Calhoun's guys keep on proving that it's never too late to learn
Taliek Brown, 30 years old now, is a Johnny Cash lyric. He's been everywhere, man, pursuing a basketball career in Bulgaria and Croatia, Macedonia and Canada, Venezuela and Turkey.
And he could have been anywhere, man, Tuesday of this week, what with the resplendent sunshine so perfect for chillin, grillin or drillin the little white ball. Instead, Taliek Brown was back home again, back home at UConn, in the basketball office at Gampel Pavilion where a photo of him and the 2004 national championship team hangs proudly.
It was noon and Taliek Brown had just finished class, the last one he needs to complete his college degree in political science. Yes. At the end of this month, we can call him, "Taliek Brown, college graduate."
This is an achievement unmatched during Brown's basketball life. And it was a notable basketball life: the gutty little speedball, effortless in the relentless push foul line to foul line, the author of the 40-footer in the 2004 Big East championship game, the shot that blew the roof off Broadway.
Ah, memories. They endure. But they don't answer questions. Like when you come face to face with the rest of his life.
"I made decent money playing basketball," Brown was saying inside assistant coach George Blaney's office. "I didn't have to work. I'd get summers off. But when I went back to play in Canada (last year), I got hurt. When I got back, I got hurt again."
Suddenly, his life of amusement gave way to alarm: What's next? Your dreams aren't over at 30, are they?
"I knew I had to finish school," he said.
This is an epiphany that Taliek Brown shares with fellow UConn alum Tony Robertson - make that new UConn graduate Tony Robertson - who reinvented his life at 32 recently and earned his degree. Robertson's journey, as told to columnist Bill Reynolds recently in the Providence Journal, would turn even the most ardent skeptic into a softy.
Robertson told Reynolds he was tired of working minimum wage jobs, tired of that long fade into obscurity. So with the help of Blaney and Jim Calhoun, Robertson went back to school, to UConn.
"I felt weird in the beginning," he told Reynolds. "I was the oldest person there. I'm the first person in my family to ever graduate from college. I don't want to be the last."
And so as Robertson was graduating, here came Taliek Brown, a few courses short. Another thirtysomething who turns out to be really something.
"I was close to my degree. Real close. I got to walk," Brown said. "But I left to pursue my dream. You know, though, at some point, you realize school really is the most important thing. Without that piece of paper, you'll never do all the things you want to do. In the beginning, everything worked out because of basketball. But now, you realize what happens when basketball is over."
It would require a degree of cynicism to suggest that Robertson and Brown are only now doing what most college students do in four or five years. Except that how many Tonys and Talieks never go back? How many of them perpetuate the stereotype of diminished academic expectations for big-time college athletes?
"I could have been done with my degree if I put more time into it and took it more seriously," Brown said.
You think that line doesn't resonate with so many other kids today?
"Now I'm mature," he said. "I think back and know if I put as much time into this as I did basketball … but I did just enough so I could keep playing. I was just young and immature."
It should be noted that UConn gets no bump here for the infamous Academic Progress Rate, the NCAA's yardstick for academic achievement.
It should also be noted that those of us who have been critical of what we perceived as Calhoun's laissez-faire attitude toward academics get a piece of humble pie the size of a rear tire.
Note to UConn and Calhoun: bravo.
"We keep in constant contact with the kids. Jim, especially, doesn't give up on them," Blaney said. "We ask them about their lives and how we can help. It's about getting them to do the right thing for themselves. Different guys get it at different times."
Tony and Taliek got it in their early 30s. The point: They got it. Their stories cannot get told enough.
Taliek Brown says he wants to coach. And maybe to let one other guy know that he's about to graduate.
"Doc Taigen," he said, referring to Ted Taigen, the basketball program's academic advisor in the Calhoun era. "It would make him really proud to see me get this far in school."
It should make every UConn fan proud, too.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.
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