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Donald ‘Dee’ Rowe, coach, envoy of UConn basketball, dies

Mr. Rowe (left) was presented with a plaque by UConn director of athletics Jeff Hathaway at a ceremony honoring former UConn basketball players and coaches in 2007.
Mr. Rowe (left) was presented with a plaque by UConn director of athletics Jeff Hathaway at a ceremony honoring former UConn basketball players and coaches in 2007.Bob Child/Associated Press

GLOBE STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES

Donald “Dee” Rowe, who served as an ebullient lodestar to a constellation of New England basketball coaches and players, died on Sunday at his home in Storrs, Conn. He was 91.

“I learned from Dee just by watching, how he carried himself, just the way he was,” famed University of Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma said Sunday. “He carried himself around like an old movie star from the ’30s and ’40s. I thought to myself, ‘Man, if I can coach long enough and grow up to be like him, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world.’ ”

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Mr. Rowe would spend half a century helping to build the basketball program at UConn. In every role he assumed, his calling cards were the same: a genial spirit, a bone-deep sense of loyalty, and an infectious love for the game.

“His level of enthusiasm amazes me,” lifelong friend Bob Cousy told the Globe’s Bob Ryan in 2009. “He’s priceless in terms of his contribution to the game. At every level, from coaching to administration, he’s been there.”

Mr. Rowe was hired as head coach for the UConn men’s program in 1969 and would turn a 5-19 team into a Yankee Conference co-champion in his first season in 1970. He was named New England Coach of the Year that year, an honor that would be repeated in 1976, when he led his team to NCAA Sweet Sixteen before falling to Rutgers.

After retiring from coaching in 1977, he would play a leading role in raising both money and the profile of the university’s athletics department, including building the coffers and momentum for a new basketball arena, Gampel Pavilion.

He also played a critical role in persuading Auriemma and Jim Calhoun to take the reins of the women’s and men’s teams

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For his decades of contributions to basketball and his role as ambassador of good will for the sport, Mr. Rowe was awarded the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.

“No man could have done more for UConn,” Calhoun told the Hartford Courant. “Everything UConn built has Dee’s fiber running through it.”

Mr. Rowe’s love of the game began in the dingy gyms, side yards, and just about any place in Worcester where a ball could be tossed through a ring.

He told Ryan that his first basketball had laces. And when that wasn’t around, he would take turns shooting a tennis ball into a tin can with his pals.

“In the old days, you’d play in church leagues, the Y, and the Boys’ Club,” Mr. Rowe told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette in 2017. “You’d play in the cellar with a coal bin on one side and a furnace on the other. You’d play with a hoop on the side of the house. I was a wacko over the game.”

His love affair with the game was sealed in third grade at Thorndyke Road School. There, his gym teacher was Buster Sheary, who would go on to lead Holy Cross to the NIT championship in 1954.

Among other early mentors were players such as Cousy, Joe Mullaney, and Andy Laska on the Crusaders team of 1947, which won the NCAA tournament over Oklahoma.

“They were great heroes, great mentors, and dear friends,” said Mr. Rowe, who would later join Laska to run basketball clinics at Worcester Academy and Assumption College, “for about a million years.”

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Laska was a legendary coach at Assumption.

Mr. Rowe played at Middlebury College in the early 1950s, where he would meet a Reading woman, Virginia Reynolds. They would be married for 64 years, until her death in 2018.

Mr. Rowe leaves seven children and 17 grandchildren.

After earning a master’s degree in education from Boston University in 1953, Mr. Rowe became basketball and baseball coach and director of athletics at Worcester Academy, from 1955 to 1969. In that time, he would hire a young Dartmouth graduate as his assistant, Dave Gavitt, and build the school into a regional basketball power, winning the New England Prep School Championship nine times.

When Mullaney, then head coach at Providence College, was looking for an assistant, he turned to his longtime friend for help. In Gavitt, Mr. Rowe told Mullaney, he would find a coach with tremendous potential.

Gavitt would go on to become head coach and athletic director of the Friars, a dominant force in the creation of the Big East league, and chief executive of the Boston Celtics. Mr. Rowe would remain close friends with Gavitt until his death in 2011.

“His entire life, he has reached out to assist others,” Cousy said of Mr. Rowe in 2016. “He is as saintly as any friend I’ve ever had.”

Gavitt would return the favor when he was named head basketball coach of the US Olympic team in 1980 and hired Mr. Rowe, along with Larry Brown, as his assistants. The team would remain stateside after President Carter announced that the United States would boycott the Moscow Games in response to the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan.

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The opportunity gave Mr. Rowe the chance to, once more, expand the orbits of his influence.

“Everywhere I’d go, people would ask, ‘How’s Dee, How’s Dee,’ ” Calhoun told the Courant. “That tells you more about him than anyone.”

Yet nowhere was that presence felt more profoundly than in Storrs.

“He was always my greatest booster, PR man. He was confidant, mentor, consultant,” Calhoun said. “He just meant so much to so many people.”

For Mr. Rowe, one description eclipsed all others.

“To be called ‘Coach’ is the greatest praise I could ever receive,” he said.

Michael Bailey of Globe staff contributed to this obituary. Material from the Associated Press was used in the report.