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40,000 Honor Huskies At Parade

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Jim Calhoun (Fred Beckham/\ap Photo)

Jim Calhoun (Fred Beckham/\ap Photo)

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By PAT EATON-ROBB, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Fans lined up four and five deep at spots
Sunday to catch a glimpse of Connecticut’s basketball team as it
paraded through downtown to celebrate the program’s third national
title.

The Huskies rode on a double-decker bus waving to an estimated
40,000 fans who celebrated their 53-41 win over Butler on April 4
in Houston. They were escorted by bands, jugglers, politicians and
even dogs from a local Siberian Husky club.

Center Alex Oriakhi blew kisses, and star guard Kemba Walker
took pictures of the crowd as fans held up signs. One read, “One
Nation Under Kemba.”

Walker said the celebration helped him grasp the magnitude of
his team’s accomplishment.

“It was crazy,” he said. “It’s hit me, but not as much as it
hit me today. I just keep thinking to myself, ‘Wow, we’re really
national champions.’ To see those people come out and show support,
it’s crazy. It’s surreal.”

Myrna Rivera, 43, of Hartford, brought her family. She said the
UConn basketball teams set a great example for the children.

“It shows the youth in Connecticut that they can work hard and
be the best that they can be,” she said. “This is what the boys’
and the girls’ basketball teams represent, giving hope to those
that feel there is no hope.”

The parade wound its way from the Capitol and around Bushnell
Park, before heading down Capitol Avenue for a rally on the north
steps of the state house.

Coach Jim Calhoun, who brought three of his grandchildren along
for the bus ride, made no promises about the future. He has
indicated he plans to return next season but said he’s taking his
time before finalizing that decision.

“The promise I will make to you is that the basketball team at
UConn will give everything in its heart and soul to make sure we
have another rally next year,” he said.

This was the eighth time there has been a parade in Hartford to
celebrate a UConn national championship. This is the men’s third
championship. The women’s basketball team has won seven. The state
held a rally but no parade after the women’s championship in 2003
after the start of the war in Iraq. In 2004, an estimated 300,000
people showed up for a joint parade after both men’s and women’s
teams won NCAA titles.

Cathy Maher, 29, of Cromwell, was attending her first UConn
victory parade.

“I think this is the basketball capital of the world,” she
said. “It’s really exciting.”

The team captured the imaginations of many fans with an amazing
postseason run that included five victories in five days to win the
Big East tournament in New York, and six consecutive wins in the
NCAA tournament.

“It’s good for the state of Connecticut,” said Doug Wilson,
34, of Plainville. “It’s good for the people, the fan base. And
I’m glad the men finally won, because the women have like seven
national championships. I get tired of the women sometimes.”

Many of the fans said they came just to get a glimpse of Walker,
who announced last week he is leaving school a year early to play
professionally in the NBA. Teammates pointed and laughed at one
sign, which depicted Walker, a Bronx native, in a New York Knicks
jersey.

Walker averaged 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists during
his junior season. He scored a school record 965 points, accounting
for 45 percent of the Huskies’ offense.

“He’s a champion,” said 8-year-old Christian Mereschuk of
Enfield. “He’s the best player on the team. I want to play for the
Huskies like him and then I want to play for the Miami Heat in the
NBA.”

After Walker spoke, the crowd began chanting, “One more year,
one more year.”
“It’s fun,” Walker said. “But, it’s too late for that. I
really wish I could come back. But it’s my time.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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