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Saying goodbye to an old friend who made the good times better

My time on the UConn women's basketball beat, now more than a decade ago, was its own college education, not merely following kids getting their college educations, but meeting so many different, fascinating people.

Dennis Burden and Nancy Bird among them.

And it is with great sorrow that I learned of Dennis' recent death.

He was 68.

Dennis Burden was Sue Bird's stepfather. Dennis and Nancy were the UConn traveling party's bon vivants, the epicenter of pre/postgame fun. To think all the fans wept the night of Sue's senior night, saddened such a memorable career was ending. The rest of us reached for the tissues because our time with Dennis and Nancy was over.

I haven't said 10 words to them since Sue graduated. Life changes. It changes faster than it stays the same. But I've learned that all the times and moments in your life eventually come around again, perhaps to form a balance, perhaps to illustrate that life imparts answers at its own pace.

Dennis' death elicited a profound reaction. It occurred to me that no two people, places or things framed life around UConn in those days better than Dennis and Nancy. To the outside world, UConn was fussy Geno Auriemma and joyless, 40-point wins.

Au contraire. It was about fun. Eclectic senses of humor and good people who reveled in each other's company. They realized they were in a special place at a special time and ought to enjoy it. Nobody went straight to their rooms after road games.

Carl Adamec of the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, the dean of the team's current beat writers, called the other day to ask if I'd heard about Dennis' death. Carl launched into several stories about Dennis and Nancy, led by the night Sue had a breakout game at Tennessee.

"Dennis had a few that night and made sure everyone else did, too," Carl said. "The happiest guy ever."

This was at the Marriott in Knoxville. The hotel bar was named "Knuckles."

Perfect.

Dennis' other life was as the athletic director of Great Neck North School District in New York. He managed to find the time to travel the country with Nancy. They weren't just Sue's biggest fans. But UConn's biggest fans, too.

Same with all the other parents we met along the way. Marcia Mann, Shea Ralph's mom, was a hoot. She'd scour parking lots for "lucky pennies" on the day of games. The rare times she wouldn't find a penny would usually result in a loss.

The UConn fandom, faithfully viewing their "girls" as Eliza Doolittles, would be happy to know that they were regular kids with an extraordinary talent for basketball. They had parents who taught them long before college the whereabouts of the out-of-bounds line. And not to cross it. They had coaches who reinforced the lessons. That they became unwitting rock stars here didn't really change them much.

I loved the night Sue got a technical foul for taking the Lord's name in vain in front of an official. She was incredulous, mostly because she'd said worse than that many times.

Ralph called home after the first day of practice and said, "momma, you wouldn't believe how much he cusses."

Nykesha Sales, upon winning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, said, "that's because they let me guard the easy ones."

On it went. It was airports, hotels and the hassles of travel. But when I think back, when I think of Dennis and Nancy and many great nights, great games and great lines.

Those were the days, my friend.

We thought they'd never end.

We'd sing and dance forever and a day.

We'd live the life we choose;

We'd fight and never lose;

For we were young and sure to have our way.

Sue Bird rejoins the Olympic team later this week after the wake and funeral for Dennis. She may have no idea that she was the mere co-star during her time at UConn to her mom and stepfather. Dennis Burden and Nancy Bird lived life the way you draw it up.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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