If the setup wasn’t so uniquely spring 2020 or such a peculiar combination of what we’ve seen countless times and yet never before, we’d begin with the truly profound: Geno Auriemma’s parting words for UConn graduates set to a enter a world altered and partially paralyzed.
First, though, we should establish a visual.
Just over two months ago, Auriemma stood before a crowd of 20,000 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with millions more watching live around the world and shook off nerves to deliver a moving speech during the Kobe Bryant memorial service at the request of Vanessa Bryant.
And here he was about a week ago at Gampel Pavilion, one of four people in a building that seats 10,000 and recording a speech that will be played as part of UConn’s virtual commencement ceremony next Saturday. It wasn’t at all intimidating, this scene in Auriemma’s professional home of 35 years, but it sure was odd.
“It was interesting standing behind a lectern talking to an empty stadium,” Auriemma said. “Nobody there. Nobody nodding yes or no. I felt like I was in a huddle.”
“You’re talking to three people wearing face masks. I actually did eight or nine minutes, but they took out about four. I guess only about five minutes of the nine were worth listening to.”
You got edited?
“I got edited.”
He laughed again.
“I’m standing there with the microphone attached to my graduation regalia. I asked, ‘Where’s the hat?’ Don’t these guys get hats? They get these big, floppy, Shakespearean hats. Unfortunately, they said, ‘Sorry, you don’t get one.’”
Here’s what UConn got in requesting Auriemma’s graduation participation: the perspective and inspiration that many seek to amplify in some way, from a local columnist looking for conversational perspective to a widow looking to properly honor her husband, a global basketball icon, and their daughter.
Auriemma, 66, is one of Connecticut’s most important and comforting voices, always for a team and a program, this week for a university saying goodbye to a wave of graduates. He represents UConn’s potential and ideals so well, a deep thinker capable of delivering messages that anyone, particularly a 22-year-old, would be wise to use as part of a bridge to what is next for the world and their place in it.
“I was really intent on not giving a ‘graduation’ talk,” Auriemma said. “The last thing I wanted was to go up there and give the typical, ‘You can be anything you desire’ kind of BS because we all come to realize that’s not true. All I did was explain to them the difference in generations.
“Every generation has their moment. I tried to compare what people refer to as the Greatest Generation [that defined America in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II]. There’s that old adage, ‘Do the times make the man, or does the man make the times?’ It’s an interesting question to ponder but … every generation has their moment. Every once in a while you’re part of a time that gives you an opportunity to define yourself.”
More than 8,000 students will graduate in a ceremony with a compilation of short addresses serving in the absence of a keynote speaker. Gov. Ned Lamont, UConn president Thomas Katsouleas and two students — including Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, UConn’s first Rhodes Scholar — will also take part in the ceremony, which begins at noon and will be streamed on UConn’s YouTube page.
How strange, all of it.
Beyond the most obvious and troubling realities of this COVID-19 pandemic, the sickness and death and the destruction of an economy with fallout for however many years to come, there is the loss of experiences that traditionally shape the lives of young people who will make up our future.
That’s who Auriemma was speaking to, and this is becoming, as he said, their defining moment.
“Not everybody is fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it, to grow up in that kind of era or in that moment in time,” Auriemma said. “It’s not unlike what my parents talked about, being a teenager during World War II and feeling like your whole life has been destroyed as you know it, your whole existence torn apart as you know it, and you don’t see any [way] out of it.
“All these people in this Great Generation that we talk about are all people that survived the Vietnam era, the civil rights struggle, the riots and the student uprising in the ’60s, the drug epidemic, 9/11, the wars in the Middle East, everything. If you’re older, you say, ‘How many of those things do I have to go through?’ If you’re young — if you’re my grandkids ages, 9, 6 and 5 — you’re saying, ‘Wow, is this the way the world is? I have to walk around like this for the rest of my life. I can’t play outside. I can’t go to school.’ So everybody is affected in some way, whether you’re a high school senior who missed out on prom or someone in a nursing home going, ‘I’ve been through a lot in my 80 years.’”
There’s always been strength and beauty in the American response, the human response.
That is coming.
“The Great Depression — lives lost, families ruined, businesses ruined — and the world seemed to be collapsing back then, and in actuality it did collapse for those people,” Auriemma said. “But what was left behind, what remained, became part of the greatest success story the world has ever known. The ability to go win a war, then the ’50s and the great prosperity. That all came out of suffering and heartache that came before it. And that seems to be the way the world works. There is tremendous prosperity followed by tremendous disasters and disappointments, followed by great prosperity.”
UConn announced the cancellation of its traditional commencement ceremony March 17, less than a week after the NCAA Tournaments were canceled and the sports world went dark.
“You can’t do anything about what just happened,” Auriemma said. “You can’t fix what just broke. But you can be part of the solution going forward. … These kids graduating now are right there at the forefront with incredibly bright people in these labs trying to come up with a solution. And they’re the people who are not just going to reinvent technology, but new business models.
“These moments are what bring the greatest creativity. So you can feel sorry for yourself or bemoan what happened to you, or that you missed graduation or this or that, but after that: What are you going to do?”
Thousands of young adults are about to carry a UConn degree into a changed world and show us.
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