Rare are the moments when a top-level college basketball player can act just as a student, but there they were, UConn men's players at the women's game against Baylor Feb. 18, acting like ... students.
Nearly everyone on the men's team was in the student section, wearing pink T-shirts with the rest of the crowd. When Stefanie Dolson grabbed a rebound, and Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis executed the fastbreak to give UConn the lead, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, known to combine on a fastbreak themselves now and then, were jumping and dancing in the aisle.
"We have fun with it," Boatright said, "and we go out to support them. We see them all the time, we're at Gampel together all day, and in classes, and I see them at our games. For a big game like that? I knew everybody was going to be there, and the girls would be looking for us."
The men's and women's players go to each other's games and talk with each other about the game, but mainly they talk about other aspects of their worlds, learn a little from each other's style of play, maybe even mix it up once in a while on the court in the offseason. Two high profile teams sharing much in common.
"Our teams are the only ones in the country that truly understand what the other is going through," said Chris Dailey, associate head coach of the women's team. "They both play for elite programs in a high-profile sport in a high-profile state. It's an understanding of knowing how hard you need to work to win at this level, an understanding of our traditions."
Hall of fame coaches Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma, who led the men's and women's programs to a total of 10 NCAA championships, had a distant relationship over the years, though that didn't necessarily carry over to the players. Kemba Walker, for instance, was frequently seen at women's games as they pursued the record NCAA winning streak in 2010. Last year, Calhoun dedicated his charity cycling event to the memory of Rebecca Lobo's mother, who died of cancer.
New men's coach Kevin Ollie, who played for UConn in the early 1990s, as the women's program was reaching the heights for the first time, has a warm rapport with Auriemma and has gone to numerous women's games, often with his daughter. Apparently independent of that, the current groups of players have formed bonds over the past two seasons.
Auriemma, who often attends men's games at Gampel, usually standing in the hall to avoid publicity, understands the camaraderie.
"What you're seeing now is what's normal," Auriemma said. "Or what should be normal — kids who are students, who share a love of basketball, going to basketball games. I don't know what they talk about, but there's a lot going on when you're a basketball player at the University of Connecticut. So it's not surprising that they would bounce things off each other."
Said Ollie: "I just love seeing Omar [Calhoun] dance on the big-tron [at XL], Phil Nolan getting into it. I don't know whether they talk about soul, rap or basketball. It just shows that we all respect each other, the way it's supposed to be."
DeAndre Daniels, Tyler Olander and Calhoun of the men's team all have sisters who have been outstanding high school basketball players, so going to see the women play is nothing new for them. Boatright has been known to hold up a "big head" of Mosqueda-Lewis at important UConn women's games, such as the Notre Dame game this season.
"Last year, the men's team had a few rough losses and we knew they were very upset about them." Kiah Stokes said. "But what can you say? There wasn't much we could do but encourage them. And they were there for us after we lost to Notre Dame in the Final Four. They were saying, 'We don't like Notre Dame, either.'"
Andre Drummond's famously magnetic personality helped bring a lot of the players on both teams together last season. Drummond, now a member of the NBA's Detroit Pistons, and Mosqueda-Lewis, in particular, shared the experience of coming to UConn with high expectations.
"Andre would barge into my room at whatever hour, whenever he felt like it, and plop his big self down and start talking about anything," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "I remember making fun of him because he couldn't shoot a jump shot when we'd play one-on-one. I'd just stand in his way and he'd try to bulldoze me and dunk on me. But we always tried to help and encourage each other when we had hard times last year. We both knew the pressure each other was feeling. We wanted to make sure we were there for each other."
Drummond entered the NBA draft after one season.
"We were like all one family," Drummond said before a recent game against the Knicks. "All us freshmen, Boat, DeAndre and myself, and Kaleena, Kiah Stokes and Brianna Banks, we would get together and talk about everything. Who better to talk to about what we're going through?"
So what is the conversation like when UConn men's and women's basketball players get together? Believe it or not, basketball is not high on the list. Basketball is shop talk. And most other students want to talk only about basketball, so the Huskies often help each other escape for a time. "Shabazz is so talkative and so charismatic," Mosqueda-Lewis said.
"I talk to Kaleena a lot," Napier said, "and Stefanie, she's one of my favorites. We don't want to talk too much about basketball, because we feel it's kind of a burden. I'm a basketball player, but I would love to talk about something else. So usually it's two quick comments, 'Have a good game' and 'How's your head?' and then we talk about schoolwork or something else."
Said Boatright: "Basketball is everyday life for us. Whenever we don't have to talk about basketball, we don't. We talk about whatever comes to mind."
They share the gym and weight rooms at Gampel, yes, but are usually there at different times. During the offseason, one never knows when a game might break out.
"We don't play organized pickup games with them because they are obviously bigger and stronger than us," Dolson said. "But Boatright and Shabazz will play with us and its fun because those two are so quick. You have no idea how fast they can get past you."
It can go the other way, too. The men like watching the women play their style of basketball.
"You do pick up things," said Omar Calhoun, whose sister has been recruited by both UConn and Notre Dame. "They're not as fast or athletic as we are, but they play so fundamentally sound. They have to do things we don't always have to do, so you see that and pick up on it."
Napier likes the way the women's team plays as a unit.
"I just see togetherness," he said. "I see a lot of players on the court playing together no matter what. When I watch their games, it's funny, everyone knows their roles. I'm sure it has something to do with their coach. It's a special thing, to witness that."
As March approaches, the men's and women's teams will be heading in different directions. The men are banned from the postseason, because of sub-par academic scores of previous players. Despite that, they have played hard all season and pulled several upsets, such as a dramatic win over Syracuse on Feb. 13 with much of the women's team in the student section at XL.
"We support each other in any way we can," said Dolson, who estimated that she's attended 10 men's games this year. "It's cool we have that camaraderie."