STORRS — It was a field trip, which for some students is perhaps a license to tune out, lay low.
Jason Irizarry took a group of UConn basketball players from his urban education class to one of the poorest districts in the United States, to the South Bronx and its Studio School for Writers and Artists. This was in January 2012, while the Huskies were staying in New Jersey between games against Seton Hall and Rutgers.
As the group made its way through the hallways, Shabazz Napier began firing off questions for the principal. Tuning out, laying low is not Shabazz Napier, has not gotten him out of Roxbury, to the cusp of great things, will not take him where he wants to go.
“He was asking the principal questions about the curriculum,” recalls Irizarry, then a UConn associate professor. “‘How do you keep kids interested? … Uniforms. If you're a full-service school, is there a laundry here? … Do you provide kids with dinners?' Shabazz knew, from his experiences, that some of the students there might not have access to good food. I could see then how he was grappling with the content of the course.”
This is Irizarry's shade of Shabazz, the passionate student, unafraid to challenge assumptions, in fact “willing to challenge the whole legitimacy of my class. … I've told him when he is done playing basketball to find me. I'd like to help him go for his doctorate.”
Last spring, Mamadou Doudou Diouf, captain of the UConn men's soccer team, was walking through Gampel Pavilion, where Napier was shooting baskets alone.
“He saw me and he stopped shooting,” said Diouf, “and he came up and he asked me if I was coming back to school for my senior year. I said I didn't know what I was going to do. He said, ‘Go with your heart. Don't be afraid to stay. Don't let other people make the decision for you.' ”
This is Diouf's shade of Shabazz, a friend for four years of college who is always there.
“I see him in the bleachers at our games,” Diouf said, “and it changes my game. I'm thinking, ‘What will Shabazz say if I don't step up here?' … I love the guy, to be honest. Love him like he was my own brother.”
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis of the UConn women's basketball team could be walking down the hall at Gampel, or be in the weight room, and she'll hear Napier singing.
“He'll jump out of nowhere,” she says, “and start singing. He loves to sing. He'll just make something up with your name in it and sing it to you. I remember thinking, ‘Is he really singing? And does he think it's good?' Well, it's not terrible, but I don't think he'll be selling records any time soon.”
And this is Mosqueda-Lewis' shade of Shabazz, the fun-loving, engaging classmate.
“He's just a really sweet guy,” she says. “He's not your typical guy athlete who only cares about himself. He makes sure he says hello to every person in the room. He's just a very genuine person.”
There are many parts and hues that make up the sum of Shabazz Napier, product of Roxbury, a part of Boston where, he once told the UConn Daily Campus, “if you don't have a job, you're out on the streets doing ridiculous stuff.” He is the youngest of three children raised by a single mother, Carmen Velazquez, who let him see how hard the world could be — but kept him from falling into its abyss. He keeps a photo of his mother in his locker at UConn, a reminder that his goal is to one day ease her burdens.
“She is my world,” Napier says. “I recall nights when we had no electricity in the house. It was hard to put food on the table. I just never saw my mom quit, no matter what.”
A relentless curiosity keeps Napier's world moving. It led him to UConn, and led him to follow his heart, as he urged Diouf to do, and return for one more season, opening himself up still more to take in the college experience to the fullest.
“He's very smart,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie says, “and now that he has matured as a leader, he is more open to displaying his shortcomings, instead of being closed up.”
A Roxbury Kid
Roxbury, according to the 2010 census, is 44.6 percent African American and 31.9 percent Latino — Napier's heritage. On the neighborhood streets, he learned basketball. On those crime-plagued streets, and in the relative safety of home, he learned right from wrong.
“I was living in a rough neighborhood,” Napier says, “and it's still rough today. I'm a Roxbury kid. The way my mom did it, she gave us that room to experience what it was like, how tough it is. Sometimes I was on the basketball court and next thing you know, something would happen, gunfights, all types of stuff. She gave us that experience to figure out what the world is really about. But she was strict, and we understood that if we weren't going to be right citizens outside, she was going to make sure we were going to be right citizens.”
After starting out at Charlestown High, Napier attended Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., where his personality and his game began to take shape.
“When he sees something wrong, he's not going to sit there and stew on it,” said Kevin Wiercinski, Lawrence Academy's coach. “But he's also the first one to go put his arm around a kid and say, 'We can do this.' There wasn't one kid on our team who didn't walk onto the floor wanting to play harder — for him. He had command of our locker room. No one is more loyal to the kids wearing the same shirt.”
Napier developed a knack for making big shots and scored close to 40 points three times in games that former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, another child of Boston with sharp edges, saw him play.
“If you know anything about the townies in Charlestown, he's a tough kid,” Calhoun said in 2010. “I really like those kind of guys.”
Calhoun and Napier connected, and when Napier came to Storrs in 2010, he asserted himself immediately.
“When I first met him, I just saw his confidence,” said Ollie, who was then an assistant coach. “He was talking to Kemba Walker like he was a senior and Kemba was a freshman. I was like, ‘Who's this little young kid with all this confidence?' He's telling Kemba where to go.”
Napier defined the chip on his shoulder, his mission, as soon as he stepped on campus, telling The Courant in July 2010, “Where I came from, you weren't supposed to be successful. You were supposed to be just another African American kid, doing what the average African American kid did. I've had to grow as a basketball player, but as a person first. ... I've never been given anything easy. All that maturity just comes from me being tough.”
Napier often talks about being an extension of his coach and was quick to say that he and Calhoun were birds of a feather. Calhoun jokes that it scares him when he hears that, and by Napier's sophomore year, he took to putting his finger to his lips and saying “shh” whenever he passed Napier in the hallway, “to remind him not to say something stupid.”
“I was hardheaded,” Napier said, “Whatever he said, goes. And growing up, I was the opposite way. But he was straightforward, and one of us had to give in. I felt his teaching ability was something I needed. There were times when we head-butted and there were times when we joined up. We just developed a bond that will never break.”
Napier played off the bench during UConn's NCAA championship run in 2011. The next season, he took over for Walker as the starting point guard, and it was a rocky season.
Napier sometimes argued with teammates, and at times went long stretches without talking to anyone. Calhoun missed much of the season, serving a three-game NCAA suspension and then going through a spinal condition that required surgery, and he wasn't there to shush Shabazz after a loss to Marquette when Napier questioned his teammates' heart. He later regretted that.
“All players get in funks and work through them,” Ollie says. “He has dealt with different things in his life in different ways and you had to understand that. It wasn't a bad quality, but it was something that had to change.”
In September of 2012, Napier learned that Calhoun was retiring, and he thought about leaving — as several Huskies already had. After talking with Ollie, Napier decided to stay.
“[Calhoun] was a father figure to me,” Napier said. “It was something I had a hard time with, but I feel like I made the right decision.”
Felicia Crump, who was UConn's academic adviser, had taken Irizarry's course as a student and thought it would be perfect for Napier.
“I appreciated it that he was willing to challenge me,” Irizarry said, “to challenge the veracity of some of the theories, challenge the legitimacy of the entire course. He had phenomenal insights into urban schooling and he wasn't bashful about sharing them.”
It was typical. Diouf and Mosqueda-Lewis were with Napier in other classes.
“We were in a French history class together,” Mosqueda-Lewis said, “and he was always asking questions no one else thought of.”
Napier, 22, is a sociology major and dean's list student who received the UConn athletic director's High Five Award for academic excellence. He is one of 30 nominated for the NCAA's Senior CLASS award, which recognizes seniors for notable achievements in athletics, academics, community service and character.
Napier can usually be seen walking around campus in attire that says “student” more than “athlete,” including the horn-rimmed glasses. Irizarry noticed him uncomfortable with the basketball-generated attention he sometimes receives in class.
“Within that space, [basketball players] are famous,” Irizarry said. “Everyone is staring at them. ‘Shabazz, you were on ESPN last night.' He was uncomfortable with that. He wanted to be anonymous within that space and just be a student.”
After the “capstone” experience of Irizarry's class, the trip to the Bronx, Irizarry offered the chance for an independent study.
“Shabazz was beginning to explore his Latino identity, his mother's side,” Irizarry said. “He was thinking about trying out for the Puerto Rican national team. He was saying, ‘Can I really play for the Puerto Rican national team? I grew up in Roxbury. I don't speak Spanish.' … We decided he should keep a journal of his experience, and it turned out to be a great experience.”
A persistent foot injury led Napier to leave San Juan, even though he appeared to have made the team. But he eventually fashioned his experiences into a chapter for a book Irizarry, now director of urban education at UMass-Amherst, is completing on the experience of Latino college students.
“I think his greatest contributions will be off the basketball court,” Irizarry said.
On Oct. 18, Julie Laumark, 57, who has been working in the UConn bookstore since 1989, walked into the lobby of Gampel with her poster to be signed at the Huskies' First Night festivities.
“Shabazz got up, walked over and gave me a big hug,” Laumark says, “and he said, ‘Here is my favorite person in the whole world.' He didn't have to do that.”
Napier, Laumark says, is usually the first on the team to come and get his books for classes, and she occasionally gets the wrong books for him.
“I always apologize and say it's because I want to hang out with him longer,” she said, “and I am often the beneficiary of a big smile, a wave, a hug, and it just makes my day. Last time I pulled the wrong books, I said I was sorry, and he said, ‘No, no, no, you're perfect.' He's just the sweetest kid.”
In addition to his studies and his basketball, Napier has engaged the people and woven himself into the fabric of college life in Storrs. He will show up at any sporting event that fits his schedule — volleyball, field hockey — and he will cheer like a maniac.
“You don't get this time back,” Napier says. “Sometimes you want to experience life as a student rather than as an athlete. There's times when I try to go to a soccer game, put on a hoodie and a hat just to experience it. You want to feel what the students feel when they watch your game.”
He passes athletes in the hallways of Gampel, in the training rooms, and is not shy about offering encouragement, sharing his experiences.
“Shabazz comes up to me every day,” Diouf says, “and he asks how [his injured knee] is. He tells me, ‘Mama, it's going to be all right.' Those little things he does mean a lot to me.”
He likes to talk about anything but basketball when he interacts with athletes. Napier will give Diouf suggestions on what to say to his soccer teammates, how to assert his leadership.
“My freshman year, I was in a slump in the middle of the season,” Mosqueda-Lewis said, “and he would see me and say, ‘K, you're the best shooter. Don't stop shooting.' He was just always very positive.”
One More Go-Around
Napier thought long and hard about the NBA draft last spring, but in the end, projected as a second-round pick, he decided to come back as a senior. Also, he was just not ready to leave, not after a season when the Huskies were ineligible for the postseason.
“I used to walk through Gampel, and if he was shooting, he'd stop and wave and yell ‘Mama-doo!!!!'” Diouf said. “Now he is all business when he is in the gym. Focused. He says to me, ‘I came back to win. I didn't come back just to play.' Shabazz is all about winning.”
Napier, who averaged 17.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists last season, was at his best with the game on the line.
“He's not afraid to take the big shot,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “If you miss it, you're going to get the blame. But he's not afraid to take it.”
Napier's string of consecutive games ended at 102 because of the foot injury. Healthy again, and after a summer of attending elite camps, he is one of 45 on the watch list for the Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the best point guard in America, and was on the American Athletic Conference's preseason first team.
At one camp, after a long workout session, he went back to instructor John Lucas to ask more questions. “It's rare to find a young man who comes to you and asks, ‘What do I need to work on? How can I get better?'” said Lucas, a former NBA player and coach.
And Napier is on pace to graduate in the spring. It's a promise he made to the woman who comes to all the games and releases her young granddaughter, Napier's niece, to run onto the court after the final buzzer.
“I promised my mom,” Napier says, “that no matter what, I would definitely get my degree. I can never promise my mother something and take it back. It's been too much she has done for me to go back on a promise.”
Where the Roxbury kid goes from here is anyone's guess but Napier's choice. Those close to him, and those who pass peripherally through Shabazz's world, are certain it will be some place special.
“When you talk to him,” Irizarry said, “what you get is 100 percent Shabazz. He is a very authentic young man.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun