Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Khalid El-Amin remembers UConn’s NCAA championship win over Duke in 1999.
What can I say? It was just something that came to my mind in that moment.
“We plan to shock the world today.”
Just seven words. As I said them, I didn’t know it was going to be that big of a deal.
It was in the stadium tunnel right before the game. A reporter asked me if Duke was going to present “match-up problems” for us. I was a little annoyed. I was thinking, We’re going to present match-up problems for Duke. I didn’t mean any disrespect, I just felt I had to let everybody know that we came to play and that we weren’t going to lay down.
Shock the world. That was how our UConn team felt going into the national championship game against Duke in 1999. We didn’t feel like underdogs, yet we were being treated like it. Oddsmakers had us as 10-point underdogs, and we felt disrespected by that margin considering UConn and Duke were No. 1 and No. 2 all year. We knew all about Duke’s history, and being that it was our first Final Four and UConn had never been there, I knew we needed a way to hype ourselves up. And at the same time, I wanted to let the country know it was going to be a good game.
We were great that year because we had so many threats. My role, as the point guard, was to bring confidence and leadership to the team while at the same time bringing some style.
Now you’d probably use the word swagger. The Huskies played with swagger.
Our starting lineup was a perfect blend of role players. Rip Hamilton was our guy. He was our horse, our scoring machine. He finished the national championship game with 27, and that was pretty typical for Rip. Then we had a great defender in Ricky Moore, a guy who could clog up the middle in Jake Voskuhl and our all-purpose guy, Kevin Freeman. We had the nuts and bolts coming off the bench, too. Edmund Saunders was an energetic forward who loved to rebound, Albert Mouring was a sharp-shooter and a good defender, Rashamel Jones was a big-time leader on the court in and Souleymane Wane was a key factor in helping us stop Elton Brand.
It was truly a team — we had the right chemistry and camaraderie for every guy to help the next guy do well.
Coming into the national championship game, Coach Calhoun challenged us: If we didn’t play one of our best games, there was a good chance we could lose.
Telling us there was a chance we could lose? We’d never heard that from him before. Coach usually told us, “We’re the better team, but this is why we play the game. To prove we’re the better team.” Before the Duke game, he was making it clear that this was going to be the toughest game of the season.
The game didn’t start out as well as we wanted it to. Duke came out and hit us hard in the first couple of minutes. William Avery started out hot — he must have had seven quick points — and we found ourselves down 9-2 before we broke a sweat. It shook us up a bit, but that’s when the elders on the team stepped up. Our game plan was to double Elton Brand whenever he got the ball inside. We wanted the rest of the Duke guys to have to beat us from outside taking tough shots. Trajan Langdon was Ricky Moore’s assignment and we were confident that he could get the job done.
In the first half, I don’t think Elton Brand was ready for the double-team, and so our game plan was paying off. We were able to keep him at bay with only five points in the first half. Trajan Langdon had a good game overall shooting the ball, but we were able to contain Duke’s other shooters.
The game was close all the way, but the last two minutes were winning time. Two plays stand out.
The first one was when I had the ball with a minute left and we were up by one, the national championship on the line. Those are the moments that you dream about as a player. The shot clock was ticking down and I knew I had to make a play. I used my hesitation move to freeze the defense, then drove left and hit a runner right outside of the lane.
I had done that play a thousand times. The hesitation move allowed me the split second I needed to get past the defense. It was probably one of my best moves — something I still use to this day — so I was just going back to my bread and butter. I was just trying to keep it simple.
The next play was even bigger. Duke made two free throws, so they cut our lead to one. I came down and missed a shot and they got the ball back. Suddenly, Duke found themselves with the ball and a chance to take the lead with less than 30 seconds left.
Ricky Moore was guarding Trajan Langdon, who had the ball at the top of the key. Langdon was hot the whole game, so we figured he would take the final shot. There was never a more tense moment in all my time at UConn. All of us on defense were ready to help in case Ricky needed it, but to Ricky’s credit, he didn’t. With less than 10 seconds left, Langdon drove into the key and did a spin move. Ricky dug in, moved his feet and was able to force Trajan Langdon to travel.
At that moment, we felt we were in control. But it wasn’t over. I still had to hit two free throws. People ask me all the time if I was nervous shooting two free throws for the national championship. I tell them, Those are the moments that I live for. There’s no time to be nervous.
That’s what you play college basketball for — to have a chance for a national championship. When I sank the free throws and the game was over, we knew we had shocked the world.
In the 15 years since that game, Connecticut fans still come up to me and mention my quote. “Shock the world” has become a mantra. It stands for a team that believes in itself, even if the odds are against them.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.
Photographs by AP Images