SI Vault
 
TOP Dogs
Grant Wahl
December 21, 1998
Khalid El-Amin and Richard Hamilton, a breed apart on the court, have the Connecticut Huskies in an unaccustomed spot: atop the national rankings
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 21, 1998

Top Dogs

Khalid El-Amin and Richard Hamilton, a breed apart on the court, have the Connecticut Huskies in an unaccustomed spot: atop the national rankings

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

UCan, UCan't

Connecticut is among the 10 winningest teams of the 1990s. Appropriately, with the exceptions of 1996-97, when the Huskies went 18-15, and 1992-93, when they went 15-13, the team has been ranked among the regular-season Top 10 in the weekly AP poll at least once each year. Despite this success, the Huskies have never made it to the Final Four.

SEASON

WEEKS IN TOP 10

HIGHEST RANK

NCAA RESULT

1998-99

4

1

?

1997-98

11

6

Elite Eight

1995-96

18

3

Sweet 16

1994-95

15

1

Elite Eight

1993-94

9

2

Sweet 16

1991-92

9

5

Second round

1990-91

1

9

Sweet 16

1989-90

6

4

Elite Eight

At 2 a.m. on Nov. 29, Connecticut sophomore point guard Khalid El-Amin I was lounging peacefully on the tan living room sofa of his off-campus apartment when the phone started ringing. He had just watched Cincinnati upset No. 1 Duke four time zones away in Alaska, and the euphoria was spreading like a nor'easter through Husky Nation. Over the next half hour El-Amin received seven calls: congratulations from his parents, hoots and hollers from his friends in Connecticut and back home in Minneapolis, and a more serious talk with UConn teammate Richard (Rip) Hamilton.

"You see the game?" Hamilton asked.

"Yeah."

"You know what it's time for, don't you?"

"Time to knuckle down and play some ball. We're Number 1 now, so we'd better hold on to it."

El-Amin and Hamilton weren't aware of it, but history was working against them. In 98 years of playing basketball, the Huskies had been ranked No. 1 only once before, in 1995, and on that occasion they suffered an embarrassing home court loss to Villanova only four days later. So much for history. Through Sunday, 8-0 UConn had beaten three Top 20 teams—including a miraculous 70-69 win at then No. 20 Pittsburgh last Saturday, and border rival UMass—since taking over the top spot, and wild-eyed Connecticut fans were thinking that maybe, maybe this will be the Huskies' year after a decade of NCAA Tournament misery (chart, page 79).

There's reason for hope in Hopeville, Conn., and in Bridgeport and Hartford and everywhere else in the basketball-loopy state that coach Jim Calhoun calls "a mini Kentucky." All five starters returned to Storrs from last year's 32-5 Elite Eight team, including lead Huskies El-Amin and Hamilton, two of the finest perimeter players in the country. El-Amin is a yapping, trapping, energy-sapping whirlwind whose light-footed moves make one overlook the fact that his body is shaped like a shot put. Listed at 5'10" and a Gingrich-conservative 203 pounds, he has heard all the insults, such as "doughboy," a name frequently shouted at him last year. That was nothing, though, compared to the wise guy at Virginia who approached him during warmups carrying a Domino's pizza box and asked if he was hungry. "That was pretty funny," says El-Amin, "but we won, so I got the last laugh."

Hamilton, for his part, is a dazzlingly efficient scorer. Equally adept at working off screens for his shot or slashing to the hole, the 6'6", 185-pound junior swingman is averaging 18.8 points a game. "He has a rare combination of shooting touch and a feel for the game," says Calhoun, who responds to pro scouts' criticisms of Hamilton's frail stature by comparing him in size and style with the late Reggie Lewis, whom Calhoun coached at Northeastern.

Yet while Hamilton is one of a handful of favorites to win the national player of the year award, he remains largely unknown. At Connecticut he shares the spotlight with El-Amin. Even at Coatesville (Pa.) High, Hamilton was overshadowed by his friend and rival Kobe Bryant, from nearby Lower Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. It wasn't just that Bryant's Lower Merion High beat Coatesville all three times that the two players went head-to-head. Bryant was the star when the two played together on a Philadelphia-area AAU team in the summer of '95. "Everyone watched Kobe," says Sam Rines, the team's coach. "Most of the time they would come down on the break, and Richard would be throwing Kobe an alley-oop pass." Says Hamilton's high school coach, Jim Smith, "Kobe got all the notoriety, so when people saw what Richard could do, they were always saying, Where did this kid Hamilton come from?"

Then when Hamilton announced he was going to Connecticut, the only video camera at the press conference was his dad's; when Kobe announced he was turning pro, Philly TV stations carried the press conference live. When their senior proms came around, Rip squired Courtney Joseph, a star from Coatesville's state champion girls' team; Kobe's date was the singer-actress Brandy. Even last year, while Rip was becoming only the third sophomore ever to win Big East player of the year honors—John Bagley of BC and Chris Mullin of St. John's were the others—Kobe was starting in the NBA All-Star Game.

Continue Story
1 2 3