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Viewpoint ‘Shocking’ win remains a shining moment for state

February 25, 2019

HARTFORD — Khalid El-Amin swears it wasn’t planned. No, he hadn’t scripted the signature moment in state athletic history.

Yet was anybody surprised when the final buzzer sounded in St. Petersburg — when the final score read UConn 77, Duke 74 — that El-Amin charged the CBS cameras and began screaming, “We shocked the world!”

“Not at all,” Jake Voskuhl said Sunday before UConn nearly — but didn’t — shock Cincinnati at the XL Center. “C’mon, he’s crazy. Khalid is freaking crazy. He always has been crazy.”

No, El-Amin hadn’t sat in his hotel room between games of the 1999 Final Four conjuring dramatic ways to celebrate the stunning upset of a Duke team about to be anointed one of the best in college basketball history. No, the Round Ball of Joy hadn’t stood in the locker room at Tropicana Field, contorting his face in the mirror, practicing like a young Ali, to forever etch himself in Connecticut history.

“It seems like I did that, that I wanted to do that,” El-Amin said. “But it was just the adrenalin rush. It just happened.”

It just happened. El-Amin’s spontaneity gave birth to an athletic celebration the state had never seen before or since. A celebration matched only by the end of World War II. Jim Calhoun talked about former Gov. Rowland and thousands awaiting the team at Bradley Airport and how crazed fans lined I-84 and I-95, and how it felt like the bus was floating.

“Even now I get goose bumps,” Calhoun said. “My biggest fear when I came to Connecticut (in 1986) was do they still care here? They cared. The state came together. It gave everyone hope.”

Everything about it, from the monstrous television ratings to stories of generational family loyalty rewarded in religious ways, sprang from El-Amin’s run toward broadcasters Jim Nantz and Billy Packer and screaming those unforgettable words.

Yes, they shocked the world. And hadn’t shocked themselves.

Even now, as they came together this weekend to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first of four UConn national championships, they would pay tribute to Duke individually but to themselves collectively. Even now, as they celebrated at a downtown hotel until 4 o’clock in the morning, there was no budging from that point. Duke had a handful of first-round NBA draft picks. UConn has the 1999 national championship trophy and Hamilton carried it out at halftime, decorated by the Tropicana net, for everyone to see.

You just knew when the 1999 video of “One Shining Moment” was played, the nearly 12,000 fans would boo when Mike Krzyzewski appeared. That’s the beauty of competition. You need a rival. And Duke with that team of Elton Brand of the rest, Duke with a history of Christian Laettner, was the perfect foil.

“No one thought we were going to win,” Voskuhl said. “Duke was the more talented basketball team. I don’t think anyone would argue that. We were a better team. If you remember that year we won a lot of close games and they kind of blew everyone out. Mentally we were a tougher team. We were freaking tough.”

“We were the best team in the country,” Calhoun said. “Maybe Duke was the most talented, but not really, because I count experience and toughness. We had been in a lot of wars in the Big East to prepare ourselves for that final moment.”

Calhoun had as good a defensive guard as there was in Ricky Moore, as tough a kid as he ever had in Kevin Freeman, a guy who set screens better than anyone in Voskuhl, a selfless player who surrendered a starting spot in Rashamel Jones. They had the joyful, crazy leader in Khalid, a guard who Calhoun still marvels had the moxie as a freshman to make sides in pickup games. And they had the dead-eye scorer in Richard Hamilton.

“Everyone,” Calhoun said, “accepted who they were.”

The rest was the famous chip on Calhoun’s shoulder. Duke wasn’t on the floor at the assigned workout time the day before the championship game and Calhoun told his team Coach K’s team didn’t think they had to practice. A fib, he said, would not get in the way of his motivation. In his scouting report, Tom Moore had gone over Elton Brand and Duke’s talent and Calhoun told his team, “Apparently our assistant coach thinks they’re better than us … yeah, I threw Tommy under the bus. We used every trick we possibly could to have them believe they were the better.

“I’m telling you what, if we had lost that game, to this day our guys would still believe they were the better team.”

As spontaneous as El-Amin’s celebration was, the preparation was as nuanced and planned as anything in UConn history. Calhoun began prepping for Duke months earlier, making notes on blue file cards. This group had forged an identity through a 1997 NIT run and a 1998 Elite Eight run that ended with a “neutral-site” loss to North Carolina in Greensboro. El-Amin’s mom climbed on the bus after the loss to Vince Carter to guarantee Calhoun her son would return. They grew together through a summer trip to England and Israel. And became whole when Hamilton decided not to leave for the NBA.

How close was he to leaving after his sophomore year?

“Real close,” Hamilton said. “Me and Kevin, my best friend, talked about it. I talked with my parents. I sat down with coach. I had been dodging him. I knew if anybody could convince me stay it was going to be him.”

At their meeting, Calhoun had all the NBA draft dynamics broken down for Rip. He also went over what could happen if he returned.

“One of the things he promised me and I didn’t believe it myself was we’d win a national championship — we did,” said Hamilton, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. “I turned from a boy into a man here.”

So they all — save Moore, still stinging from his firing from Kevin Ollie’s staff — flew in for this 20th anniversary. El-Amin from Minneapolis. Voskuhl from Houston. Freeman, an assistant at Penn State, arrived after a victory at Illinois on Saturday. They hung to the wee hours.

“Telling tall tales about coach Calhoun,” Freeman said. “Twenty years ago and it seems like yesterday. We were a really confident team. We didn’t feel we could lose. We watched the Bulls, we watched the Bulls, we watched the Bulls, that was our team. We took from them some of the arrogance.”

“We had been through hell the previous two years,” Voskuhl said. “Coach murdered us in practice tons of times. There were times when guys wanted to leave and transfer. We were all able to stay together and keep it together and the championship came out of it.”

The rest was left to El-Amin and his unforgettable spontaneous, shining moment.

“Khalid running around shouting, ‘We shocked the world!,’” Hamilton said. “That’s the moment that will always stick inside my head.

“Surprised he did it? Not all. C’mon, we saw Khalid jump on the scorer’s table after he hit the buzzer beater at Pitt. Kahlid is Khalid.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123