Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Calhoun: a builder and now a survivor

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Jim Calhoun stomped his foot and demanded that his team slow it down, and for once the Connecticut Huskies ignored his rant. His screams had grown silent, his arena had turned dark.

"Nobody's listening to you, Jim," Pat Calhoun told her husband as he glared through the TV and worked the refs, coaching against doctor's orders because no medicine could treat the void in this basketball lifer's heart.

Between the diagnosis and the surgery, the emptiness hit him like an illegal pick. One by one the Huskies embraced their coach, whispered their best wishes, and headed off for Virginia Tech. Thirty years in Division I and suddenly Jim Calhoun was a man without a team.

"I was sitting at my desk," he recalled from his Connecticut home, "feeling very lonely, very sad. Ultimately, that feeling made me want to fight harder to get back as fast as I could."

Fight? Calhoun admits he absorbed the initial body blow on Thursday, Jan. 30, the first day of the rest of his life. "A punch in the stomach," he said. "The doctor called and told me the way doctors do: 'You have a ... tumor in your prostate. Jim, you have cancer."' Calhoun sat down and checked the schedule. Boston College was that Saturday; too close to tipoff to tell his team.

So without the players' knowledge, Calhoun took a few extra timeouts in that game, if only in his distracted mind. "I wouldn't have been human if I didn't," he said. Two days later, before telling his players to move on without him, Calhoun gave his doctors a different charge: "Get this thing out of me. It doesn't belong in me."

That's the public Calhoun college basketball knows: barking and ordering at a 100-mph clip, in an accent straight off a Cape Cod clam boat.

This is the private Calhoun his family and small circle of friends know:

"Jim's the great protector," said Pat, his bride of 36 years. "His father was his hero, and I think he's treasured life and people more after his father died. He's always wanted those close to him to feel under his protection, and that carries over to his team."

Jim was 15 and playing the outfield in a Babe Ruth League All-Star game when someone told him matter-of-factly that his father had just died of a massive heart attack, announcing it as if he were telling the kid to move from center to left. Calhoun would go home and promise his mother he'd watch over her, a pledge he'd honor by putting off college to earn money cutting gravestones.

He'd already been a painter, a gas attendant, a junkyard worker. Soon enough, Calhoun became a builder and a survivor. He would build a national power out of a nothing program in a nowhere corner of snow-kissed farmland, build it in a way even the most creative Connecticut mind, Mark Twain, couldn't have fathomed.

He would survive a duel with cancer, and the maniacal race back to work. "Totally insane," Pat said of her husband's pace. "Treadmills, Stairmasters, everything. He wasn't out of the hospital a week and he wanted to get back to the gym in the middle of a blizzard. I hid every car key in the house."

Calhoun beat St. John's 16 days after surgery, 16 days after the doctors decreed he'd be gone at least 3-4 weeks. He was helped by the cards, the prayers, and the calls from Jim Boeheim, fellow cancer survivor, and Geno Auriemma, whose own monster UConn program couldn't possibly diminish Calhoun's. "Knowing you," Auriemma told the men's coach, "cancer doesn't have a chance."

How could it? In his 17th season at a school with a grand sum of four NCAA Tournament victories before he arrived, Calhoun has beaten Coach K for a national title and has advanced to nine Sweet 16s. He has managed a record of 647-295 at UConn and Northeastern, not Duke and Kentucky. He has earned his place among his generation's greatest coaches while raising millions to fight the heart diseases that claimed his father, mother and father-in-law, the diseases he tried to stave off with years of marathon running and biking before cancer got him from the blind side.

"The only time I saw Jim get down was right after he heard the diagnosis," his wife said. "It was just disbelief that he was joining a club nobody ever wants to join. In that moment, we faced the mortality of it all, the fact that one day we're not going to be here.

"But Jim was ready to take it on after 24 hours. We didn't talk about the worst possibilities. It made us think, 'God, it will be awful when it's just one of us here.' We weren't ready for that. We knew it couldn't be the time for that."

Jim Calhoun knew it was the time to live for his wife, his two sons, his three grandchildren, his two grandchildren on the way.

"There was no rearranging of perspective because of cancer," he said, "because I've always been so close to my family, my God, and my players."

Those players fly to San Antonio Tuesday, and there's no chance they'll be leaving behind their coach. Calhoun doesn't know if his Connecticut Huskies will beat Texas, just that he won't feel lonely or sad if they don't.

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