It’s hard to believe, but it was a little over a year ago that I wrote one of my favorite articles ever, “A Goodbye to Kemba Walker.” I’ll always be a UConn fan before I am a writer, and Kemba’s good-bye letter reflects that. It’s not some pre-packaged puff piece, but heartfelt and through the eyes of a fan.
Well, one year and a few days later it’s time to write another letter, as another key cog in the 2011 championship team leaves Storrs. Alex Oriahki isn’t departing for the NBA, but instead transferring, and will spend his final year of college at Missouri. And while Oriahki doesn’t leave UConn with the acclaim, hardware or statistical resume that Kemba did, he was just as important to the 2011 title run as Kemba, or anyone else on UConn’s roster. Simply put, UConn wouldn’t have won the title without him.
So as Oriahki gets set to depart, and spend his last year of college ball at Missouri, I only thought it was appropriate that I gave him a final good-bye as well. His college career might not be over, but his time at UConn is.
When I wrote Kemba his good-bye letter last year, I opened it with the following two paragraphs. They went as follows:
So word on the street is that you’re leaving UConn, huh?
Can’t say that I totally blame you. Actually, I take that back. I can’t think of one good reason you should come back to UConn. Well, unless you enjoy the sorority parties and 15 degree January nights that much. Really, looking at this thing objectively, I can’t remember a college basketball player with less reason to come back to school for another year.
Take out the last sentence, and I can’t think of a better way to open this letter to you. I’m sad to see you go, but given everything that’s going on at UConn right now, I can’t think of many good reasons for you to stay. We all know you had a tough junior year, UConn is ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament and Missouri offers you the opportunity to play right away, for a team that’ll likely start the year in the Top 10. For all the things you love about Storrs (which I’m sure include off-the-court indulgences like D.P. Dough and Ted’s), it’s time for you to move on to the next chapter of your life. Don’t listen to any of the idiots on Facebook or Twitter giving you a hard time. This is the right move. It just might take some of us some time to get over it.
Yes, it’s going to take some time, but please understand that’s because you’re different than most guys who’ve come through this program, or through college basketball in general. You’re not just some name in the record books, a face that’ll fade into memory in a few short years. Nope, you’re one of “us,” a guy who was a Husky long before you got to campus, and will continue to be one long after your year at Missouri, and hopefully many more in the NBA too. That won’t ever change.
Why am I so confident? Well, it really goes back to 2006, when I myself was a junior at UConn, and you decided right then and there, that you wanted to go to UConn. Reflecting back on that, it’s all kind of crazy. At the time you had just finished your freshman year in high school, yet were already set in stone on your college future. You didn’t need to see any other campuses, you didn’t need to meet any other coaches, and even though there were three years (and incredibly about 1,000 days) between when you committed and when you signed your official Letter of Intent, you never once wavered on that decision. In a day and age where high school kids switch up their college choices the way most people change their orders on a whim at Burger King, you were the extreme outlier. And it spoke volumes about who you were, and what kind of person we were getting at UConn, to go along with your immense basketball talent. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s always good to know that the McDonald’s All-American coming to town is also a good kid too.
But let’s go back to that summer after your freshman year of high school. Sure you weren’t even legally allowed to drive at the time, but by committing to UConn, you were a part of the extended family. Like I said before, you’ve been a Husky for much longer than the two and a half years you’ve been on campus.
See, what you’ve got to realize about us fans Alex, is that we’re not totally rational, and we don’t see the world in the same way that normal, functional people like yourself do. If we were normal, we would’ve welcomed you when you arrived at school in the fall of 2009, but truthfully, our “relationship” (if you will), started long before then. Once you committed as a 15-year-old (crazy how time flies, huh?), you became one of us. We followed your AAU and high school games and tried to get all the information we could on Rivals, Scout and in our local newspapers, because sadly, that’s just what us fans do. It’s also why it’s so tough to see you go. You’ve been part of our lives for close to six years now, which means that I’ve literally known you (or I should say “known about you”) longer than I’ve actually known some of my own family members. My five-year-old niece won’t be happy to hear that, but it’s true. Then again, she’s five, so who cares, right?
Anyway, those were the early days, and once you actually did get to campus, well crap, has anyone had a more interesting three years playing college basketball than you have? If anything, your career at UConn reminds me of that old show “24”; I just don’t know how you fit so much stuff into one three-year career, but somehow you did. Wait, you do remember that show, right? You’re not too young I hope? Either way, that Jack Bauer dude was crazy. Then again, so was your career.
You came to UConn in the fall of 2009 when the team had just been to the Final Four the previous spring, and I bet you thought you’d be going to the Final Four that first year too. Only it didn’t happen; actually you guys weren’t even a little bit close.
None of it was your fault of course. You were just a young, bearded, 6’9 freshman (like we all were at the age), and you just so happened to walk into a program that was filled with knuckleheads and where wins were few and far between. Yes, Stanley (Robinson), Jerome Dyson and some of the other veterans on that team were good guys. I know them personally. I like them plenty. But they were still knuckleheads. Heck, I wouldn’t even want those guys placing a takeout order for me at Subway, let alone being the leaders of my basketball team. Except that’s the situation you walked into your freshman year at UConn though, and I’m guessing if it weren’t for Kemba and your buddy Jamal Coombs-McDaniel you would’ve lost your mind in that bizarre, twisted, 18-15 season. Truth be told, I bet you lost more games in your freshman year at UConn than you did in your last two years of high school and AAU ball combined.
Luckily, that awful freshman year made way to your sophomore year, and well, I’m guessing that was pretty fun for you. Granted, it wasn’t always fun, and that team struggled more than most remember. But with that said, you guys did win a National Championship and all. To quote those Chris Farley skits on Saturday Night Live, you do remember that, right? When you won a National Championship? How awesome was that?
Anyway, during that title run, that’s when you became my favorite player on the team. While Kemba got all the limelight, media attention and (I’m guessing) girls too, you were the one who did all the dirty work and the guy who brought his hard-hat to work every night. Believe me, I watched every one of those games, and I know exatly how much you meant to that team. There were nights where you were UConn’s only post presence. There were nights when you were going up against 2-3 guys that were bigger than you. But you never backed down, ever. I don’t like using abstract adjectives to describe someone’s play, but if there’s ever been an actual “warrior” on the basketball court, you were it in the 2011 season. I said it at the time, and still believe it to this day: Kemba may have been the “best” player on the 2011 team, but you were the most “important.” Simply put, UConn wouldn’t have won the title without you.
Of course with the good of the 2011 championship, came the bad of 2012, and just as prominently as you were involved with the good times, you were involved with the not so good this year too.
Now please understand, I’m not blaming you for what went wrong this year (not at all), and as tough as it was for us to watch every night, I’m guessing it was twice as tough for you to live through. At some point I’d love to take you out for a beer and get the scoop on what went on behind the scenes this year, but my goodness, you guys had more ups and downs than an episode of Jersey Shore (wait, do the kids still watch that show? I’m so out of touch).
And the sad part is I’m not sure anyone can totally figure out what went exactly wrong. As a whole, you all seemed to like each other, you all seemed to get along, and you’re all obviously really good kids, yet something just wasn’t right all year. I’m sure that Boatright’s suspension didn’t help, I’m sure having Calhoun out for so many games didn’t help either, and on a personal level for you, it couldn’t have been easy to share the paint with Andre (Drummond), after having it to yourself two years ago. But whatever it was, you all just never fit together. It was a bunch of square pegs in round holes; you mixed together like oil and water, or lamb and tuna fish (no, that’s not a pun on Jeremy’s last name… just a bad quote from the movie “Big Daddy.”
The worst part was that of every guy on the team, you were the one who sacrificed the most, and got the least amount of credit for it. Seriously, think about it for a second. Jeremy still got his stats, Shabazz still had his moments, and even Roscoe earned plenty of PT by the end of the year. But you? You got the short end of the stick most nights.
Admittedly, some was your fault, and if I had to guess, you’d probably like to do things over (by the way, why were you so grumpy in the Bahamas? I know you weren’t getting much run, but I mean… you were in the Bahamas? Wait, should we not be talking about this? I’ll shut up now), but at the same time, I know it wasn’t easy. Your entire junior season was one of extremes. Some nights you started and some nights you didn’t. Some nights you played 30 minutes and others 13. Sometimes it looked like you wanted to strangle Calhoun with a Gatorade towel, and others it looked like 2011 all over again. It was a weird year for the team, but even more so for you.
But even after things started tough, to your credit you did what you always do: Put aside your own stats and your own acclaim for the good of the team. You were the one that rallied the guys in the locker room before the Seton Hall game, and told them that if they didn’t shape up, you all wouldn’t be shipped out to the NCAA Tournament. Apparently the guys got the message. It wasn’t a pretty road to the NCAA Tournament, but you did in fact get there.
Really though, that last paragraph right there is why I loved watching you play, and why I’m going to miss you so damn much: You cared about the team more than anything else. In an age where all anyone cares about is numbers, stats, and getting on Sportscenter every night, you just wanted to win, win, no matter what.
Seriously, do me a favor Alex and don’t undersell what you did in Storrs, and don’t let anyone say that you were anything but the consummate teammate. In your three years at UConn you let Kemba get the acclaim, let Jeremy get the points, yet you sir, were the heart and soul of the team. As a matter of fact, I feel like this picture from the 2011 Big East Tournament sums up everything so well. Go ahead and look at it. Kemba may have been the star that week, but it’s you that’s holding the trophy in the end. And really, isn’t that totally symbolic of your time in Storrs? You may not have been the big name that everyone knew, but you literally and figuratively had your fingerprints on everything that happened.
But with all that said, if there is one story that I would use to best describe you, it wouldn’t come from last year’s Big East Tournament or NCAA Tournament, and wouldn’t even come from the two disappointing seasons the championship was sandwiched in between.
Instead the story I’m thinking of came last August, when the cameras were off, and you were playing summer ball Hartford Pro-Am. I’m guessing that after playing in front of 70,000 people at Reliant Stadium a few months before, you probably don’t even remember the Pro-Am, but I do remember watching you and a few of the other guys that afternoon. The gym was packed, and you were in the lay-up line with a few guys I knew (Jeremy, Boatright, DeAndre Daniels) and a couple others I didn’t. That’s just the nature of these pro-am games: For every Alex Oriahki or Jeremy Lamb, there are five or 10 guys that nobody has ever heard of.
Which is why what you did next struck me the most.
Coming off a National Championship it would’ve been easy for you to be bored by the moment, or at the very least take it for granted. Only you didn’t act that way at all. Instead there you were in the lay-up line, treating a summer afternoon in the Pro-Am like it was the NCAA Tournament, and more importantly treating every guy on your team (half of whom had no business being on the court with you),like he was your oldest friend from the neighborhood. And that’s when I realized right then and there: “Good God, Alex Oriahki is a great freakin’ teammate. He seems like an even better guy.”
Well, the good news is that everyone at Missouri is going to find that out soon enough.
It’s crazy, but if I had to guess, you’ll probably be leaving Connecticut for good in what, like a month? I know UConn ends classes the first week of May, and I’m sure you’re going to want to get a jump on things with your new teammates. I know you know Flip Pressey from your AAU days, and I truly hope that the two of you make sweet music together, like you and Kemba did once upon a time. If anything, my only advice would be this: Just play at Missouri like you did your first three years at UConn, and everyone out there will love you just as much as we have in Connecticut.
Anyway, I guess it’s time to start wrapping up. I’m not good at this good-bye stuff, so please forgive me if it all gets a little mushy. Then again, I guess this whole letter has been mushy, no?
Just know that I speak for most Huskies fans when I say thank you. Thank you for being a good teammate, for being a good guy, and for being a great representative of this university both on and off the court. Oh, and thank you for being one of the biggest pieces, to one of the greatest chapters in UConn basketball history. If I have one regret from the entire Alex Oriahki experience, it’s only that we didn’t get to watch you play for another year.
Unfortunately, it’s time for you to move on, and I wish you the best of luck at Missouri. Just remember that no matter what happens next year, you’ll always be a Husky. Personally, you might be my favorite Husky to ever wear the uniform, which is why Missouri didn’t just get a new power forward for next year, but a new fan in me too.
Best of luck, and we’ll be in touch at some point down the road. If I don’t see you beforehand, we’ll definitely catch up at the 10-year anniversary of the 2011 championship in 2021. Sure it’s nine years away, but really, who’s counting?
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