April 9, 2011
By his own calculation, UConn associate coach George Blaney had been to 36 Final Fours before 2004. He sat on the board of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. That meant Blaney always had good seats.
That does not mean he didn't want to be standing.
"I'd be there, just looking down, trying to imagine what it was like to be on that floor," Blaney said. "I was jealous, to be honest with you. I wanted to feel it."
He would feel every bit of it that Saturday night in San Antonio. Seven years have passed and Blaney remembers it like it was seven minutes ago. He walked onto the Alamodome floor with coach Jim Calhoun before the semifinal against Duke and whoa …
"The crowd, everything, it got to me, there were tears in my eyes," Blaney said. "It was such an emotional feeling to reach the point every coach wants to reach."
He thanked Calhoun.
In 2009 when UConn got to the Final Four in Detroit, he thanked Calhoun again.
On Saturday, before UConn defeated Kentucky, George Blaney thanked Calhoun a third time.
"I felt it necessary to thank Jim for bringing me along for the ride," Blaney said. "And, lately, I've got to tell you, we've taken to calling it the magic carpet ride."
In the hours before and after UConn suffocated Butler 53-41 for its third national title in 13 years, much was made of Jim Calhoun, 68, becoming the oldest head coach to win an NCAA championship. Calhoun isn't the oldest coach on his staff. Make no mistake, George Blaney, born Nov. 12, 1939, in Jersey City, N.J., has seen plenty.
Starring at Holy Cross, playing briefly for the Knicks and 76ers, Blaney was a head coach for more than 30 years, 22 at Holy Cross before three at Seton Hall. To Blaney, Bob Cousy isn't an award Kemba Walker won. He's a compatriot. Among a select few, he is New England basketball.
At 71, he also is tranquil, unembroidered, not given to exaggeration. If you went to trial, you'd want Blaney as your witness. So accept the next few paragraphs as a voice of sobriety.
"I don't think you can overestimate what has taken place," Blaney said of this UConn season and its 28-day tournament run from Manhattan to Houston. "It's so far beyond belief in my mind."
And on Calhoun becoming only the fifth coach in history to win three national titles?
"Even before Connecticut got into the Big East, we — I'm talking the New England mafia basketball guys — always thought Connecticut was a sleeping giant."
"None of us ever envisioned it was this kind of a sleeping giant," he said. "No one but Jim Calhoun thought he could take it to this kind of heights."
Blaney talks about how good Calhoun is for him. Over a decade, he has been just as good for Calhoun. He has given Calhoun a confidante, a man of the same generation he can trust in the business of X's and O's and in the business of life. Blaney weathers storms. He rides the rough seas. An eruption by Calhoun? Blaney will wait for the lava to cool and ashes to clear.
It is one of the remarkable sights in UConn basketball, always telling, sometimes shocking, and occasionally a little comical. Something will go wrong during a game. Maybe somebody got lazy and didn't box out. Calhoun's temper will flare. He'll wheel around, turn to Blaney and yell about the indiscretion.
Blaney will sit there silently and nod.
More often than not, they both see the same thing. They know what the other is thinking. The difference is in the reaction. What makes a head coach a piercing needle can make the assistant a pin cushion.
"The biggest thing and the only thing I saw that was a change this year in Jim is that he really, really enjoyed this team," Blaney said. "I think it was a direct result of Kemba and Donnell Beverly taking a hold of the team like no one else since Caron Butler. It was a joyful team to coach."
Individually, Walker's season has to be the best in UConn history. In New England college history?
"From the guard position, he dominated games in all facets," Blaney said. "He dominated in scoring, passing. He dominated in stealing the ball and defense. He dominated in rebounding as a guard. On top of that, he dominated in leadership and attitude. He kept guys in the game, knew when to bark a little, when to nurture.
"I cannot think of anybody who has had a better season."
Blaney said the hardest task Calhoun faced was figuring out how and when to use seven freshmen.
"Five would play a ton and he had to intermingle them over a season and in the course of the game itself," Blaney said. "I marvel the way he handled Shabazz Napier. Jim's understanding of the pulse of the team, when to plug those young guys, was remarkable."
Not getting picked among 68 teams for the NCAA Tournament by Sports Illustrated in the preseason would be a source of motivation, a source Calhoun has invoked a number of times.
"That was the start of saying, 'OK, let's show somebody we're not that bad,'" Blaney said. "Every tournament we were in, we won. Maui was a great field. The Big East, five wins in five nights, we've gotten notes from two people we respect a great deal who called it the single greatest achievement in basketball history."
One was Howard Garfinkel, the Godfather of Five Star basketball. The other was Bob Knight.
Many in the national media would find superlatives for UConn's victory over Butler, too. Worst title game ever, etc. Still, you don't hold a team to 18.8 percent shooting, breaking a record set in 1941 — Blaney was 2, Calhoun wasn't born — without stellar defense.
"Looking at the tape, we pretty much contested every shot," Blaney said. "That's not something done very often. I think Butler was surprised by our length."
Blaney said the coaches always write things like he's 6-3, but he has 6-7 arms on scouting reports. It is a warning.
"If you have that kind of player, you have to be careful how you pass and shoot. Jeremy Lamb blocking [Shelvin] Mack's first shot was really important. I thought Alex Oriakhi had one of his great games. He competed like crazy. Roscoe [Smith] was all over the place, contesting …"
Blaney called Lamb's ability to cover Mack one-on-one "critical. And I thought Shabazz turned the game around by his pressure to start the second half. At halftime Jim said if we play faster and harder defensively, our offense will pick up. It did."
Like Calhoun, Blaney said he'll take a little time before he knows if he'll be back, then adds, "I hope to do it again."
"Jim is such a good friend to me. It's his show. It's not my show. We are somewhat two of a kind. We love to be in the gym, immersed in basketball. That's what he has allowed me to do. More than anything, he trusts me. That's the thing that has made it easy here. I can say things to him without being afraid he's going to get mad or whatever. Truth is, most of the time we agree on what we're trying to do."
And they can agree this ride was magic. And for that gift, Blaney has nothing to say but thank you.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant