Time, no matter how long or short, explicitly or otherwise, inflicts change. People grow and society evolves with each lap around the sun our planet completes. For 30 of those revolutions now, Harry A. Gampel Pavilion has stood up to humanity’s greatest test.
Gampel’s silver dome quickly became a staple of the Storrs scenery when it opened in January of 1990. Like most of today’s stars, Gampel has had some touch ups to stay contemporary, like the added seats in 1996, the new scoreboards in 1999 and the 2017 “nose job” when all 2,200 roof panels were repaired. But its charm and memories made there have never wavered.
“I will never forget that game because everyone was anticipating that building opening up,” John Gwynn, a member of the 1989-90 team, said. “In those days, there weren’t these big, fancy buildings going up and they picked us as last in the Big East conference. And that bothered us. We knew we had one of the best teams in the country. I knew it, you guys knew it, everybody knew it and that stage allowed us to prove we had one of the best teams.”
Gwynn and his teammates were the first players to take the floor in Gampel when they matched up with No. 15 St. John’s on Jan. 27, 1990. The Huskies, who were amidst a six-game winning streak, put together a 14-point win over their Big East rival in front of double the fans they were accustomed to on campus.
“Most of our big games we played in Hartford,” Chris Smith, the program’s all-time leading scorer, explained. “But just being on campus and allowing the fans to really come to the games, the kids that are on campus to come to the games and make it a little crazy, that’s good for us because they’re sitting right on top of you. It’s loud. It just builds excitement.”
UConn would go on to win three more in a row to cap the streak at 10 before eventually compiling the first 30-win season in program history. Deemed the “Dream Season,” the 1989-90 Huskies were the first to win the Big East regular season title, the Big East tournament and the first to reach the Elite Eight before losing to Christian Laettner and the Duke Blue Devils.
“This 90s team is kind of the team that started it all,” Rod Sellers, who scored the first-ever point in Gampel, said. “We’re proud of ourselves. We’re proud of what we’ve done.”
The historic group of Huskies reconvened in Storrs for Sunday afternoon’s game against Cincinnati. Now nearing their half-century birthdays, they spent time catching up, exchanging gifts and reliving memories of yesteryear before being honored on their home floor during halftime.
“30 years ago, these are the guys that got the whole thing started,” Jim Calhoun said when he addressed the 9,409 in attendance at halftime. “They believed in each other, they believed in the coaching staff, but they really believed in UConn.”
The 2019-20 Huskies believed in themselves yesterday, beating the Bearcats 72-71 in overtime. James Bouknight, who led the team with 23 points, brought the crowd to its feet on more than one occasion, reminiscent of Gampel’s inaugural game.
“Just the energy the fans brought,” Scott Burrell said of that first night in Gampel. “The electricity in the crowd. You got goosebumps playing in that building that night.”
There’s a stark difference, however, between the accomplishments of the Dream Season and Year Two of Dan Hurley’s rebuild. Outside of playing in a new conference, these Huskies are not going to win 30 games and, at the moment, are not poised for a tournament run, but the older generation still has hope.
“They’re having a tough time,” Smith said. “I think they’re going to get better. They play hard every minute of the game. They hustle, defense is really really good.”
Therein lies the connection between Day One of Gampel Pavilion and Year 30: The defense.
“Our team was defense,” Smith added. “We were long. We had 6-foot-4, 6-foot-8, 6-foot-7, we had big guys out there, but we took pride in playing defense and that’s how we scored. Just a lot of grit and toughness.”
Grit and toughness, two pillars of Hurley’s regime, have been staples of UConn basketball for 30 years. In that time, UConn has won its conference tournament 10 times, went to five Final Fours and won four national titles. The last championship came in 2014 and the team has not been back to the NCAA tournament since 2016, but the newest edition of Huskies is beginning to turn the page.
“It’s great that at this point in the season everyone wanted to come in here and have a great UConn basketball day with those former guys in here,” Hurley said. “We needed to step up today with an amazing crowd and those amazing Huskies that got this thing started here. I think that it was fitting that they were in the building here because you have another group of Huskies on the court, young Huskies, and older Huskies, to start this next era that will hopefully yield a lot of the same.”
Calhoun, who was at the helm of the program for three titles, had a simple message for the UConn faithful.
“Keep the faith because we’ll be back again.”
Thumbnail photo courtesy of UConn men’s basketball instagram @UConnMBB