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Chris Elsberry: Rowe makes Olympic trip after all

Published 8:20 am, Wednesday, December 26, 2012
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STORRS -- The picture was a constant reminder every time Geno Auriemma walked into Dee Rowe's office.

A reminder of a dream that never came true.

On the wall was a photo of the 1980 United States Olympic men's basketball team. There on a knee in the front row, third from the right, is Rowe, blond hair tinged with gray, dressed in a blue USA warm-up suit. He was going to be one of the assistant coaches under good friend and former Providence head coach Dave Gavitt, who would lead the team to Moscow and defend its gold medal.

Only ... the team never went.

On Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter said that unless the Soviets withdrew their troops, the United States would not participate in the Olympics that next summer. Russia refused. So, the USA, along with China, Japan, West Germany, Canada and 60 other countries, boycotted the games.

Dee Rowe's dream of being part of the Olympics was lost.

As a consolation, the basketball team -- led by Indiana's Isiah Thomas, De Paul's Mark Aguirre, Kentucky's Sam Bowie, Kansas' Darnell Valentine, Notre Dame's Bill Hanzlik and Louisville's Rodney McCray -- participated in a "Gold Medal Series" of games against four different NBA all-star teams. The Olympic team went 5-1, also beating France and the 1976 U.S. Olympic team.

And while the exhibition tour might have softened the blow about not going to Moscow, for Rowe, it was bittersweet. Many of those basketball players would go onto the NBA and have futures in sports. But for many of the other athletes, their one shot at glory was gone.

"I felt worse for the people whose sports didn't go on," Rowe said. "The (United States) soccer team, (UConn coach) Joe Morrone's son (Joe Jr.) was on that team ... Andy Bessette, who runs the golf tournament (Travelers Championship) now, he was on that (track) team (hammer throw) and they didn't go. I felt worse for the people that didn't have a tomorrow."

Fast forward to 2010. Auriemma is at the Winged Foot Club in New York City, receiving the Club's award as the winning women's coach for the 2010 NCAA championships. That night, Rowe "presented" Auriemma by reading an opening statement. And afterwards, Auriemma -- who had already been named the head coach for the 2012 Olympic women's basketball team -- spoke about Rowe's disappointment at not being able to go in 1980.

"I remember Geno saying, `I'm hoping to take him with me when we go,' " Rowe said. "And then we'd never talked about it since."

Making it happen Fast forward again to the summer of 2012. Rowe is called into UConn athletic director Warde Manuel's office.

"He told me they wanted me to go to the London Olympics as a university ambassador," Rowe said. "Geno had already spoken with him and Warde and Susan Herbst, the president, thought it was great. They all made it possible but Geno was the guy that said he was going to make it happen."

For Auriemma, the hardest part was how to get Rowe there.

"I thought, I can't bring him along as part of my group, part of USA Basketball because he's not a coach, he's not on my staff," Auriemma said. "When, all of a sudden, I found out that 250 (UConn alumni) people were going to be there and I said, `Perfect, we need someone to represent UConn.` Who's better? If you're having an event and you want someone to represent UConn, it's Dee Rowe. So that's when it all kind of came together. It was perfect."

How many times had Auriemma walked into Rowe's office and seen that 1980 Olympic photo in his 27 seasons working at UConn? Hundreds? Thousands? It silently ate him up inside knowing that someone as passionate as Rowe was toward basketball during his playing and coaching days (he coached the UConn men from 1969-77) never got to participate in the Olympics.

"I knew the story," Auriemma said. "Every time you go into Dee's office, from the very first time, I remember, you walk in there and there's a picture of the 1980 Olympic team. So, we talked about it a lot over the years, his experience with the team and how they barnstormed around the country and played a lot of teams, so I've been well aware of it for a long, long time."

Auriemma was also aware that once he was named the 2012 Olympics coach, he had to get Rowe to London.

"Everyone seemed to forget that in 1980, Dee was an assistant and he don't go because of the boycott," Auriemma said. "I know how much that meant to a traditionalist like Dee. I mean, he holds that very close to his heart. He loves basketball and he loves the ability to represent USA Basketball, that's one of the most important things in his life. So, when I had the opportunity to do that, it was just a matter of figuring out how it was going to get done."

Auriemma went to Manuel, pitched the alumni ambassador role (it really didn't take much pitching at all, Manuel was "sold" after five minutes, according to Auriemma) and shortly thereafter, Geno told Dee the news.

"I was just so shocked and taken by it. I still can't believe it," Rowe said.

London-bound Rowe and his wife, Ginny, arrived in London on Aug. 10, seeing the United States team play four times, including the gold medal game. He renewed acquaintances with Duke coach (and men's Olympic head coach) Mike Krzyzewski and (Syracuse coach, Olympic assistant) Jim Boeheim and was the center of attention at the UConn Alumni function.

"We had 250 people there and having Dee there made it all work. He had a great time," Auriemma said. "He got to be part of the Olympic experience. This might have been a real good capper for Dee's career. And it couldn't happen to a better person. Dee's been a real mentor to me the whole time that I've been there (at UConn) and I couldn't think of anyone else that I'd rather share that with other than him."

And when Auriemma said those same words to the crowd at the function, Rowe couldn't help but become emotional.

"I was truly taken by it all," Rowe said. "I was overwhelmed. We're having this big reception and I'm just standing in the corner and Geno starts talking about me ..." Moved by the memory, Rowe stopped and pulled a laminated card from his shirt pocket. It was the funeral card for Gavitt, who died on Sept. 16, 2011 at the age of 73.

"He was the one that made it possible for me (to be an assistant) and I only wish he could have been there to share it," Rowe said. "I still carry this (card) around. Dave Gavitt was my dear, dear friend ... he made such a difference in my life."

And Rowe has made a difference in the lives of so many others. Most especially at UConn.

"He touches academics, he touches basketball, he touches everybody. He always has a sense of pride about this university. I just enjoy being around him," said UConn women's associate head coach Chris Dailey. "Dee Rowe is a legend. I don't think I've gone anywhere in the country where someone at a university or a college doesn't know Dee. Just talking to him is a treat. Every day I get a chance to say `hi' to him. He just knows so many people and has had so many experiences, I certainly knew that was one disappointment that he had, that he never got to go to the Olympics." That disappointment is now gone.

During the week he was there, Rowe said he was moved by the incredible Olympic spirit.

"You'd go into the Olympic Park area next to the basketball and there's all the people, every race, creed, color, people of every national origin getting along," Rowe said. "It was like an incredible peace and spirit that would give anyone a great, positive feeling about life and sports. You couldn't help but be moved by what went on." And for someone like Rowe, 83, who's survived four different cancer surgeries, seeing that spirit and those positive feelings made him feel young again.

"It's like healing," he said. "It just did something for me."

Like Rowe does for UConn.

"I think that Dee has a special relationship with our program," Dailey said. "He's got a special relationship with a lot of people but I think he has a special relationship with Geno and our program. He just means so much to us.. Dee has just done so much for so many people and this university in all different facets of his life, as a coach, as a fundraiser, as a story-teller. I can't tell you what he means to us."

Auriemma can.

"Dee's the kind of guy that is very emotional and he has such great passion for the game and the people that play the game, for the coaches and for the whole Olympic experience," Auriemma said. "There were times over there, especially when he had our photos taken with all six of the (UConn) players and him and we presented him with a ball, you could tell that this was a point in his life that he thought would never come. And for it to happen and for it to mean as much as it did, that was one of the best parts of the whole experience for me. It was unbelievable."

celsberry@ctpost.com