Why you should care
Because roundball is a contact sport.
During his first start at point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a home game on November 1 against the Memphis Grizzlies, Kris Dunn walked on the court with something to prove. The 6′ 4″ rookie from New London, Connecticut, showed it when he tipped in Karl-Anthony Towns’ missed layup over 6′ 10″ Jarell Martin. Then he demonstrated his grit with five steals, his guts by trying to dunk on 6′ 9″ JaMychal Green and his confidence in crossing up 6′ 11″ Deyonta Davis. Nothing about Dunn’s game revealed any fear of the NBA giants or the big stage.
And nothing about his take-no-prisoners game has ever surprised anyone from his home state. Never mind the historic villages, country clubs, topsiders and Gilmore Girls. Connecticut is home to a racially diverse inner-city sports culture with a strict no-punks-allowed policy and a demand for excellence. And yet, for all the tough, dominant players Connecticut has sent to high-major colleges and the pros, the state’s rep as a basketball hotbed has gotten little to no traction. But that Rodney Dangerfield, can’t-get-no-respect status is changing, says Peter Higgins, 46, co-founder of the 20-year-old Greater Hartford Pro-Am (GHPA) program. He claims the state’s hard-nosed players are finally gaining recognition as more than “diamonds in the rough.”
The talent is here [in Connecticut]. They’re not even recognizing the late bloomers they might miss.
John Bagley, former NBA player
A look at high-major basketball in the 2000s confirms that he and other Connecticut boosters have a point. During his 2000–2001 junior season at Clemson, Hartford native Will Solomon averaged 20 points per game before the Vancouver Grizzlies drafted him in the second round. Ryan Gomes, a product of Waterbury’s basketball factory, averaged 22 points during his 2004–2005 senior season at Providence College, while Dunn averaged 16 points there as a senior last year before going to the Timberwolves fifth overall in the draft. ESPN ranked New Haven’s Tremont Waters as the seventh best high school point guard in the country, and the McDonald’s All-American nominee just committed to Georgetown University.
So how does a place that produces high-major talent end up with a low-major rep? Here’s one reason: Small sports markets tend to get overlooked. Higgins personifies Connecticut as Boston and New York’s “little brother who gets bullied. We’re supposed to be included in that New England thing, but we’re not getting that shine on,” Higgins says. “We’re like, ‘Don’t forget about us!’ ”
Sam Vecenie, a college basketball writer for CBSSports.com, hits a similar small-is-obscure note about Connecticut. “I don’t really think it has a national reputation in terms of the kids that come out of the state to play high-major hoops,” he says. “It’s probably just a bit too small for that.” According to Vecenie, Connecticut prep schools amp up their competitive level by recruiting athletes from New York and elsewhere and the last true Connecticut athlete to play at the high-major level was Norwalk’s Steven Enoch, a sophomore forward at the University of Connecticut. Oh, yeah? What about Meriden native and Auburn freshman Mustapha Heron, who is averaging 16 points a game?
Phil Chardis, sports information director at the University of Connecticut, the state’s most prestigious Division I basketball program, echoes Vecenie, observing that there isn’t much talent in Connecticut due to its “smallish population.” When sports fans do associate Connecticut with basketball, they usually think of UConn, but the Huskies rarely represent the homegrown talent. From 2000 to 2016, the men’s program recruited just eight in-state scholarship players.
John Bagley thinks UConn is missing out on some serious talent. Bagley, 56, came out of the Bridgeport housing project Father Panik Village and became a Big East Player of the Year for Boston College in 1981 and 12th pick overall in the NBA draft the following year. He played 13 seasons in the pros, averaging 12 points and nine assists a game when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “The talent is here,” Bagley tells OZY. “I think some of it may be a little undeveloped, [and] they’re not even recognizing the late bloomers they might miss.”
Gomes was one such sleeper. After graduating from Providence, he went on to an eight-year career in the NBA. Although Waterbury is just an hour from UConn’s Storrs campus, the university did not recruit Gomes. So when he scored 26 points against the Huskies in 2004, his performance provoked an infamous rant by UConn coach Jim Calhoun. A reporter asked Calhoun what he missed when Gomes played for Wilby High School, and the future Hall of Famer barked: “I fucked up. I didn’t take Ryan Gomes. Does that make you happy? … If you want me to say I fucked up, I fucked up. Write it.”
Connecticut players may go underrated, even in their home state, but that doesn’t shake their confidence. GHPA co-founder Kevin Kirksey says “attitude” is their trademark, because Connecticut basketball is a ruthless mix of aggression and trash talk, and “if you can’t handle it, you can’t come back.” Before Dunn signed his contract with the Timberwolves, he appeared on ESPN First Take. Asked what separated him from other players, Dunn said it was his mentality, the “dog attitude” that he attributed to New London.
Nobody from Connecticut’s basketball scene was surprised by that answer. He demonstrated it with his play on that Minnesota court in November, showing that size only matters if you let it.