HARTFORD, Conn. – Fans lined up four and five deep at spots Sunday to catch a glimpse of Connecticut's basketball team as it paraded through downtown to celebrate the program's third national title.
The Huskies rode on a double-decker bus waving to an estimated 40,000 fans who celebrated their 53-41 win over Butler on April 4 in Houston. They were escorted by bands, jugglers, politicians and even dogs from a local Siberian Husky club.
Center Alex Oriakhi blew kisses, and star guard Kemba Walker took pictures of the crowd as fans held up signs. One read, "One Nation Under Kemba."
Walker said the celebration helped him grasp the magnitude of his team's accomplishment.
"It was crazy," he said. "It's hit me, but not as much as it hit me today. I just keep thinking to myself, 'Wow, we're really national champions.' To see those people come out and show support, it's crazy. It's surreal."
Myrna Rivera, 43, of Hartford, brought her family. She said the UConn basketball teams set a great example for the children.
"It shows the youth in Connecticut that they can work hard and be the best that they can be," she said. "This is what the boys' and the girls' basketball teams represent, giving hope to those that feel there is no hope."
The parade wound its way from the Capitol and around Bushnell Park, before heading down Capitol Avenue for a rally on the north steps of the state house.
Coach Jim Calhoun, who brought three of his grandchildren along for the bus ride, made no promises about the future. He has indicated he plans to return next season but said he's taking his time before finalizing that decision.
"The promise I will make to you is that the basketball team at UConn will give everything in its heart and soul to make sure we have another rally next year," he said.
This was the eighth time there has been a parade in Hartford to celebrate a UConn national championship. This is the men's third championship. The women's basketball team has won seven. The state held a rally but no parade after the women's championship in 2003 after the start of the war in Iraq. In 2004, an estimated 300,000 people showed up for a joint parade after both men's and women's teams won NCAA titles.
Cathy Maher, 29, of Cromwell, was attending her first UConn victory parade.
"I think this is the basketball capital of the world," she said. "It's really exciting."
The team captured the imaginations of many fans with an amazing postseason run that included five victories in five days to win the Big East tournament in New York, and six consecutive wins in the NCAA tournament.
"It's good for the state of Connecticut," said Doug Wilson, 34, of Plainville. "It's good for the people, the fan base. And I'm glad the men finally won, because the women have like seven national championships. I get tired of the women sometimes."
Many of the fans said they came just to get a glimpse of Walker, who announced last week he is leaving school a year early to play professionally in the NBA. Teammates pointed and laughed at one sign, which depicted Walker, a Bronx native, in a New York Knicks jersey.
Walker averaged 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists during his junior season. He scored a school record 965 points, accounting for 45 percent of the Huskies' offense.
"He's a champion," said 8-year-old Christian Mereschuk of Enfield. "He's the best player on the team. I want to play for the Huskies like him and then I want to play for the Miami Heat in the NBA."
After Walker spoke, the crowd began chanting, "One more year, one more year."
"It's fun," Walker said. "But, it's too late for that. I really wish I could come back. But it's my time."