Jessica Hill, Associated Press
STORRS, Conn. — UConn's Jim Calhoun doesn't mince words when it comes to his health.
So, when the Hall of Fame coach of the defending national champions, who turns 70 in May, had just about had it with his back problems, he let people know.
"The bottom line is I'm going to need some work done," Calhoun told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday. "In January the shooting pains were getting worse and after one plane ride I couldn't even get up. I tried to hide it. I'm taking medicine right now for the pain. They are waiting for things to quiet down, and I'll meet with the doctor next week."
As a result, Calhoun is taking an indefinite medical leave of absence, as he has been suffering for several months from spinal stenosis, a spinal condition that causes him severe pain and hampers mobility.
Calhoun said he told university President Susan Herbst about it but had hoped to gut out the final weeks of the season.
"But it's just so bad, even getting through practice," Calhoun said. "Now I'm going to see what the next step is. The bottom line is I'm hurting."
George Blaney, the team's associate head coach, will lead the team in Calhoun's absence.
He said Calhoun missed practice Thursday and could not get out of bed Friday morning. Blaney said Calhoun began feeling pain in his legs and buttocks during this week's road trip to Georgetown.
"When we got off the plane, he really had trouble getting in the car and going home," he said.
The Huskies (14-7, 4-5 Big East) have lost four games in a row and fell out of the Top 25 for the first time in 28 weeks. They host Seton Hall on Saturday before traveling to Louisville on Monday.
Calhoun has had a history of health problems. He is a three-time cancer survivor, overcoming prostate cancer in 2003 and skin cancer twice, most recently in 2008.
"I had back pain like never before last summer, thought it was back spasms," he said in the phone interview. "I saw a neurologist and he told me about scoliosis, stenosis and other things and that there could be things like a bone spur and that I could probably need something done at some point. I went for the physical therapy and it worked, but it started to lock up sometimes recently and it was worse."
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spine, normally associated with aging and sometimes with arthritis. If physical therapy and medicines aren't effective, surgery may be considered, although some people's symptoms may not improve after an operation.
Calhoun has missed 21 games during his career at UConn, 17 for medical reasons. He has had to leave another 11 games with health problems. His last extended medical leave came in 2010, when he missed seven games with stress-related issues.
He missed three games earlier this season because of NCAA sanctions.
"I don't know anybody tougher," Blaney said. "He doesn't use Novocain when he goes to the dentist. He's a tough guy and usually 'No' spurs him on."
Blaney informed the team of Calhoun's illness just before Friday afternoon's practice.
"We wish we could be there to help him, and he wishes he could be there to help us," said guard Shabazz Napier, a team captain. "Sometimes you have to go on a journey without your captain, and we're going to do whatever we got to do to fulfill his dreams and fulfill ours at the same time."
Napier and forward Alex Oriakhi called a players-only meeting to discuss the team's recent slump.
"It's tough," said freshman center Andre Drummond. "We've had a couple of downfalls, a couple of roadblocks throughout the way, but that's life. That's one of the things you've got to get through. That's what we're doing right now. We're fighting through it and we're not going down without a fight."
Calhoun is No. 6 on the all-time wins list with 867. He has won three national championships at Connecticut and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005. He coached the team to its fourth Final Four and third national title last April.
The subject of Calhoun's tenure is not new. He said last month he decided to not retire after last year's national championship in large part because he wanted to see through the NCAA sanctions leveled on him and his program for recruiting violations. The NCAA required Calhoun to sit out wins over South Florida and St. John's and a loss to Seton Hall for violations that included a finding that the coach had failed to maintain "an atmosphere of compliance" in the program.
He told reporters that the idea of bringing closure to that issue was a "major, major factor" in his decision to come back this season.
Connecticut has gone 9-9 in games that Blaney has coached, including 2-1 during Calhoun's recent suspension.
Guard Ryan Boatright, who has missed nine games this season while the NCAA investigated his eligibility, said he thinks the team will rally under Blaney. He said both coaches are able to motivate the team, but their styles are much different.
"There's not as much yelling," he said. "Obviously the cuss words are down to a (lower) level. It's a difference."
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