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NCAA MEN'S FINAL FOUR


April 5, 2004


Jim Calhoun

Ben Gordon

Emeka Okafor


SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS

JOHN GERDES: Joining us from UConn, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, and Coach Calhoun. We'll ask, coach, that you open with an opening statement.

COACH CALHOUN: Well, you know, I was thinking about this basketball team last night. As I was kind of tossing and turning as I guess anybody would as they get ready for a national championship, I thought that they probably had endured - once again enduring is a funny word - when in real life you don't, but from an athletic standpoint, endured the mantle of expectations, not from November, but from September. We had folks on our campus taking pictures, talking about us being undefeated, talking about all the various things we were going to do, and we really hadn't even touched a basketball yet. To carry that burden, lose a player, have Emeka get injured a couple times, have various things happen to us, lose our backup point guard, and I said at the time, I think this team could be the best team in the nation. Together, these kids understood what it's like to have fun playing basketball, fun playing with each other in the sense of giving to each other, both emotionally. I watch Ben and Emeka, last night Emeka on the bus coming back from the NABC award, I wish I could have taped it for you. He wanted the 24 hours to evaporate so we could have tip off. All the kids felt like that. We heard some of the kids from Georgia Tech who did a marvelous job, by the way, in the last three or four minutes. It made me sweat. I didn't think we were going to lose the basketball game, but I don't think where they got the energy to make those threes. But John Thompson kiddingly told me they were going to make sure -- if you were in a championship, you are really going to have to earn it. Our kids did earn it. They are magnificent. Once again, there aren't many teams that can go wire-to-wire. It's a very difficult thing to do. I don't know how many teams could, to be quite frank with you. This team only found itself struggling a little bit, not in the sense of we didn't win a lot of games, and then got its second wind, enjoyed itself, and then put on -- over the past four weeks, we've been an amazing basketball team. When we're healthy, they're the best team in America. Tonight on April 5th, the year 2004, they proved they're the best team in America.

JOHN GERDES: Questions first for Emeka and Ben.

Q. Emeka, most people your age these days do not want to play center. Why is that okay with you and also how did you end up getting the ball? Did you have to fight for it?

EMEKA OKAFOR: To answer your first question, I don't know. That's the role on my team, that's what I know how to do. Of course, eventually I like to add some perimeter stuff to my game. But that's later on down the line. Answer to your second question, I'm 6'9", 260. Rashad is a smart guy. He figured I'll get the ball either forcefully or the friendly way (smiling). Came to his senses and he gave it to me.

Q. If you could talk about this has been a whirlwind season for you, your feelings right now, emotions as it's all over.

EMEKA OKAFOR: To tell you the truth, I mean, it's not what I imagined it to be. I don't think it's hit me yet. I'm kind of, "All right, when is practice tomorrow?" Hasn't quite sunk in that the season's over, that we've done what we wanted to do. I'm in awe still.

Q. For all three, could I ask you, similar to what you were trying to answer, what does this accomplishment mean, not the emotions, but accomplishing this feat?

EMEKA OKAFOR: Just proved that, you know, we can accomplish what we put our minds to, and that we are as good as everybody originally said we were. You know, we are as good as, you know, what we thought.

Q. Ben.

BEN GORDON: You know, we just made history. After we're dead and gone, we're still going to have this national championship banner. We just kind of immortalized ourselves. That's what it really means to me. We accomplished something great. That's very hard to accomplish out of 300-odd teams. You know, this is one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life.

COACH CALHOUN: You know, I think for us, our quests over the past particularly 15 years since we started slowly to become a national player, our quest with the great kids I have and a lot in the locker room right now, Ray, Daniel, all those guys who came to the game, certainly these two guys, two of the greatest players whoever played for the University of Connecticut, it's another statement that there's something very special at UConn. We truly believe that. That's why I love my university. That's why I love my team. That's why I love coaching basketball. Both Ben and Emeka continue to educate their coach. Emeka gives me great insight into someone who focuses themselves at the task at hand. What I try to do with the team, they eventually forgot about the expectations of others, and only judged themselves amongst themselves. I can still see Ben talking to Rashad, Mek talking to Josh. We stopped letting other folks tell us how good we should be. We want to be good for ourselves. From Ben, I learned that beautiful people like him can become killers on the basketball court. I think maybe hopefully he learned a tad bit of that from me. I'm not the beautiful person necessarily off the court he is. No one's ever called me Gentle Jim, I guess. But he has really been a special basketball player. I wanted so bad for him and for Mek, because I do think they're ready for the NBA. If they're in the position, they should leave because they're both incredible basketball players, have accomplished so much in college basketball. To me, great, great role models for what this game is all about. The great thing for me at age 61 is to continue to learn from my kids, and that's a great lesson. This team proved to me that they can stand up to the scrutiny, to disappointments. Do you realize that on February 3rd or 4th, we were voted as the No. 1 disappointing team in America? We were 21-3. Voted the No. 1 disappointing team in America. I have a very good memory, by the way, as you all know. Guess what? I would like to tell that person, I hope they're not disappointed in the fact that we won a national championship.

Q. Emeka, you said the other day that you sort of dreamed about the idea of making free-throws to win a game. I wonder, when did you start to believe that you could go into a game like this and score 25 points and be such a factor offensively?

EMEKA OKAFOR: If I didn't believe, I wouldn't be out on the court. I believed, you know, from the get-go. I knew my teammates believed in me, I knew my coaches believed in me. There was no doubt that I couldn't be a factor.

Q. You were talking about being immortalized. Today the Basketball Hall of Fame did not decide to induct your head coach. What do you think winning a second championship means to him and did the Hall of Fame make a mistake today?

BEN GORDON: I mean, they're going to be smart enough to eventually, you know, induct Coach Calhoun. That's a no-brainer. He's won two national championships. I mean, even without The Championships, you know, he's just a tremendous coach. I mean, that will eventually happen. I'm not worried about that. But, you know, just getting this championship, I wish you guys could feel what we're feeling right now. It's just one of the best feelings in the world.

Q. Jim, could you talk about the run you guys had to send the first half, the dagger that Rashad through at the buzzer?

COACH CALHOUN: I think one of the things that was very subtle, and I said in the news conference with my Irish Blarney, there was no revenge factor. The kids from Georgia Tech continued to say that, you know, I guess Emeka Okafor was hurt, he's a good athlete. I'm kind of saying, "You haven't seen Emeka Okafor." They kind of said, you know, a few things, not derogatory, but simply, "We handled him before; we'll keep our game plan." I'm saying, "You want to run with us? You don't know about running with us." So we made the tactic that we were going to come at them, play Connecticut basketball, and I think the biggest thing is we were free to play our basketball against a team that everybody would assume would be quicker, but we actually used our quickness, and our rebounding, two things, to really start off, get the big lead. Then I thought the great start of the second half to take the thing to 15, up to 23, 24, and by that time you weren't going to catch us. They made a lot of threes to make the game maybe a different score than it might have been, but I think it was one of the more dominating performances we could have had. At the end, they made threes, and Paul's team, I give a great deal of credit to, they weren't going to just go away quietly. Nevertheless, I thought we put them away where they no longer could beat us. I thought those two things, the end where we got the lead to 15, then the second half, we played like the team initially that was down 15. Not that Paul necessarily didn't. We just played terrific to get that thing from 15 into the 20s. That was the key to the game.

Q. Coach talked about the immense expectations. A lot of times when you get that much expectations, teams kind of sort of plod through the season trying to deal with that. It doesn't become as much fun maybe. Did you guys have as much fun as coach says? Did you find a way to enjoy the season?

EMEKA OKAFOR: This season was so much fun. Yes, we had fun. We kind of just put all that stuff behind us. We just went out there and played. We had more fun off the court with each other, rather just as much fun off the court as on the court. I think that's what made this experience so special. That, you know, a lot of times within a team, you get certain cliques [] that hang with each over. With us, everybody can chill with everybody else. You might have -- just everybody, you know, intermingled with each other. You could see that chemistry on the court.

COACH CALHOUN: Yesterday was Ben's birthday. This is a pretty good birthday present for him.

JOHN GERDES: Ben, your thoughts on how fun the season was?

COACH CALHOUN: Now I won't have to buy him a gift.

BEN GORDON: The season was a lot of fun, especially towards the end how things started to turn out. I mean, it was kind of stressful at points, you know, but we just stayed with it and we prevailed. Overall, the season was really fun. It was one of the best seasons I've had at UConn.

Q. Emeka, coach talked about earlier how difficult it is to go wire-to-wire. Now with the weight of that world off your shoulders, how does that back feel now?

EMEKA OKAFOR: You want the real (smiling)? No, it feels good. Past couple months, I've been -- well, the past month, day to day, it's been getting better. These past couple weeks, I've been able to capitalize on that, hone my skills. Everything is good.

Q. Georgia Tech was this far in the tournament because of the way they played offensively. Tonight only nine assists. Can you talk about the job you did defensively?

COACH CALHOUN: I thought the key to the game coming down, I never worry about Mek because he's the best defensive player in the country. But I have great respect for Jack, Bynum, et cetera. It seems like they have nine different guys that can play on the perimeter. They're such a versatile basketball team. You have to handle a 6'6" Muhammad that can sky, go to the hole. You got jump shooters. Lewis, you have so many players. I thought the job we did on the perimeter, pushing their offense out deep to make Schenscher not even effective, because the post pass was so long, was absolutely incredible. I couldn't be prouder of the way we did that. I thought that single factor was as much -- they do share the ball exceptionally well. We wanted to make sure if you could push them out three or four feet, so post passes were eliminated, their offense was out of sync, not being run in normal dimensions, we thought we could really do a great job. Great credit to all of our kids who played on the perimeter tonight.

JOHN GERDES: On your defense, Emeka.

EMEKA OKAFOR: Huh?

JOHN GERDES: Your thoughts on the team defense.

EMEKA OKAFOR: Team defense?

JOHN GERDES: As well as yours.

EMEKA OKAFOR: My defense, team defense, won the game. Came down, made stops. The big men did a good job of hedging, recovering. The guards did a good job of, you know, making it real tough for their guards to score. Our good defense led to the offense. Gave us confidence. We felt real loose out there. We got into a real good flow.

Q. Do you have any words of encouragement for the women's team tomorrow night?

BEN GORDON: I think they're a little bit experienced at this, so they probably don't need our words of encouragement. They were encouraged enough the night before. "Go ahead, guys, win the thing." We're definitely behind them a hundred percent. We're hoping they can win it so we can make history.

Q. Ben, if you could follow up on that defensive question, the Georgia Tech guys were in here, they paid respect to you. They were saying it's one of those nights. It was your defense had a lot to do with that.

BEN GORDON: I mean, it's hard for the ball to fall, you know, when everybody's all over you. It's not like you're in the layup line and you just get an open shot. I think we played really good defense. I credit them, you know, for having bad shooting nights, as well.

COACH CALHOUN: I'm going to interject because I have great respect for the Georgia Tech kids, certainly Paul Hewitt, one of the best young coaches certainly in our profession. Teams -- any coach, I say this as a young guy, when I was a high school coach, one guy said to me when we upset them, starting out in my coaching career, "You guys beat us because we had a bad shooting night." That was about 35 years ago. Over the past 35 years a lot of teams have had a lot of bad shooting nights against with us. We lead the country in field goal percentage defense, we lead the country in blocked shots. It wasn't an air-conditioning blowing the balls down. It was a guy named Gordon, a guy named Okafor, who they probably wanted to avoid as much as they possibly could. They're a great basketball team. They really are. One of the quickest, most competitive teams you want to play against. It wasn't one of those nights. It was the kids at UConn that played great, great defense. I would say that emphatically because I'm so proud of my kids. I wouldn't want anybody to think -- you're not going to go the rest of my life saying, "I just had a bad day." We never accept a bad practice. We don't accept just things happening to us. We make things happen to us. We find other ways to put the ball into the basket. It was the defense played by Connecticut, in my humble opinion.

Q. Ben, can you offer some thoughts on the difference between this game and the first game against Georgia Tech? Was it Emeka being healthy tonight as opposed to not being healthy in New York in November?

BEN GORDON: I think it was a combination of things. You know, early on when we played them, we were just trying to figure ourselves out. We knew we had a lot of talent. We didn't totally mesh yet. Compounded by that, we had Emeka with a hurt back, Charlie not playing, Rashad hadn't emerged yet. A lot of different things were the reason why we played so bad that night. But today, we were a different team. Everybody knows their roles. Emeka is a hundred percent now, everything just flowed well.

JOHN GERDES: Emeka and Ben thank you very much. Congratulations. We'll take questions for Coach Calhoun, please.

Q. About four minutes to go in the half, Ben got his second foul. I just wondered what your thought process was, leave him in, take him out.

COACH CALHOUN: We took him out. Once again, as I did with Emeka the other day, I'm sure that during the halftime, CBS provided an extra five minutes, the 20-minute halftime, so more people could debate why is he leaving him on the bench. Games are won in the second half, and games are won at the end of the game. When the horn goes off at the end, that's what counts, not halftime. We just put him in at the end with five seconds to go to try to get a quick score. That was a big turn around, by the way. The two missed foul shots, then Rashad making the jump shot. But my theory was, with that type of lead, 12, 13, 14, there was no way possible Ben Gordon, we needed him. We carry two guards on our team, two kids who could play the point guard on our team. We lost a kid named Marcus Williams, one of the best passers in the history of UConn. We have Taliek and Ben. Beyond that, we don't have a legitimate guy who is ready to run our basketball team. I can never take a chance, ever. We need someone to break pressure, run our offense. There was no way we were taking him off our bench, even if they hypothetically brought it back to five or six points, I would have lived with that and played the second half with a five- or six-point lead.

Q. Those two guys sitting there before, they came in together, they pushed each other for three seasons now. Here they are the two leading scorers in the national championship game. Talk about their journey to this point, what they meant to UConn. The school tomorrow night is on the cusp of something historic.

COACH CALHOUN: They came together. They were funny. I thought it would be a perfect match, such great kids. Ben by the way is about a 2.8 student. I have to say that because he says Emeka gets all the credit. I said he's 3.8, graduating in three years, he should get all the credit. I put them together because I thought they would have a lot in common. Secondly, Ben goes home to Mt. Vernon, and he takes Emeka with him at times. They're like brothers. They're incredibly close. When they first got together, I always say to the kids, if you're having a problem with your roommate, especially freshmen, come in and see me. About two weeks in, Ben comes in and said, "I got a problem." "What do you mean 'I got a problem'?" "I got a problem with Emeka." He said, "He comes back after practice, 7, 8:00, studies till 9, then goes to sleep. About 1:00, I'm sleeping, I hear something moving around," he said, "it's Emeka." He said, "He's studying from 1 to 4. He's made his hours out." This is a true story. I said, "What is he doing?" He said, "He's studying." I said, "That's what college is supposed to be about." He looked me in the face, said, "1 to 4?" He contemplated moving out of the room because of the 1-to-4 bit was getting to him. I said, "Don't worry, I think you two will hit it off fine." Once again, those two kids, you know, I've been gifted by God and by fate to have some tremendous kids. But you won't find two better representative college athletics in those two guys. When they talk about low maintenance, no maintenance. As a matter of fact, conversely, they've done so much for our university, so much for our program, they're special, special kids.

JOHN GERDES: The opportunity for two championships was the second part of that, the women tomorrow night.

COACH CALHOUN: That would be great. I think the one great thing, I think when Mike Krzyzewski and I were talking about, when you go to UConn, I was hired by John Toner, and then Todd Turner was there for two years, then Lew Perkins came in, he brought this guy from Maryland, kind of his sidekick. Dark-haired guy with glasses and stuff. He seemed to develop a relationship with me. I developed a relationship with him. Jeff Hathaway was our athletic director, Lew, John Toner, have set up a situation where UConn truly is a family. I mean, Ray Reid was physically sick. He's our soccer coach, won a national championship. He was physically sick today before the game. Randy Edsall only called me about six different times, our football coach. When someone says, "Why do you love UConn?" I love UConn because of guys like Jeff Hathaway, because of the state it represents. I love everything about what happens. So when D, who is the most unusual person you're going to meet in your life, Diana Taurasi, her language sometimes makes mine -- you've always heard that, but it's true. She always says to me, this is not a sexist statement, please, "Sometimes I wish I was a guy so I could be like your guys, say things, and nobody would really be upset about it." I thought that was cute. She's a great basketball player. A wonderful thing, this special family of UConn, we feel we're one of the really places in America for basketball. Tomorrow night we could both be sitting on top of the basketball world. That would be a very special night for Geno and certainly his kids, certainly wonderful kids.

Q. Characterize the career of your point guard. So many ups and downs. Tonight he bounced back.

COACH CALHOUN: I was disappointed with him in the Duke game not because of the fact he wasn't a warrior, not because he didn't help in winning the game, but because he got out of character. This year, he's had so much -- so many people criticize him through all 105, 106 wins he's had, only averaged about 26 wins per year, three Big East championships, two Big East tournament championships, a national championship, two final eights, I mean, you name it, he's done it, all-time assist leader. He is without question one of the toughest human beings I've ever met in my life. To top it off, he's probably -- he's street-wise and loveable all at the same time. My wife's favorite player at UConn at present is Taliek. When he first came to our house, you know, you have the recruiting meal, et cetera. As I went back to the room to watch the game that was on TV, Taliek started cleaning off the table. It made me look very bad, by the way. I haven't forgiven him for it since. But he's that kind of kid. Now he had one of the great lines, because we have something called the boneyard at UConn, a chat room kind of thing. His last line as he was kind of leaving was, "What are they going to write about now?" I thought that was terrific. He never needed to be vindicated in my eyes. He's one of the best point guards whoever played for UConn, and he's one of the toughest warrior athletes that I've ever coached.

Q. After playing a nail-biting game on Saturday night, to win this one in as convincing a fashion as you did, how nice was that?

COACH CALHOUN: Except for the last three minutes, it was wonderful. Anything that's really great, you have to earn. Georgia Tech made us earn it at the end, just to put the thing away. I think tonight we put on a display so people could really see how special we can be. I really felt all along, and I will have always -- will continue to say as I've said all year, it isn't just the media that said this team could be great. I've said it on a number of occasions. As we got near the end of the season, what I try to do is deflect away from the kids, try to put it more on me. I was the one saying it. I told them, "Don't pay attention to whatever I say, because I don't mean a word of it." I meant every single word of it. I truly believed this team was capable of winning a national championship and was good as anybody in America.

Q. You said to us yesterday you couldn't afford to be sloppy in this game. Did you have to sit down with Taliek one-on-one and say something special in this case?

COACH CALHOUN: I told him that he didn't need to score 20 points tonight for us to be real good. What he needed to do, the best stat I can tell you, in the Alabama game he took three shots and he was a magnificent player. He took eight shots against Duke and turned it over seven times because he wasn't as comfortable with who he was. He really wanted to win that game for us, almost too bad. Tonight he was back in character trying to make other folks better. He was terrific. By the way, he did an incredible job on Jack. Jack is probably one of the best point guards in America. His guard on Jarrett Jack was probably one of the keys to the game.

Q. A lot of teams get that consensus No. 1 pre-season. You talk about it. It becomes a burden. There's some struggles. You say people start getting on you. What was the secret to this team almost relaxing when it got tough and peaking late as opposed to getting more tense?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, I mean, I think that's our job as coaches. We recognize the problem. You know it's there. You know you're going to have to overcome it somehow or other. I started, it probably goes back a month and a half ago when I went crazy during the Miami game, just absolutely nuts. They're up 18 points. Whatever they did, it wasn't right. When we got to the locker room afterwards, everybody had their head down. We won by 20. Looked like we had lost a basketball game. My son and Tim were waiting outside, waiting for the paint to fall off the walls. Instead of getting Atilia the Hun, they got Shecky Calhoun. All of a sudden I started telling jokes for the kids, relaxed everybody. I said, "The only thing I'm going to ask you to do for the rest of the season, just show the passion of how wonderful this game is and what a great opportunity you have." In the midst of that we started changing in our approach about everything we do. There was a lot more smiling around UConn. We played Notre Dame I think three days later, beat them by 14 or 15. We were so happy as opposed to a 20-point win over Miami. Just a different basketball team. We tried to once again put more of the pressure upon me and tried to keep the pressure off the kids as much as we possibly could, make them happy, really be positive, much more positive than we had. The teaching was over. The better way to say it, the teaching was over, the building was there. With guys like George Blaney, Tom Moore, Clyde Vaughn, we all made a goal to make sure that was happening. I have great assistants that can do that.

Q. When you decide to write your biography, which probably will become a best seller, what would be the title for the 1999 championship in Tampa and the victory of tonight?

COACH CALHOUN: I wrote a book in '99 called Dare to Dream. I wouldn't have necessarily a book or a title for this one. It would be The Long Journey, because that's what it really was, which ends up with a fairytale ending of kids not just playing, not just being great, but enjoying every single moment. Mek, I think I know him pretty well after three and a half years, he's quite frankly in a zone. All the way down he kept saying, "Coach, did this happen?" I'm serious. He kept saying, "Did this happen?" I said, "You had something to do with it Emeka. It did happen, and you had a lot to do with it." I've been to Greece a number of times. Charlie is a good friend of mine. Please give greetings from me. This season, I just have so much admiration for the heart of our basketball team, the character of our basketball team. It's so difficult to have people expect you to win every single game. These kids were able to kind of just shuck that off, have fun, play basketball. The result was a national championship.

Q. Could you talk about the difference for you, reflect on that, between the two titles, especially in the wake of having cancer surgery?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, you know, I said after the cancer surgery, when they told me they got the results back after four or five days after the surgery, they said everything looks great, you're cancer free, I went back for another checkup. The best thing, it never changed my priorities. I priorities will always be my family, my God. Always has been, always will be. Wasn't a priority-changing guy. I think the thing that happened to me, though, I started to truly appreciate what I have. I think that tonight, looking around at a couple people over there, like Jeff, George, looking at my team, looking at Ray and Daniel, my family, my five grandchildren, I'm just one of the luckiest people on the face of the earth. I get an opportunity to be with kids every day who I love. I got an opportunity to coach a sport that is fun. I'm 61 years old, and I'm having fun with a bunch of kids running up and down the court with a pair of shorts and tee-shirt on, and they actually pay me for it.

Q. Can you attempt to maybe put into context, about 22 years ago you used to joke with your assistants at Northeastern about going to the Final Four, getting up and speaking at that dinner. Now who are it is, the dream come true. You've coached a team from New England to two national championships. Can you try to tie it all up?

COACH CALHOUN: I'm a New England guy. I'm proud to be that. Always will be a New England guy. I have great pride. When people come into our territory, they cross the gates, we have gates at Fairfield, so when you come into New England, you're in New England. You're in a different world. You just now entered a whole different world. I've been to Bangor and seen the state tournament. I've been to Vermont. I've been to all the places to see the great things we have about New England. I always am very defensive about all the great basketball tradition, great coaches that have lived and played there. I always wanted to be Dave Gavin, who has since been my mentor. I used to come down to the Providence Civic Center, watched Joe Malaney do incredible things. I as a child watched George Blaney play at Holy Cross. I was very young at the time (smiling). One of my heroes, I want you to know. I went to the Worcester auditorium to see some great basketball. The joke at Northeastern when Ted was covering it, was, "Jim Calhoun, please report to the podium to speak about the Final Four." Of course, obviously at Northeastern we didn't make the Final Four. But the dream never wavered, never died, and was never detracted. I try to teach my kids every day that you should dream and you should try to fulfill every single dream that you possibly have. If you fall short, you're going to be in a great place. You're going to be in a great, great place because you've given your absolute best.

JOHN GERDES: Coach, thank very much. Congratulations.

End of FastScriptsÂ….

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