UConn Final Four fervor

On any other college campus, Chris Ambler probably wouldn't be a basketball fan. The biomedical engineering major strolls through the cafeteria here in a deerstalker-Sherlock Holmes hat. He uses his umbrella as a walking stick, thoughtfully pacing himself as though he were mulling over the clues left from a stolen plate of turkey tetrazzini.

The senior from Meriden is more gentleman than jock. But here at the University of Connecticut, where the men's and women's basketball programs make both frat parties and Shakespeare look like dull affairs, Mr. Ambler quite naturally describes himself as "a big fan."

While Ambler is turned off by the "theatrics and showboating" of the men's team (1999 NCAA champions), the "team play and strategy" of the women's squad (four championships in nine years) suit him perfectly.

From maintenance workers to English-department deconstructionists, most everyone on this campus and, indeed, in the state, is an ardent supporter of one of these two very different and dominant teams. Each will play this weekend in their league's Final Four tournament - only the fifth time one school has participated in both events.

The nearly universal UConn fandom here might best be explained by the two teams' unique nature. For those turned off by one team's bravado, the other squad offers the epitome of selflessness. The result is an intensity for basketball rarely seen outside of Bronx playgrounds and Indiana corn fields.

"There are no professional teams in the state of Connecticut, so basketball at the university has become a cult phenomenon," says Judy Preston, coordinator of student activities at UConn.

The icons of both teams are their coaches, Jim Calhoun and Gino Auriemma. As they walk across campus - a rolling landscape part filled with red-brick lecture halls and dorms, part covered by pasture held by the agriculture school - they give off the aura of Founding Fathers, like Adams and Madison striding through Colonial Philadelphia.

In a state where "shooting" traditionally meant sending a puck toward a hockey net, Mr. Calhoun turned an average men's program into a national powerhouse when he arrived 17 years ago. His teams have reached the tournament's "Sweet 16" 10 times the past 15 years.

In terms of putting shots in the basket, this year's group is more accurate with three-point shots than most people are with crumpled paper. Junior Emeka Okafor grabs rebounds and blocks shots like a man more accustomed to being off the ground than on it.

It is this raw athleticism and flashy play that seems to attract most fans.

"The fast pace and tough play is what I'm into," says sophomore Mike O'Shea, who camped out for seven hours in temperatures of 10 degrees below zero for tickets to a recent home game.

The intensity of the men's games is mirrored by the fans who show up. Consider "Big Red," a large red-headed man with pinkish skin who has become the team's unofficial mascot because of his tendency to rip off his shirt and stir up the crowd.

"The men's fans are more die-hard," says Carlos Orozco, a fifth-year student who plays percussion at games. "Well, at least they're more rude die-hard."

The contrast with the women's team's fans could not be more stark. "The women are much more oriented toward young girls and the older crowd," says Mr. Orozco, who works at the Husky Bean Cafe, where talk of UConn basketball comes with most every latte and cinnamon strudel.

Grandma and youngster fan base

The women's team has a devoted following of male fans, yet the volume of female fans is unique in American sports. "My 86-year-old mother is a fan, my 33-year-old daughter is a fan, the little girls in our Sunday school watch them," says Nessa Church, a disc jockey in South Windham.

Senior citizens have adopted the women's team as their own, placing as high a value on their season tickets as on a Fort Lauderdale time share or a free second cup of coffee.

"I've never been a basketball fan, but boy, they sparked something in me," says Pat Cornell, a librarian in neighboring Mansfield.

It is possible that only the UConn women's basketball team could turn a Connecticut librarian into a raving hoops fan once a week every winter. The team is one of the most successful in the history of collegiate sports.

Coach Auriemma has won four national championships in 18 years, including a streak of 70 games without a loss. Lead by senior guard Diana Taurasi, who scores seemingly at will, and passes better than she scores, the team this year is loaded with offensive power and maturity.

But when they talk about the team, fans more often emphasize what it's not: "not flashy," "not selfish" - and not heading toward a lucrative professional contract.

If half the men's team can dunk, everyone on the women's team can play defense. If a handful of men's players will go to the pro's, all of the women players will graduate.

Players who can pass, and graduate, too

This goody-goody reputation might normally seem at odds with the identity of a highly competitive and cutthroat sports program. Yet it might be the perfect balance to attract the students, staff, and families who might otherwise be turned off by big-time college athletics.

This weekend, both Huskey squads will be carrying with them the hopes of jocks and intellectuals, the young and the aged. With UConn basketball sitting at the heart of Connecticut culture, most everyone here know what's at stake. Ms. Church even got a message from the pulpit.

"The Monsignor said, 'You're not supposed to pray that they win, but it doesn't hurt if you ask,' " says Church.

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