A Husky Hidden Gem

J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum scores points with anyone inflicted with "Husky Mania"


Here’s a perfect colder weather field trip and museum that even that even the least likely to ever step into a museum (ahem, my husband and son) will be completely psyched about: the J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum. Found a few steps from Gampel Pavilion and located in the UConn Alumni Center in Storrs, the Sports Museum is a 2700 square foot home of must-see memorabilia documenting the successes of UConn’s athletic programs.

With the kickoff of the men’s and women’s basketball season, two new exhibits will soon make their debut.  Museum Curator and Special Assistant to the Director of Athletics Tim Tolokan explains, “We’re creating a five-panel wall in the museum that will highlight over 130 different athletes with actual images of their trading card – whether it’s Ray Allen or Rebecca Lobo or  Maya Moore. We’ve got nine soccer guys, a guy who played in the NHL, we’ve got several baseball players, football players – all UConn athletes that have gone on to the pro ranks. We think it’s going to be terrific for our audience.”

The second exhibit, Tolokan adds, is a video wall in which “the audience will be able to come in and, with a touch panel, watch a total of 26 different videos including videos of all seven of Geno’s national championship years, all three of the men’s basketball championship years, several season ending football highlight films, both of our national championship years in men’s soccer, the field hockey national championship from 1981, and a video tribute of Jim Calhoun’s career.”

The trading cards include those from the 1950s with Walt Dropo, one of the greatest athletes in UConn history, and who went on to play for teams including the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. There are cards from 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and current athletes.

Two of the five panels will have 72 cards each, a few of the athletes have more than one card.

“Rebecca Lobo is a good example of that. There’s a Rebecca Lobo card of her when she played for the New York Liberty in the WNBA. There’s also a Rebecca Lobo card when she played on the women's national team in the Olympics in 1996,” Tolokan said adding, “Ray Allen, Kara Wolters, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird – people like that if I was able to find a card when they played on the Olympic team, and there’s usually Olympic cards, then we put two in.”    

One panel is more introductory, showing the history of trading cards and how they started. “They were tobacco cards back in the 1860s,” he informs.

“We even show a picture of the most expensive card ever -- a Honus Wagner baseball card which sold for $2.7 million.  We also show the first set Topps produced in 1952, and that included Mickey Mantle’s rookie card. Ironically, the first card of anybody from UConn was Walt Dropo, who was the 1950 American League Rookie of the Year with the Red Sox, and he is in that same 1952 set with Mickey Mantle.”

Another panel discusses how currently, in total numbers, there are over 7000 cards of different UConn athletes.

The NBA’s leading three-point shooter Ray Allen has over 1000 different cards. Tolokan explains, “Not just one company does cards so when he played for the Celtics, there’s probably a couple hundred different Ray Allen cards, but he also played for the Milwaukee Bucks for several years, he played for Seattle, and now he’s with LeBron and the Miami Heat. Those haven’t even come out yet so there’s more coming.”

Omeka Okafor and Richard Hamilton have roughly 500 trading cards each. Rebecca Lobo has more than 50. “When you add them all up with all the athletes that we were able to find cards for, there are over 7000 cards of former UConn athletes in circulation of one kind or another. This display is only a sampling of those – one or two of each person.”

The fifth panel is a bit different and focuses on Scott Burrell who played for UConn in the 1990s. “He was a rare case not only for us but also in trading cards,” says the curator.

He explains: "Burrell came to UConn out of Hamden High School; he could have signed right out of high school a professional baseball contract because he was drafted in the first round in 1989 in baseball. He chose to come to UConn but, after his freshman year, he was drafted again by the Toronto Blue Jays. For two years while he was in college here, he actually played minor league baseball. There’s a trading card of Scott Burell as a baseball player with Toronto and there’s several basketball trading cards – he won a national championship with Michael Jordon in 1988. So, we did a panel on what we call a rarity: a first-round draft pick in two sports, and one person having trading cards depicting him as both a pro baseball player and a pro basketball player. Very unusual at any school."

The Museum does not have much of a budget so Tolokan also wears a fundraising hat. “Most of our updating and upgrades are generated off of private giving – friends, alums, people who believe we should showcase the great success we have had in all of our sports. I’ve got some terrific donors that have stepped up to the plate so as soon as we have some dollars, we try to put them to good use.”

While putting this exhibit together has been a fun project, it hasn’t been easy to find some of the cards. Fortunately, he’s had a great deal of help from collectors. “One woman specifically into Women's Basketball cards helped. There’s a guy in Kensington who run’s Ken’s Cards who was terrific, and then there’s a gentleman from the Class of ’77 who contacted us about his UConn cards years ago but we weren’t able to do anything about it until now. In 2008, he sent part of his collection, sending me one of everybody he had at that point – that was our jump-off point and I’ve been looking, researching over the past couple of years.”

The trading card exhibit should be installed by November 1. The updated video wall exhibit (totaling 26 different championship videos and end-of-season videos) should be available for viewing by early November.

Tolokan fully expects that this display will grow as more fans and friends contribute cards. Plus, many of the current athletes will be going pro, which means more cards. 

If you are interested in donating trading cards or other memoriabilia to the Husky Heritage Sports Museum, please contact Tim Tolokan at tim.tolokan@uconn.edu


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