“We shocked the world! We shocked the world!”
Khalid El-Amin’s iconic celebration after UConn beat Duke in the 1999 national championship game was completely spontaneous, but given how poetic it was, one could have easily been fooled. UConn had never once made it to the Final Four and lost in the NIT just two years prior.
But it was the perfect storm. UConn had played a lot of tough, close games, while Duke simply blew all their opponents out of the water. Though UConn was ranked No. 2 for most of the 1998-99 season and were a No. 1 seed in March, they were 9.5-point underdogs to a Duke team that many were ready to call the greatest ever. It was one of the best national championship games ever played.
The Blue Devils didn’t face adversity all season—the Huskies lived by it.
“We were the best team in the country. Duke was maybe the most talented, but not really because I count experience and toughness,” Jim Calhoun said before UConn’s game against Cincinnati on Sunday. “We had been in a lot of wars in the Big East to prepare ourselves for that final moment.”
And UConn still lives by that. Their defining trait, no matter how high in the AP poll they are, is their grittiness and toughness when they face conference rivals or blue blood programs. Sunday’s game was a big rivalry, sure, but judging by the number of people who stood up, cheered, bowed to and made signs for the 1999 team reunion, the 2019 game was an afterthought. They were keen on reliving 1999.
The 2019 UConn team put up a good fight, but ultimately fell to Cincinnati by four. Dan Hurley said postgame that they’re young and just aren’t used to a winning culture. When Hurley took over, his goal was simply to bring that championship culture back to Storrs. He recognizes the importance of the legacy Calhoun built.
When the final buzzer went off in Tampa, the world was indeed shocked. It was the start of UConn’s four championships in 15 years. It helped put UConn on map. But most importantly, it gave the people of Connecticut something to latch on to.
“We wanted to be a team that was never forgotten,” El-Amin said. “We did it for the fans. We did it for UConn. We didn’t do it for personal reasons, we did it because we understood the history of Connecticut, we understood the tough [Elite Eight] losses they had, all those great teams that didn’t have the opportunity to get to the Final Four. We were doing it for them.”
Twenty years, 40 years, 60 years will go by and people will still celebrate the team and its legacy. They serve as a reminder not only of what the UConn program did accomplish, but what it still can accomplish.
“I always tell people… UConn is Connecticut,” said Edmund Saunders, who scored four points off the bench in the title game. “We don’t have any sports teams overshadowing us. To where, say, if UMass is winning, they still have the Patriots that everybody loves more than basketball. Here in Connecticut, it’s just UConn basketball.”
The Whalers are not coming back anytime soon. The Patriots are long gone. But UConn basketball is staying, and people care about it, probably more than hockey or football. The state of Connecticut will forever be synonymous with its basketball legacy.
“Playing UConn basketball is like playing in the NBA. It’s the only show in town, us and the women,” said Rip Hamilton, who was the game MVP in 1999 and helped upset the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. “The fans are always into it. They love their team. They’ll be in snow, whatever, to get to the game. It was something I always said, ‘Hey, you know what, if I never get an opportunity to play in the NBA, playing here is like playing on a professional team.”
It can be hard to capture that magic when the men might be on their way to a third-straight losing season and the women haven’t been to a national championship since Breanna Stewart graduated. UConn is not averse to highs and lows in the program—from 1997 to 2006, the team was unstoppable. Then they hit a decline. Enter 2011 and 2014. Then a decline (albeit a sharp one).
But the crowd at XL on Sunday was loud because their team gave them a show. Their team showed them heart and hustle, two traits that are at the core of the UConn legacy.
Sure, the program is a long way away from being championship-caliber again. But if the 1999 team can remind us anything, it’s that as long as UConn is still playing basketball, Connecticut will care and Connecticut will find a way to prevail.