STORRS — It was one of those meetings that just had to take place, sooner or later. Khalid El-Amin, meet the present-day you at UConn.
"Shabazz Napier doesn't have to be like anybody else," El-Amin said. "He can be himself, and be successful."
El-Amin, the point guard, the exuberant, emotional igniter of the Huskies' first national champions, will be honored Sunday as UConn plays Southern Methodist at Gampel Pavilion at 2 p.m. Both El-Amin and the 1998-99 team will be given places in the Huskies of Honor at halftime, as Napier and the current UConn team continue pursuing meaningful deeds of their own.
Napier met El-Amin, 34, at the Huskies' practice on Saturday, and plans to introduce his mother to him at the game.
"My mother loves him more than she loves me," Napier said, "she would always say, 'El-Amin, El-Amin — I like the way he plays, with that swagger.' … People compare me and him all the time, say we have the same kind of swagger, the way we'd talk to Coach."
In a defining moment of that championship season, El-Amin drove the floor and put in a shot at the buzzer to win a game at Pittsburgh on Dec. 12, 1998, in front of a raucous crowd had been riding him all day. He ran over and jumped on the scorer's table, yelling, pointing, as if to challenge the whole student section before Jim Calhoun and teammates pulled him down.
"I like to think I was what UConn needed at the time," El-Amin said. "I was able to give that kind of spirit, that kind of character to the team."
Napier, who leads UConn in scoring, rebounding and assists, has not shown that brand of brashness, but in his willingness to take and make the big shot, such as against Florida on Dec. 2, and to speak his mind, well, yes, the lineage is unmistakable.
"He's holding his own, he's showing the basketball world that he is capable of running any team," El-Amin said. "His character is taking over, and it's nothing but positive."
When coach Kevin Ollie said he would've tried to stop El-Amin by "putting duct tape on his mouth," one can be sure he and Calhoun had the same kinds of thoughts about Napier. After UConn's win at Temple on Thursday, Napier revealed that he was slowed by the chicken wings he had too close to game time.
"I don't know why they did that — and I don't know why they told you all that," Ollie said, shaking his head. "I think they learned their lesson."
The current Huskies (21-5, 9-4 in the American Athletic Conference) had a little too much swagger, perhaps, when they went to Texas in December and lost at Houston and SMU in the first two conference games.
"We took it for granted that we could just show up with our UConn jerseys on and people were going to lay down," Ollie said. "Houston hit it in the mouth pretty early. And SMU, I've looked at the tape a couple of times. We played well in the first half, but over the last 10 minutes they separated themselves. … I think we're much better now."
The plane ride home from Dallas on Jan. 4 was appropriately sullen, but the Huskies began digging out with a win over Harvard and have won 10 of 12 to rise to No. 21 in the national rankings. They evened the score with Houston with an 80-43 win at Gampel on Jan. 30. With a win over SMU (21-6, 10-4) in this rematch, they can get up to third in the AAC, with games remaining against the teams in front of them.
"We definitely took those two games [in Texas] for granted, and we wished we could've had them back," Napier said. "There was a sense of urgency, understanding we let two games go. I was mad we'd lost twice; I've always had a problem handling losses. I just let the guys know we can't allow ourselves to be in that position."
Nic Moore, SMU's quick point guard, hurt UConn in the game in Dallas, scoring 15 in the first half, 20 for the game. The Mustangs, coached by Hall-of-Famer Larry Brown, are not ones to beat themselves — they have the highest shooting percentage in the AAC, and have allowed opponents the lowest. But they are only 7-6 on the road, and Gampel, where a sellout or near-sellout is expected, will be amped up more than usual with the '99 team being honored.
El-Amin, who has played professionally in France, Israel, Turkey, Ukraine, Lithuania and Croatia, is still recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured left quadriceps. He said he may return to play overseas, but would eventually like to go into coaching like his former Husky teammates, Ricky Moore and Kevin Freeman of Ollie's staff. How would El-Amin handle a player like … himself?
"I would give him a little bit of leeway," El-Amin said, "but at the same time, come down hard with the hammer when I had to."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun