This week, Daily Campus Sports is celebrating both the highs and the lows of invested fandom with a series of personal articles telling the stories of our sports memories. This is Fandom Week.
I was in a bad place on March 31, 2014.
Significant problems in my personal life were exacerbating the biggest decision of my life so far: the college I would attend. I came home from school each day, laid down on the floor and lost myself in my thoughts. Those were generally a messy jumble of confusion and self-loathing.
Sports helped. My beloved Brooklyn Nets, left for dead after a December injury to Brook Lopez, had lurched back to life and looked ready for a decent playoff run. The 2014 FIFA World Cup sat on the horizon. And March Madness was in full swing, highlighted by a delightful Duke upset to Mercer. Even back then, I understood the evil of Duke.
As a kid that started following sports full-time in 2005, growing up on a heavy diet of ESPN, my knowledge of UConn began and ended with Kemba Walker. The stepback shot at the Garden, the ensuing tournament run and the leap into the No. 9 draft slot. No other college player, in my conscious lifetime as a sports fan, had dominated a collegiate postseason more thoroughly. As for the school itself, I knew it was up there in Connecticut somewhere.
But I also knew that UConn consistently overachieved in March, and that Villanova, the No. 2 seed lying in wait in the Round of 32 in the East Regional, was known for doing the opposite. I picked the Huskies to beat the Wildcats in my bracket, hoping to make a quick buck but also showing moral support for a school that sent me an acceptance letter.
I also visited the main UConn campus the previous winter, but these two pieces of information are only tangentially related. It was a bitter, rainy day when I took a Storrs tour, and while I still came away quite impressed, I wasn’t blown away. There were nicer campuses.
These campuses didn’t have basketball teams that beat St. Joseph’s, and then Villanova, and then Iowa State to advance to the Elite Eight.
Through each of these games, my rooting interest grew and my desire to attend UConn grew as well. They say that correlation does not imply causation, but not in this case.
Another day, another unlikely win. As I felt like the underdog in my own life, the underdog in navy blue continued to bring down favored schools.
My mood did not improve. It felt like no one was on my side but my parents and my sports teams. Writing this three-and-a-half years later, it is unclear if that was the truth. I was young, immature and immensely stressed out.
On that final day of March, UConn took on Michigan State in the Elite Eight at Madison Square Garden. The Spartans were only a 4-seed, but as a popular pick to make a run, their success wasn’t surprising anyone. They would pose the largest challenge yet for the Huskies, and if UConn was able to prevail, larger titans awaited in the Final Four.
That night, the Huskies played in the same inspiring manner they had used to make it so far. Shabazz Napier hit one gutsy shot after another. The defense was stifling, although Gary Harris had a good night. UConn went 21-for-22 from the free throw line.
UConn won, 60-54. I told my parents the next night at dinner that I wanted to attend UConn.
Winning the game was great, but the reason I ultimately made the decision was a little different. I’ve always been a massive fan of Madison Square Garden, even as a professed Knicks hater. The environment is magical, and when the Knicks are even on the cusp of relevance, the Garden is one of the best crowds in sports.
Hearing the UConn faithful take over MSG and rain down chants from the upper deck, I was transfixed. In the back of my mind, there was a need to be part of a large, passionate collegiate fan base. I didn’t know it until UConn beat Michigan State that night.
My school would be my next community. I hoped that I would become very close to the people I met there, washing away the social pains of toxic high school experiences. I wanted those new people to be united towards one cause, and I couldn’t think of many better causes than a fun, overlooked sports team. I cover that sports team now, which changes things, but I was still lucky enough to be on campus for a seminal moment: the Jalen Adams shot.
That next weekend, now in April, I sat down to watch UConn play Florida in the Final Four. My mood hadn’t improved, but I now had peace of mind.
The Gators jumped out to an early lead. Never for a minute did I doubt the Huskies’ ability to come back.