Dee Rowe got the call Thursday morning.

"I was absolutely overwhelmed," Rowe said.

The former UConn coach, a universally beloved sports figure in Connecticut and one of basketball's great ambassadors, has been awarded the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award.

Consider it an early birthday present. Rowe will be 88 Friday.

Named after the first chairman of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame committee, the award is considered the most prestigious honor given by the Hall other than enshrinement. Bunn was the first recipient in 1973.

John Wooden won the award. So did Red Auerbach and a Bob Cousy. So did Dave Gavitt and Pat Summitt. Meadowlark Lemon and the Harlem Globetrotters won the Bunn Award.

"Did you see that list?" Rowe said. "Holy Toledo! These are giants. I'm just a kid from New England who loved the game since the third grade."

The Hall of Fame had announced in December that Rowe was a nominee for consideration as a member in the contributor category. The Bunn Award fits him perfectly. It is especially poignant for Rowe in that Cousy and the late Gavitt are two of his dearest friends.

"Couz recommended me [to the Hall]," Rowe said. "He means so much to me. And Dave was a brother to me. I just wish he was here to share in this."

Rowe was born in Worcester in 1929 and graduated from Worcester Academy in 1947. He played and graduated from Middlebury College. After serving in the army, he returned to Worcester Academy. As athletic director, basketball and baseball coach, Rowe built the school into a New England prep school power, winning nine basketball titles in 13 years.

John Toner, then the UConn athletic director, offered Rowe the men's basketball job and he coached the Huskies from 1969 until 1977. UConn reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 1976. At 47, he retired from coaching. His body and mind couldn't take it anymore.

He became a seminal figure in fundraising for UConn athletics. He was on the search committees to hire Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma. He played a role in the formation of the Big East.

"Coach Dee Rowe is a true basketball lifer,' Calhoun said in a statement. "Dee's world has always been, and will continue to be, about family and the game of basketball. In his own special New England region of Worcester, Massachusetts, the Cape Cod area, and the University of Connecticut, Dee Rowe has always been the ultimate ambassador. Through the years Dee has expanded his impact and influence nationally and around the globe as a superb teacher and mentor. But above all, we continue to pay him the highest honor by calling him Coach."

UConn athletic director David Benedict called Rowe "a once-in-a-lifetime individual and UConn's greatest ambassador." He went on to say, "Coach Rowe continues to build special bonds and relationships on a daily basis as we all marvel at his unique and unmatched charisma and his constant pursuit of doing good."

In 1980, Gavitt, whose first basketball job had been as an assistant for Rowe at Worcester Academy, named Rowe as Olympic team assistant coach. Jimmy Carter's decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics ended that dream. Auriemma, however, led the campaign to bring Rowe to the 2012 Olympics. and he went to London as the university's ambassador to the Games.

Much more than that, Rowe, a special adviser to UConn athletics, has been a friend and mentor to thousands of athletes, coaches. His guidance and support has made him one of the most revered figures in New England sports.

"He has been a contributor all his life," Cousy told the Courant's Dom Amore last year. "Basketball gave him a vehicle to do his magic.

"Dee is one of God's children, and everything flows from that. We see so little of that in our society. His entire life, he has reached out to assist others. He is as saintly as any friend I've ever had."

Joining Rowe as a recipient of the award is Michael Goldberg, longtime executive director of the National Basketball Coaches Association.

This article is written by Jeff Jacobs from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.