Life Imitates Heart

Why I Traded Tennessee Orange for UConn Blue

Traded might be too strong of a word; I was a Tennessee fan first and became a UConn fan second. But over the past ten years, my blood has leaked UConn blue.

I started playing basketball in middle school, and that was the college era of Naperville’s golden girl, Candace Parker. Her Pat Summitt-led Lady Vols were my introduction to the world of women’s basketball, not UConn. Pat’s icy blue stare, Tennessee’s tough, grind it out defense. I still remember the Shannon Bobbit/Ivory Latta matchups, the tingling awe I felt when Candace Parker’s shoulder popped out of its socket mid-game only to see her return to the lineup minutes later. Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike, Angie Bjorklund. They were my gateway, my first idols, the women who turned a game I liked to play into a life-long love affair.

Then Candace Parker graduated and a new team took center stage. And in the last decade, they’ve rarely left it.

In the world of women’s basketball, it’s blasphemous to be a fan of both the Lady Vols and the Huskies, but here I am, teetering over the gaping precipice that separates the two dynasties. I entered the fray of college hoops just after UConn and Tennessee had ceased their regular season matchups, and wasn’t aware of the bitterness that permeated the two fan bases. I only craved great basketball, and after Candace graduated with her second consecutive national championship in 2008, I found a new idol in Maya Moore.

Tennessee began to struggle, and UConn hit the gas. I gravitated immediately towards Geno Auriemma and the Huskies. Geno reminded me so much of my own high school basketball coach, demanding and bitingly sarcastic, and Geno’s team played with a kind of brilliant, ruthless beauty. Maya was sensational and had Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery at the rim and point, respectively, to round out a stellar team. They followed Tennessee’s back-to-back championships by capping off 2009 and 2010 with back-to-back undefeated seasons of their own.

It was during those two years that I realized blue had always been much more of my color.

Still, I’m a Tennessee fan. My neighbors regaled me with Lady Vols memorabilia in high school. I stood in line for hours to wait for Candace Parker to sign one of the hats they gave me. I lost any semblance of cool when I realized Pat Summitt was sitting across Redbird Arena from me during the Illinois girls’ basketball state championship, watching her recruit, Ariel Massengale, take home another state trophy. You could feel the arena fill up with her history. The things Pat Summitt did for women’s sports is uncontested.

And it’s because of her tremendous accomplishments that a team like UConn even exists. Geno Auriemma was able to launch his program off the foundation that Pat Summitt built for the sport of women’s basketball. Thirteen and a half hours to the northeast, the Huskies were putting together a dynasty that would surpass the fervent dreams of even the wildest imaginations. They were putting on a show. Maya graduated and along came Breanna Stewart with her declaration of wanting to win four national championships over the course of her four years at Connecticut.

And damn, did they win. And win. And win. Breaking an unconscionable number of records in the process.

I have deep admiration for both programs, but I’ve never enjoyed watching basketball more than I enjoy watching UConn’s women play. They play beautiful, unselfish basketball. Their commitment to excellence has demanded that the rest of the field catch up, and – yes – women’s basketball is better for it.

Women’s basketball is better because of both of these programs. I recently read both coaches’ biographies (Sum It Up and Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection) and, while the two traveled uniquely different paths on their road to coaching – Geno’s family immigrated from Italy when he was eight years old and Pat grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee with all brothers and a work-horse father) both of their paths converged at greatness.

And greatness like that, greatness that transcends, deserves to be celebrated no matter the color of the jersey. History shouldn’t be written in the fault lines between the two programs, it should be written in the lights their greatness has shined on women’s basketball.

So is it okay if I bleed orange and blue?

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