By Chris Mahr
There’s always been a tight-knit relationship between the state of Connecticut and UConn’s men’s and women’s basketball programs.
With the state serving as a battleground between pro sports fans from Boston and New York, Huskies basketball has been something Nutmeg State residents could call their own. And proudly so, with a combined 10 national championships since 1995.
Twenty-six people, including 20 children between the ages of six and seven, lost their lives in last Friday’s Sand Hook Elementary School shootings. Think “Connecticut” and your mind will be challenged to contiguously associate it with something other than “Newtown” or “Sandy Hook Elementary” for the foreseeable future.
Connecticut’s citizens, particularly those from Newtown or nearby, will be grieving those deaths forever. What they could use, however, is something to rally around. Something to give them back pride in their home state like the New Orleans Saints did after Hurricane Katrina.
Basketball has served as such a totem before. And it can be so again. What’s more, the Huskies’ reaction to the tragedy shows that their relationship with local fans is a two-way street.
Both the men’s and women’s teams held pregame ceremonies this week to honor the fallen from Newtown. Green and white patches — matching Sandy Hook Elementary’s school colors — were attached to both team’s jerseys. To drive the point home, players like guard Ryan Boatright wrote “SH” on their faces.
UConn’s efforts to benefit the fallen and those associated with them extend off the court as well. The newly-created Sandy Hook School Memorial Scholarship Fund will provided financial aid for any students who currently attend Sandy Hook Elementary — as well as siblings of the 20 students killed in the assault and dependents of the six adults who lost their lives — that wish to attend UConn in the future.
The lead gift to the fund came from none other than women’s coach Geno Auriemma and his wife, Kathy, who made an $80,000 donation.
All signs point to both of UConn’s basketball teams playing their 2012–2013 seasons in memory of the Newtown tragedy. It’s reason enough for the locals to cheer even harder for the Huskies than they did before. It’s also reason for UConn to be every college basketball fan’s second favorite team this year.
More than perhaps any mass shooting since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, Sandy Hook has become a national issue. One that figures from the college basketball world haven’t shied away from discussing.
Rather than waxing poetic about his career following his 900th win on Monday, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim called for tighter restrictions on firearms. The following night, Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey talked about hugging his two daughters good night knowing that “there are 20 families in Newtown [sic] … with nobody laying in those beds.”
Rooting for UConn this season represents rooting for something that can help the people of that state — perhaps even the people of Newtown — overcome the “evil [that] visited this community” last week. Rooting for UConn means rooting for a program that is fully aware of what it represents to a reeling state and wants to do right by the faith that its citizens have put in it.
Folks from the Nutmeg State have previously experienced the joy of calling UConn basketball their own. This season, however, they surely wouldn’t mind sharing it with others if it means lifting the state from darkness.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.