MEMPHIS—When Jalen Adams was taken out with 51 seconds left on the clock, the score didn’t matter. When the final buzzer sounded, the losing season didn’t matter. When he went down the line and hugged Kelvin Sampson, Dan Hurley and all his teammates, his career accomplishments didn’t matter.
All that mattered was that it was over. Not how it ended, not why it had to happen this way. All that mattered was that Jalen was receiving pure love—from his teammates, from his coaches, from the smattering of UConn fans in attendance. That love is something he’s never going to get again.
“It hits a soft spot in your heart, all the love that you see on your team is different from college basketball to the next level,” Adams said. “People will never have that same genuine love for you. I don’t know. I was just—I don’t know. I can’t tell you what I think. There is a lot. It’s feeling the love for my teammates.”
Adams’ eyes wouldn’t look anywhere but down in the postgame press conference. The whirlwind of thoughts going through his mind was palpable in every answer he gave. The mood in the locker room was somber after UConn was handed its worst conference tournament loss in history, an 84-45 beatdown at the hands of the Houston Cougars.
The loss showed that UConn still has a long way to go. Hurley’s goal is to get to the level where Houston is now—where UConn used to be. That’s going to be exponentially harder without Adams on the floor.
Adams arrived at UConn with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He leaves it as a player who teetered on the edge of UConn greatness, one who could never quite live up to the lofty expectations not because of talent, but because of the losing seasons, the transfers, the coaching change and the injuries.
“My heart kind of breaks for him because of the conditions that he’s had to play through,” Hurley said, getting a bit choked up. “There’s not many players of his caliber that have come to UConn that have had to play and go through the career under the conditions that he’s had, you know, the program sliding, coaching transition.
“Obviously, not being surrounded by what some of the great players in the past have been surrounded by, so—I don’t think a guy could have handled it much better. I don’t think somebody could have just kept such a positive attitude and have been such a good guy to be around while having everything around him kind of not be what he signed on for. I’ll always admire that about him.”
It’s not impossible to imagine a world where Adams’ UConn legacy is reduced to the 75-foot shot in Orlando. In many respects, that’s already what people do; it’s easy when he only made one NCAA tournament in his four-year career.
But Adams will finish 10th on the all-time UConn scoring list and second on the all-time conference scoring list with 1,706 points, five points away from breaking the record held by Rob Gray. He is the fourth player in American history to reach 500 assists. He played just about every conceivable minute last season when the UConn bench had the depth of a kiddie pool.
His basketball future is uncertain, but his tenacity and trust in the program will leave an indelible mark on every player in the program.
“Just to see one of my better friends, one of my best friends in college basketball and in life, just to go out like that, it kinda hurt,” Christian Vital said. “I know the time he puts in. I know the talent that he has. I know the expectations, especially as guards, coming to UConn. It just didn’t go the way he expected or I expected, so I just wish him the best and I know he’ll have a great professional career.”
Vital played with Adams through perhaps the steepest and most sudden decline in UConn basketball history. When Juwan Durham, Vance Jackson and Steven Enoch transferred, Adams stayed. When Kevin Ollie was fired, Adams stayed. When he missed seven games because of an MCL injury, Adams came back for the final regular season game and gave it everything he had with everything on the line.
He finished the Houston game with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, and finished the tournament with a total of 24 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in two games. But Adams isn’t going to write home about his numbers—he’s taking with him his growth and maturity.
“Coming in, I was a young child, an immature kid,” Adams said. “I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself, so many lessons. How to handle adversity when things aren’t going my way. I kind of have to go with it. You can’t get too high or get too low on yourself. You have to stay balanced and keep a level head. That’s really what I’ve learned from being here.”
For young guys like Josh Carlton, who will be key players in UConn’s quest to achieve greatness once again, Adams was central in moving the team along and helping them get better.
“Jalen meant a lot,” Josh Carlton said. “He’s going to be missed by everyone on the team, all of UConn. You hate to see a guy like that go out the way he did in this last game. You want to send him off better, but he meant a lot, coming in as a young guy, just helping everybody.”
Jalen Adams finished his UConn career with a myriad of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens on his conscience. But he leaves behind a legacy—not of championships, not of records, but of perseverance, loyalty and the mentality it takes to be a UConn great.
Stephanie Sheehan is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. She tweets @steph_sheehan.