Health issue for Calhoun rekindles retirement talk

By Pat Eaton-robb

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun speaks with an official during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh, in Storrs, Conn., on Saturday, March 3, 2012.

Fred Beckham, Associated Press

STORRS, Conn. — Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun hasn't made any plans to retire just yet.

The 69-year-old Hall-of-Famer, a self-described gym rat, is back from a monthlong medical leave that had many questioning whether he would ever coach again.

"We started this thing, I started it, 26 years ago and I haven't made any plans to do anything else except come back," Calhoun said Friday. "A few other things along the way have gotten in my way."

And so he was at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday, less than a week after having a disk fragment removed from his spine, leading the Huskies to a 74-65 win over Pittsburgh. And on Monday, he was leading practice and getting ready to head out to Madison Square Garden for Tuesday's start to the Big East tournament, hoping to lead the Huskies on a run similar to the 11-game streak that brought them a third national title a year ago.

"Somebody said to me, 'Jeez it will be great to have you there,'" Calhoun said Monday. "I said, actually, you'd be better off having (former UConn guard) Kemba (Walker) here. "

What happens after this season is anyone's guess, and pundits, friends, even former players and assistant coaches are doing just that.

"It's like, 'OK, Jim you're 70 years old, what more do you want to prove?" said Digger Phelps, a former coach at Notre Dame, and now an analyst at ESPN. "He's a survivor and he's a survivor as a coach. He's at the point now where he's won three national titles. He knows what's at stake. He's gotta make that decision."

Calhoun is a three-time cancer survivor, overcoming prostate cancer in 2003 and skin cancer twice, most recently in 2008. He has missed 29 games over his 40-year career because of various medical conditions and had to leave another 11 games for medical reasons.

Calhoun took his latest medical leave on Feb. 3 and missed eight games because of the effects of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine, normally associated with aging and sometimes with arthritis. It began affecting him over the summer, but reached the point where he could no longer coach after the team lost at Georgetown on Feb. 1.

"For the preceding days to the surgery, I literally couldn't do anything," he said. "I couldn't walk. I had a cane, and the pain was a great deal."

After trying physical therapy and other treatments, Calhoun underwent a two-hour surgery last Monday in New York. It involved removing a large disk fragment that had been pressing on a spinal nerve. The surgeons decompressed the area around the nerve.

"Yesterday, I walked a couple miles and probably did a little too much," he said Monday. But more importantly, I'm trying to recapture my body a little bit again, because I feel I like I've kind of lost it. But, once we get around game time, I'll be fine."

Former Virginia coach Dave Leitao, who played for Calhoun at Northeastern and coached under him at UConn, said those who speculated those back problems meant Calhoun had coached his last game, just don't understand the man.

Calhoun, Leitao pointed out, broke several ribs during a crash while participating in a charity bicycle event in 2009, and got up and rode several more miles to finish the event.

"He is by far the best competitor I've been around," Leitao said. "It could be a Big East championship. It could be getting healthy. It could be a lot of things. He's gonna compete and he's going to win whatever challenge is in front of him, and he's not going to allow a back in this case (to) dictate when he feels most comfortable stepping down."

But Leitao said that is also the Catch 22 with Calhoun. There is always another challenge.

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