Twelve years ago today it happened. Khalid El-Amin hit two free throws, Trajon Langdon tripped and like that UConn shocked the world, 77-74.
The Huskies trip to Houston this year marks the fourth time in 13 seasons that the team has made the Final Four, a fact that seems incomprehensible to me no matter how many times I write it. Part of me is still stunned that UConn ever made a Final Four because when I look back to my youth it seemed like something that could never, ever happen.
I'm young -- I was only 12 in March of 1999 -- but I was raised on UConn. The first half of my life, the half where each UConn season seemed to end in a different and new kind of heartbreak, had a massive impact on how I view the team. I cannot remember the Dream Season, so I can't remember Tate's shot or Christian Laettner's, but I've seen the replays of both so many times it feels like I was there. The tale of UConn beating Clemson was a bedtime story for me and when my father taught me to shoot a basketball it was with the explanation that I was UConn and every shot I hit was helping to beat Duke. My fanhood wasn't a choice and from the start the goal was clear: I needed to see UConn in the Final Four.
When 1994's matchup with Florida came, I was older, but not old enough to avoid being sent to bed at the start of the second half. I mercifully got to avoid Donyell's missed free throws and the overtime collapse. In 1995 I saw the whole game, not that it helped. The worst year was 1996. Ray Allen was my favorite player and when a less-talented Mississippi State team upended the Huskies I did not take it well. Let's just say this video hit a little too close to home.
In '98 I was wonderfully naive. My father told me not to get my hopes up because we were playing North Carolina in North Carolina. I ignored him, got my hopes up and was crushed.
By this point I was very able to link the events of each proceeding March in my mind. I'd practically memorized the chart documenting the most NCAA wins without a Final Four appearance because I'd seen it so much, each and every time with UConn's name on the top. My father's long-running joke about his fear of having the words "Never saw UConn play in a Final Four" engraved on his tombstone started to sound less and less like a joke. It all added up to turn a UConn Final Four seem like an unattainable goal. The Huskies were cursed and it was never going to happen.
But then it did.
It wasn't just a dream anymore. UConn was no longer the good school that just couldn't get it together in March. No, they were elite, they made it, they were champions.
They did not stop there either. The '99 squad was great, but despite being 33-2 heading into the title game they were massive underdogs because of the talented juggernaut that was Duke. By 2004 they had flipped the script. UConn was the juggernaut with two of the top three picks in the NBA draft. Sure they were pushed by Duke in the national semifinal, but they crushed everyone else.
In 2009 they made the last weekend again and this year they might have had their most magical run of all. Winning their last nine games, all in tournaments to make the most improbable of Final Four runs.
And yet, when I think back over the 12 years I don't think about 2004, 2009 or 2011 first. No, I stop on 2006 and UConn's loss to George Mason. Why? Obviously not because I enjoy it, but because that's what reminds me just how unbelievably hard it is to make a Final Four. It takes me back to my early years as a fan watching UConn struggle when it mattered most and gives me a much deeper appreciation for just how impressive what Jim Calhoun has done.
In the last week a lot of columnists have mentioned that this might be Calhoun's best coaching job ever. That may very well be true, but I have a very difficult time ranking anything as "best" because to me, growing up, these four trips all seemed like an impossible dream. I still have a hard time comprehending it.
UConn is in it's fourth final four in 13 seasons. The only other schools to get to the Final Four that much over the past 13 years are Michigan St. (6), Duke (4) and North Carolina (4). That's some pretty impressive company.
I do not know if UConn can win Saturday. Even if they do they could very well lose Monday. All I know is that no matter how UConn does I won't be disappointed in the slightest. Thirteen years ago this all seemed like an impossible dream. Twelve years ago tonight Richard Hamilton, Rickey Moore and El-Amin did the impossible but it didn't make it feel any less like a dream.
It is said often, but this tournament is cruel. Just ask fans of the 64 teams that are already done for the season, especially all of those that thought this was "their year." Making it this far is an incredible achievement and it should be treasured. UConn is in the Final Four. That's something only three other schools can say right now and something that, not too long ago, UConn fans thought they might never be able to say. Appreciate it.