, who taught journalism from 1968 to 2004. As a student, he took classes with members of the men’s 1999 national championship team and the women’s 2000 national championship team; as an expat Nutmegger, he was almost thrown out of a bar on the night of the 2011 men’s championship for arguing with a group of Butler fans. He’s watched four women’s and two men’s teams win national titles since coming to work at University Communications.

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The morning of the championship game, Dan Hurley set his focus on the last cardboard trophy standing

Sights Set

The morning of the championship game, Dan Hurley set his focus on the last cardboard trophy standing. He’d had staff cart trophy facsimiles to and from arenas and practices all season long. Some transmuted to the real thing, others evaporated. Paper motivators.

“When you’re looking at that trophy, it’s like, ‘We could have the real one, not a picture of it,’” freshman center Donovan Clingan told reporter David Borges at the start of the Final Four.

Hurley also inspired his players by removing the previous four national championship trophies from team facilities, saying, “ …We don’t want any trophies in here until we’ve got our own.”

After the Huskies beat San Diego State 76-59 and Hurley, his staff, and team passed around the real thing, Hurley told the crowd, “We’ve been striving for five and now we’ve got one of our own.”

Coach Dan Hurley and Jordan Hawkins embrace moments after the big win

Coach Dan Hurley and Jordan Hawkins.

“We strived for five, and we got you that fifth. I promise you — just let us get a little bit of sleep — and we’ll start working on number six!”

CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz interviews the UConn men's basketball team and 2023 champions during the Final Four.

Nantz with the team after the championship win and his final tourney broadcast.

Five Shining Moments

CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz, a former Connecticut resident of 25 years, reflects on the 2023 champions, the legacy of the UConn program, and calling his last Final Four.

If there’s one thing that the 2023 national championship pushed through, it is the idea that UConn basketball needs to be considered as a blue blood and elite — and that is maybe not even putting enough superlatives behind it.

For whatever reason that I can’t explain, I don’t think UConn got its due for what it had accomplished since its first title in 1999. That’s why we tried to emphasize in our broadcast this year what the context of five national championships represents. It puts UConn on an even level with Duke. People don’t say Duke and UConn in the same sentence often enough, but they really need to now.

In this age of college basketball where the sport is more transient than ever, it’s hard to form a nucleus. Dan Hurley was able to get this team to come together and jell to a level that would have been competitive in many past years, maybe even decades.

It was an extremely well-coached basketball team with interchangeable parts. The guys that came off the bench were impressive and to see the perimeter passing game of the first five — everything was snappy, it was a clinic.
You don’t have teams today in college basketball that you can compare to the past, but this one you could.

Jim Calhoun built UConn into a national powerhouse and to have three-straight coaching administrations win national championships, including three by the father of the dynasty, is a pretty amazing achievement.

I got to see it start from scratch, rise to the top in 1999, and see it repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat one more time. I didn’t really put it into context until it was all over, but I called the NCAA tournament for 32 years, and UConn won five of those championships. As a resident of Connecticut for 25 years, it was fitting that I had a front row seat for all that success.

There is nothing I like more than a good story to tell — and documenting about good people.

That is what UConn has given me. They have given me the perfect canvas to try to put into words what excellence represents in college basketball. It was an honor to see all of it unfold and it was a privilege to be able to see UConn win their latest championship in the last basketball game I will ever call. —As told to Mike Enright ’88 (CLAS)

“People don’t say Duke and UConn in the same sentence often enough, but they need to now.


Turning Point
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The 6th Borough
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  1. Well written articles without “Brago” but fact filled. It is always exciting to watch successes build and the fact that Ct. folks can gather around a sport and a university that is successful
    in sports and academically ranked as a public educational university, as well.

    It is only sad that gals had such injury prone experiences all year. Surely, both teams would have been champions again and at the same year.

  2. Thank you for the article on UConn basketball success.
    It brought back great memories of UConn’s first trip to the NCAA Elite Eight in 1964. Dom Perno stole the ball from Bill Bradley in the final seconds to assure UConn’s quarterfinal victory over Princeton. I was honored to be the CDC sports editor in 1964 with excellent support from Ira Loss, Louie Matsikas, Charlie Lipson, and Bill Rhein.

  3. Excellent article. Some will think that there are some academic programs which should have similar excitement but that is not how the world is. I remember some critiquing the Hartford parade for the team but then Uconn President Harry Hartley said that when there is a parade for the Physics (I think) Department he would join that one also. A happy occasion.

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