When the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball team plays in the national championship game Monday night, it will mark their fourth title game appearance since 1999. UConn has never lost in the title game, and the Huskies have appeared in one other Final Four, in 2009. The women’s team has been even more dominant. If Geno Auriemma’s team beats Notre Dame Tuesday night it will be UConn’s 9th national championship.
Without question, UConn has had the best recent run of success of any New England school, but when it comes to rooting for them in Boston, UConn fans are on an island.
I grew up in Connecticut (cue the “You’re not from heeyah’’ e-mails), and one of my lasting childhood memories is going to a Red Sox game with my dad and hearing someone yell, “Go back to Connecticut’’ when a couple of Sox fans put on their jackets to leave a game early. I grew up in South Windsor, Conn., closer to Boston than New York, and I was always a Red Sox fan. I loved Nomar and hated Jeter, which as a middle-schooler in central Connecticut provided hours of debate with classmates who were Yankees fans.
Not that anyone in Connecticut needs to be reminded, but since the departure of the Hartford Whalers to Carolina in 1997, the state has been without a professional sports franchise. Due in part to this fact and in part to successful programs built by Jim Calhoun and Auriemma, UConn basketball has an outsized importance in the state. There are Yankees fans, Sox fans, Patriots fans, and Giants fans in Connecticut, but everybody roots for UConn. And so it came as a surprise when I moved to Boston 10 years ago that no one rooted for a particular college team.
In 10 years of working at Boston.com, one thing that has become abundantly clear is that any story on the big four teams will draw more web traffic than any story on a college team. A story on the Sox signing a journeyman infielder will literally quadruple a story on BC Hockey winning the Frozen Four. Boston is partially defined by the colleges contained within, but many of the students are from elsewhere. They come, they watch the Sox, buy the hat, and maybe even get their first jobs here, but four or six years later they go back home and root for Ohio State or Florida or whoever they liked before.
The two local basketball programs with the greatest chance of being popular are Boston College and UMass, but neither program has strung together a run of success to make them interesting in the long term nationally. You simply don’t run into a lot of BC hoops fans in the city, and UMass fans are almost always alumni.
All of this brings us back to the original question: Why not root for UConn? College basketball might not be as popular here as it is elsewhere, but everybody likes the NCAA Tournament. Why isn’t anyone in Boston rallying around the UConn to beat Kentucky, a team which has as much appeal as rooting for Walmart?
I refuse to buy the Big East rivalry argument. As a young fan I glued myself to the TV for those old UConn-BC matchups at Conte Forum, gritting my teeth against the impenetrable force that was Eagles center Billy Curley. But BC left the Big East in 2003. Providence, who was always willing to play UConn’s foil in the regular season, never matched that success in the postseason. Neither team seems popular enough here now to warrant what I sometimes believe is an actual rooting interest against UConn.
Geography is obviously one reason Bostonians don’t root for Connecticut, but many Bostonians would be surprised to learn that the campus of UMass Amherst is some 91.7 miles away from Boston, while UConn is 83.4 miles away. The Connecticut “stigma’’ is another. Bostonians are loyal, which is one reason they’re some of the best fans in all of sports. They can also be insular. Connecticut smells too much like New York despite being right next door.
Calhoun, UConn’s longtime coach, was from Braintree. Current UConn point guard Shabazz Napier, who was a first-team All-American this season, is from Roxbury. Last week on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Michael Felger asked fellow host Marc Bertrand why UMass and BC didn’t recruit kids like Napier. To his credit, Bertrand, a UMass guy, responded, “Why would any of these kids go to UMass or BC? They’re not at the same level as UConn.’’
He’s right, of course. For close to two decades UConn has been putting out the best basketball team in New England, sending players like Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, and Andre Drummond to the NBA while competing for and winning national championships. No Massachusetts team has come close to matching that success. And yet in spite of that success, most Boston fans have chosen to sit the sport out entirely or root passively for one of the local teams. Maybe it would be unfair to claim them, but Boston fans have every right to back another winner.