Senior guard Shabazz Napier is arguably the most popular player in collegiate basketball after leading the UConn Huskies to their fourth national championship in 15 years on Monday, defeating the Florida Gators 60-54 in front of a packed crowd in Arlington, TX.
But his ride into UConn lore has been a treacherous one — which makes this fairy tale ending that much sweeter.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” he said. “This is what happens when you ban us.”
The six-foot guard was already vocal in his displeasure regarding the postseason ban prior to his now-famous celebratory speech. And for good reason: Napier and his teammates bore the brunt of a punishment they had no parts in manifesting. And as out of character as it might have felt, the Roxbury native was spilling out frustration that was three years in the making.
But in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine Napier on this stage making this speech in the first place. Because it wasn’t too long ago when things looked bleak for the program.
Back when Shabazz was a freshman, it was easy for him to get lost in the fold at Storrs. Then-junior Kemba Walker had just finished an offseason where he trained against the gold medalist 2010 USA World Championship Team, and was now the Huskies’ undisputed team captain. Freshmen Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith were the most heralded freshmen out of UConn’s recruiting class that season, and Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu were returning as pivotal starters. Napier didn’t have to cast much of the spotlight — he just had to contribute.
And that he did, helping UConn secure their third national championship. With five-star recruit Andre Drummond in the fold for next season, the Huskies were set for another title run for the 2012 season.
But soon things went downhill. Walker declared for the NBA Draft, and Napier was cast into the role as the starting point guard. But he struggled statistically as did the team in Big East play, going a putrid 8-10. Plus, his teammates’ nonchalant attitude with losing infuriated him as he repeatedly criticized them publicly for not respecting his leadership. The team went 20-14, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Iowa State.
In the following weeks, Lamb and Drummond declared for the NBA Draft. Soon after, the NCAA came down with their one-year postseason ban due to UConn’s Academic Progress Rate of 889 from 2007-2011, a score deemed too low for postseason eligibility. Oriahki, in his last year, decided to transfer to Missouri while Smith left for UNLV. Then, a few weeks before the season opener, Calhoun announced his retirement, citing spinal stenosis and other reoccurring health issues as the primary factor.
And if that wasn’t enough terrible news, the Huskies were booted from the Big East and shunned by all the power conferences, leaving them stuck in the new American Athletic Conference, which they joined this season.
Napier, himself, had every right to leave, and for a brief moment, leaned towards the decision. Even students, convinced that the program was in decline, opted to transfer. But Shabazz stayed.
Many will speak to his maturation this year, but everything clicked during his junior season. Under new head coach Kevin Ollie, Shabazz was the cog that kept the UConn machine afloat during the times of uncertainty. No NCAA tournament meant there wasn’t anything to gain other than personal statistics and team camaraderie. Yet the Huskies won 20 games and Napier had his best year, earning an All Big East First-team selection. It’s that resiliency that said more about Napier, the person, than it did the player.
And it set the foundation for Monday’s conclusion: a National Championship.
“Coach (Kevin) Ollie told us, this going to be a two-year plan, and since that day on, we believed,” Napier told reporters after the game. “Like said, man, I just wanted to grab everybody’s attention and introduce the hungry Huskies, because it’s been two years.”
UConn absolutely hounded its opponents the entire tournament, holding both Florida and Kentucky under 60 points in the Final Four. They were solid on offense, but it was the team’s defensive effort that brought the trophy back to Storrs.
Now, Napier has two championships – him and teammates Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander are the only players to win titles as freshmen and seniors – which means he has more than the quintessential UConn greats: Emeka Okafor, Richard Hamilton, Ray Allen, Ben Gordon and, yes, Kemba Walker.
This will surely spark hundreds of egregious debates, but none more than ‘Kemba or Shabazz’, which are inevitable, if they haven’t already occurred. But the two couldn’t have been any more different, both on and off the court.
Walker was the highly-touted walking spotlight with an infectious smile and boatloads of charisma. Blessed with extraordinary speed and quickness, he developed into a lethal jump shooter — with an equally lethal stepback — whose last second heroics earned him the nickname “Cardiac Kemba”.
Napier’s game, however, is more workmanlike. He’s not overly fast but he’s subtle and has a great first step, and has mastered the art of the hesitation dribble to create space for both himself and teammates. The shooting percentage and assist numbers aren’t gaudy, yet he’s a excellent playmaker. His game is more IQ-driven than it is explosive. And despite what you thought of his speech Monday night, Napier is quiet and introverted when he’s not dominating the hardwood.
But their numbers are eerily similar. Kemba, though in three years, finished his career with 1783 points, 493 rebounds, 460 assists and 185 steals while Shabazz tallied 1959 points, 576 rebounds, 646 assists and 251 steals. However, what they truly shared was toughness, and an impenetrable will to win.
There’s an everyday appeal to Napier that’s simply infectious, which makes his ascension into the UConn record books much more improbable. It’s also why, as a fan, I didn’t want to see it end. He didn’t have the buttery jumper like Allen. He wasn’t an overly dominating defensive force like Okafor, and didn’t have an overly athletic skill set like Gordon and Gay. He didn’t feel larger than life; he felt like one of “us”.
Four years ago as I sat next to Napier in sociology class, it wasn’t until UConn’s Midnight Madness that I found out he was on the basketball team. And that’s how he preferred it.
He didn’t don the flashy Nike Dri-Fit UConn sweatsuits that athletes wore to differentiate themselves, nor did he looked interested in doing so. Dressed in a hoodie, jeans and Converses, he sat attentively – pencil in hand, taking notes – ironic considering the APR ban he had to serve. Fast forward four years later and the shy kid is atop the basketball world, and responsible for providing the sweetest redemption to a storied program no longer ignored by its contemporaries.
And neither will Shabazz, ever again.