Joe Yookon celebrates at last
Joe Yookon had seen it before. Not an NCAA championship of course, but a UConn team with the tenacity and fortitude, if not the skill, to win it all.
On Monday night around 11:30 p.m., the entire state was aglow – from televisions on long after bedtime and from the inner delight of fans exuberant from a realized dream long denied. Joe Yookon was among them. He wished that those talking basketball - heads on the tube would stop using words like "stunning" and "startling" to describe the Connecticut victory.He would never use those words when he talked Husky Hoops.
Joe Yookon is a true believer. To him, only the losses – no matter how big the point spread – were upsets.
When the UConn players were cutting down the nets, Joe Yookon thought about ten years ago when his Huskies climbed the ladder to celebrate a national championship. Okay, it wasn't quite like this. It was just the nit – the National Invitational Tournament, college basketball's bracket for also-rans. But that was the beginning. And the experts hadn't expected UConn to win that one either.
Local sports commentator Tate George was on that team in 1988. Just before tipoff on Monday, George, with either remarkable prescience or just plain luck, predicted the Huskies would win by three. Joe Yookon has always liked Tate George.
Not so much the Tate George who sank the last-millisecond shot to beat Clemson in the regional semifinals of the NCAA's that most of Connecticut remembers, but the freshman Tate George.
When he was just a skinny kid out of New Jersey playing in his first year of college basketball, he played for one of the worst UConn teams ever. The team's best players, Cliff Robinson and Phil Gamble, flunked off the team that year. George played almost every minute of every game that season, largely because there was no one else who knew how to dribble a basketball. He might not have been the most skillful player in the league, but he was one of the grittiest. After that trial of a season, he was A-OK in Joe Yookon's book.
UConn has lots of fans now, thought Joe Yookon. He had no ill-feelings toward these newcomers who weren't around for the dark days of the program. So what if they climbed aboard the wagon long after the rutty road had been paved into an interstate? The more the merrier.
Like a father telling his kids about trudging seven miles to school in a blizzard, Joe Yookon liked to tell all the new legions of fans about the old days and his longstanding love affair with the Huskies. It started when he was but a lad in the mid-sixties, following the games on radio called by George Ehrlich or Marty Glickman from the old leaky Field House in Storrs. Those were the Toby Kimball and Wes Bialosuknia-led teams.
And then he would prattle off about the teams and players in the subsequent decades. He loved to reminisce about the well-known guys like Jimmy Foster, Al Weston, Mike McKay, Corny Thompson, Earl Kelley and Chris Smith. Or he'd talk about the ones that weren't so storied, like Bobby Dulin, Norman Bailey, Timmy Coles or Gerry Besselink.
Every season, Joe Yookon had expected those teams to end up where the 1999 group did. But then again, Joe Yookon is a Red Sox fan too.
Before the championship Monday, UConn point guard Khalid El-Amin said his team would "shock the world." Maybe the basketball world was surprised, but not Joe Yookon and the tens of thousands like him around the state. They were just happy that this time their expectations met reality and came out on top.
Tuesday morning, Joe Yookon ran out and bought out the newsstands. But even seven sports sections weren't enough to sate his Husky Hoops cravings. He needed to thank the coach, the players and the people who supported them. Maybe it wasn't quite up there with achieving world peace, but winning this championship sure made him feel good.
So, with a happy heart, Joe Yookon sat down and wrote this column. Way to go Huskies!
March 30, 1999