Aug. 3, 2012
Editor's Note: The Mohegan Sun/Jim Calhoun Charity All-Star Basketball Game will take place on Saturday, August 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Proceeds from the game and the entire Mohegan Sun/Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic will benefit the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center at the UConn Health Center. Since 1999, the Mohegan Sun / Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic has raised more than $6 million for cardiology research and care at the UConn Health Center's Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center. Tickets are $12 to $25 and are now on at the Mohegan Sun Arena Box Office. To purchase game tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800.345.7000, go to Ticketmaster.com, or visit the Mohegan Sun Box Office.
By Phil Chardis
Assistant Director-Athletic Communications
Has there ever been a college basketball player who didn't start playing simply for the fun of the game? Probably not. The competitiveness, the intensity, the athleticism, and the camaraderie all become part of the joy that begins simply by watching the ball leave your hand on its way to dropping through an orange ring placed 10 feet off the ground.
For those who play the game at its highest level, however, some of the fun is inevitably lost. Sure, the NBA is still basketball --- two teams featuring players performing with the highest skill set in the world. But with exorbitant contracts, multi-year deals, salary caps, roster restrictions, and franchise requirements, not to mention coaches, general managers, and owners expecting certain levels of production in relation for the amount of money paid, basketball in the NBA is first and foremost a business.
Still, a place in the league is the dream of every college player and should be. But what if there was a way for the NBA players to go back to the fun of playing college basketball, even if it was for just one night?
Welcome to the Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic Charity All-Star Game.
This year, for the sixth time --- every other summer since 2002 --- alumni of Calhoun's 26 University of Connecticut basketball teams will gather at the Mohegan Sun Arena to play what has become a highly-anticipated event among the citizens of UConn Nation. The players come to help raise money for a most worthy cause (more than $3 million so far), cardiology disease research at the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center at the UConn Health Center. They come to renew old acquaintances, rekindle friendships, and reconnect with their UConn family.
They come out of loyalty of Calhoun.
They come to repay the Husky fans for their rabid support throughout the years.
And they come to remind themselves how much fun it was playing college basketball.
"It's not as if these kids, who are making a great deal on money and are having terrific careers and setting themselves up for the rest of their lives are not going through a great experience," Calhoun said. "But conversely, it does turn basketball into a business. So when they come back to play in the game, it brings them back to a time when they played for UConn, when they played for their teammates, when they played for a lot of the things we hope they are playing for.
"I've said this to a lot of folks --- I think people have this misnomer about big-time athletics. Even though big-time college athletics are big time, come into my locker room after a defeat, or after a great win, after a championship win, and the emotion is just unbelievable."
Perhaps none of Calhoun's players experienced a more rapid --- or more harsh --- transition from the fun of college basketball to the business of the NBA than Kemba Walker. The former UConn All-American put together arguably the finest single season in Husky history in 2010-11, including Outstanding Player awards in both the BIG EAST Tournament and the NCAA Final Four as he led UConn's glorious 11-game postseason run to championships in both. As a rookie last year with the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, however, Walker's team won only seven games for the entire season.
"Of course, it's a business and it's really about business, so it gets a little different," Walker said. "When you're in college, you're just playing --- playing for your school, for your coach, for your teammates, and it gets intense. But when we get to the pros, we get paid for what we do.
"In college, you have one team, all your same teammates, for at least one year, but in the NBA, you never know who is going to be on your team the next game --- guys get traded, guys come from free agency, guys come up from the D League. It really is about business."
Suffice it to say, Walker is looking forward to having a night of basketball fun as much as any of the alumni.
"Coach's game kind of gets us back in college for a little while," he said. "Just seeing the UConn fans there, and how much love and respect they give us during that day. Seeing all your friends, it's exciting. I've been away for some time and I miss it a lot. So to come back and be able to see Coach and all the other coaches too, it's great."
Rudy Gay (UConn, 2004-06), one of the brightest young stars in the NBA, has just completed his sixth year in the league, playing for the Memphis Grizzlies. Basketball may be his profession now, but he still loves the chance to have a good time on the court.
"When you come back to play in Coach's game, it does bring the fun part back into it," Gay said. "You get to see all your old teammates, talk to them, joke with them. I mean, we get to see each other during the NBA season, but it's not the same. At Coach's game, we talk about our college teams and what we did, and we talk about how Coach yelled at each and every one of us."
Calhoun said he knows where he can usually find his former players during the Classic weekend.
"It always starts out somewhere at 2 or 3 in the morning, you'll find the guys someplace, reminiscing, telling stories, telling lies, doing all the things you do when you haven't seen someone in a long period of time," the UConn coach said. "Believe me, a lot of the talk isn't about what's happening now, it's about what went on then."
UConn assistant coach Kevin Ollie, two years removed from his 13-year NBA career, who always generously appeared at the Charity All-Star Game, has a unique perspective on the event.
"Yes, you're in the NBA, but you don't want to just chase that treasure, you want to chase what's in your heart, and that's your passion, your priorities," Ollie said. "Coming back to Coach Calhoun's game, the big thing is being around your teammates. It's so much fun to see everybody come together, telling stories that get blown out of proportion. We all have a common denominator, and that's Coach."
Gay proved how much it means to him to play in the game two years ago, when his new NBA contract had not quite been finalized, putting the cost of an injury at roughly $84 million. It still wasn't enough for Gay to miss the chance of playing for fun again. Thankfully for all concerned, he came through in perfect shape.
"I've just got so much respect for Coach, and I just wanted to be part of it so bad, that I just had to play," Gay said. "You know, the year I signed with UConn and I was going to my first summer school was one of the years they played the game. Rip (Hamilton) and Ray (Allen) both came back and played and it was just crazy to me --- I didn't realize how many guys respected Coach like they did. I mean, these guys were NBA All-Stars.
"Everybody tries to come back and everybody finds so much joy in playing. I remember thinking, `Wow, maybe next time, I could be playing in this game.' "
Walker saw only one Charity All-Star Classic, in 2010 before his dazzling junior year at UConn, and it left an impression. "I remember thinking, `This is great," and how much I wanted to play," Walker said. "Now, it's my chance to finally be a part of it."
Calhoun isn't at all surprised about the strong desire to be part of the fun.
"This is for UConn, for your teammates, for the coaching staff, for guys you became very close to," Calhoun said. "I don't think people fully understand --- the old `boys to men' cliché is very apropos here. We tell the kids, for almost everybody who's left here, `This will always be home to come back to,' and it's really true. So when we have a game that gets them together, it fills a void that I need, they need, all the coaches need --- it's just a special time for all of us."
Ollie said the Calhoun bond strongly runs through every player at the Charity All-Star Game.
"A lot of guys come back because of what Coach meant to them," Ollie said. "Like the prodigal sons who leave home and do whatever they do ... they always have to come back home. No matter what he's done after UConn, good or bad, he always has a father figure to come back to, who will embrace him and forget whatever he's done, and truly love him unconditionally. That's been a major factor in my life and probably all the guys who come back, NBA or not NBA."
The vibe coming from the action on the court in Calhoun's game is a whole lot different than from an NBA game. It's hard not to smile while watching how much the players are enjoying themselves, while still trying to show off just a little bit.
"You can see the joy on their faces when they're playing --- even at the end, when sometimes it gets serious and someone is really trying to win," Calhoun said. "It's a joy for me, watching them play, going into the locker rooms and seeing them before or after. There are very few kids who have ever showed up and haven't said how much they miss being at UConn --- they even surprise themselves as to how much they miss it."
The UConn players in the NBA see each other during the season, of course, and never fail to acknowledge the connection.
"It's like a brotherhood --- we always talk," Gay said. "Even if we didn't play on the same UConn teams, we all have that in common and it's really a family feeling. We really do root for each other."
Walker added that there is not only a strong bond between UConn players, but also between the former Huskies and the UConn fans.
"It's just so much fun for all of us to be back and to give the fans a good night of basketball," he said. "The fans make the game the best. It's not surprising that they come out for Coach's game. They enjoyed watching us play while we were at UConn, so I'm sure they are looking forward to seeing us now that we've improved and see others of us who have just gotten older.
"This is definitely something enjoyable, something we look forward to. The NBA is our job, this game is our family."
Obviously, UConn players have enjoyed tremendous accomplishments over the past two decades, but the level of success achieved by individual Husky teams matters little when the group gathers for the Charity All-Star Game.
"Nobody ever just walked through here," Calhoun said. "Everybody always ran and there's a lot of molding and melding together. Did every team always come together the way I wanted? Of course not, but generally speaking, everybody kind of went through similar experiences here and I think that's very important. The game has been just great for everybody and I expect it to go on for as long as we can put it together."
Or, until it is no longer fun. But, as a long list of NBA players will tell you, that simply isn't possible.