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10-yr MarchMadness flashback

THE CALHOUN CHEW: a basketball story to sink your teeth into

[ok, ok, I'm editing already. Game 1 of the FF just ended with UConn's offense toothless in the 2nd half. AND, head coach Jim Calhoun wasn't chewing gum. So, here's the amended version:]

As March Madness has morphed into April's Apex, the last two dances on the NCAA hoops card, my mind flashes back to '99 in Denver, on assignment with Sports Illlustrated. UConn got its start there on the road to the Final Four. They won their first of two national championships under head coach Jim Calhoun.

One of my story lines from the first/second round site was Calhoun's gum-chewing. He chewed more vigorously than the average gummy bear. He must have forgotten his gum for the FF, and it was a bad luck omen. [Surely he didn't give up the habit sometime over the last 10 years and I didn't notice....]

(This story reminds me of one of my favorite bad jokes. About the guy who worked at Wrigley's gum factory. One day he clumsily fell into a vat and stopped the production line. His boss chewed him out.)

So, back when he did have the habit, the Calhoun Chew made me curiouser and curiouser, as Miss Alice would say. Most coaches have a water bottle, or cup of cola handy. You might remember one called Tark the Shark who chewed a towel.

After UConn, with its fabulously smooth (and a joy to interview) Richard Hamilton providing starpower magazine fodder, dispensed with UTexas-San Antonio and bored in on New Mexico, I asked Calhoun why he chewed gum, and if he was aware of how crazily he chewed it, and how did he keep from choking on it, and what kind of gum was it, and I might have asked him why his mother named him James. You get kinda caught up in the moment when you're in the question-asking business, and relevance exits stage left.

I kept thinking he would swallow gum while yelling at a player, and his face would start turning the color of the  Huskies' uniforms, and we'd see the game interrupted while a medic performed a Heimlich on him.

Not that I'm all that interested in gum-chewing, which, in fact, can be off-putting when someone is smacking gum, or the gumchewer is my server at a restaurant. Or worse yet, it's a chaw.

But you never know what one dumbish-maybe-irrelevant question might lead to.

This one led to some paradoxical irony. (I threw that phrase in just in case any of my former English teachers read this, and I want them to know what a remarkable impact they exerted.)

The p-i here is this: chewing gum is good for your teeth.

His dentist said so. "He told me if I didn't start chewing gum while I was coaching, I'd lose my teeth by the time I was 40," Calhoun said. And require surgery on his gums.

True, dat. Calhoun was prone to grinding his jaws and teeth. Perhaps you can relate. Tension builds. Nerves jangle. Sleep comes in fits and starts. You wake up with sore jaws. Or, you grind 'til you have molars as sharp as Jaws'. But broken, or chipped.

Brushism, good. Bruxism, not good.

"Gum's in," Calhoun's dentist said, "or gums out."

UConn eliminated New Mexico there in Denver, coached then by Dave Bliss (another story altogether a few years later, albeit one of horror at Baylor).

Calhoun chewed his gum, Hamilton & the Huskies eschewed the jaws of defeat vs. Iowa, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Duke, and that started a decade of elite success on the March Madness stage.

Which brings us to this extended weekend. Now I think UConn is the team ta-beet.

[Here's where I eat some more crow, my steady diet for March Madness....but, as a bonafide punaholic, I have to leave the prediction in.]

Originally, my bracket had Louisville winning it all. I just have one pick left: UNC. I thought Memphis would dump UConn, and I had Pitt. Now I have the pits. I only had 2,788,857 other people ahead of me in my picks on line. Sneeriously.

But UConn has the best player and punny headliner (Thabeet), and the best coach to gum up the works.