MAKING OF A GUARD
Shabazz Napier enjoying success in senior season
Shabazz Napier lays the ball in against Memphis at the XL Center in Hartford Saturday. The senior guard has excelled in clutch situations over the past few seasons and been a catalyst for the Huskies. JESS CONDON/The Daily Campus
UConn may have finished 20-10 during the 2012-13 season, but the Huskies could have just as easily finished 15-15, a far less satisfying record. Seven games went to overtime during the 2012-13 season, a school record. Five times out of the seven, UConn emerged with the win, mainly because overtime is Shabazz Napier time.
In just under 40 minutes on the floor during overtime last season, Napier scored 55 points.
"You guys know I love overtime," Napier told the media Saturday after scoring a career-high 34 points - six in overtime - to lead UConn to an 86-81 win over Memphis.
Following up on a promise he made to his mother, Carmen Velasquez, Napier - who has the outline of a dollar sign tattooed on his chest - decided that the NBA could wait after a big junior season.
"I told my mom, I promised her that I'd get my degree," said Napier, who is majoring in sociology. "Coming from a single-parent home, one thing that my mom always told me was that you could play basketball until you're 40, but one thing that people could never take away from you is the education, and I promised her that I'd grab my degree. That was the biggest thing-and the only thing-that pushed me to come back to school."
Velasquez is not difficult to find at UConn games; she always has on her son's No. 13 jersey from the 2011 Final Four and is more often than not standing and trying to ignite the crowd, much like Shabazz does on the court. Next to the students, she is the most energetic fan in the building, and on the road she is always UConn's biggest fan.
"To see her in the stands," Napier said, "to see her out there cheering for me, to see that smile on her face, it puts so much wonder in my heart because the least I can do is put my mom in the right place to better her life because she did the same thing for my life for God knows how many years, and she continues to do so. My mother's my world. If she told me to stop playing basketball today, I might stop."
If Velasquez had asked him to stop playing before this year, UConn might not be 20-5, and the nation would have one less Wooden Award candidate on its hands.
UConn has six wins by less than 10 points - three of them by one point. The last time the Huskies won three games by one point was the 2003-04 season, a year that ended with a national championship.
That team was deep, featuring stars like Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson, to name a few. This year, there is talent, but Napier is the standout guy that everyone will talk about.
The 6-foot-1-inch Napier made sure of that on Dec. 2 against Florida. UConn needed a statement game against an elite team, and the Huskies went back and forth with the Gators for 39 minutes and 42.3 seconds, until Michael Frazier II put Florida ahead on a layup with 17.7 seconds on the clock.
At that point, 10,167 fans inside Gampel Pavilion, a contingent of NBA scouts from 20 NBA teams, a group of journalists and photographers, Jim Calhoun and an entire TV audience knew Napier would have the last word.
Coach Billy Donovan and the Gators knew it, which is why they tried to trap him. But Napier dribbled through three players, almost lost the ball, got it back and threw up a shot with less than three seconds left.
It hit the backboard, but it was the greatest miss of Napier's career, because it went right into the hands of teammate DeAndre Daniels, who tipped it out, giving Napier one last chance to win the game. Napier pulled up from just beyond the foul line, and the ball left his hands with 0.3 seconds on the clock.
No one heard the ball hit the ground, but when it did, the score was 65-64 and Napier was on his way to the locker room, leading his triumphant team.
He got called back out to the floor for a curtain call that night, and finally left to chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!"
"I've got a lot of respect for Napier at the end of games," Donovan said. "He's a big shot-making guy."
Napier's ankle was wrapped extra tight that night, and after aggravating it when he was fouled on a game-tying 3-pointer with 34 seconds left, Gampel fell silent. The captain hopped back to his feet and continued fighting, eventually hitting the winning shot.
"He's got so much heart," Ollie said. "I love the kid to death. One of the big time players to ever put this jersey on and walk on the court at Gampel."
Napier grew up dreaming of being Superman, his favorite superhero. At times in his first three years, it looked like he was trying to be Superman. This season has not been much different; he has had to take off the glasses, rip off the red shirt and put on the cape on many occasions.
That is nothing Napier cannot handle.
"The best guard in America," as head coach Kevin Ollie described him after beating Memphis, says he just wants to be another student on campus, and he demonstrates that most prominently at Gampel Pavilion and Morrone Stadium. When he is not on the court, he is either finding a cardboard big head of a women's basketball player to hold up in the front row of the student section or running around like a maniac at a soccer game.
When the men's and women's soccer teams are playing, he can usually be found standing to the left of the goal closest to the Freitas Ice Forum. From that position on Aug. 23, when the women's soccer team opened its season against Wisconsin, he did his best to help the Huskies get out of a 2-0 hole in the second half.
"Genevieve!" he yelled at Wisconsin goalkeeper Genevieve Richard as she tried to focus on the play, "Genevieve!"
While he was distracting Richard, UConn midfielder Samantha McGuire broke in on goal and put a shot past the Wisconsin keeper. Ten minutes later, as Napier continued to outshout men's soccer players Jonathan Goodridge and Sergio Campbell, UConn midfielder Riley Houle scored the equalizing goal. Before anyone could blink, Napier was sprinting towards the scoreboard, yelling and spinning in jubilation.
That is the kind of person Napier enjoys being. Whether it is being at a game supporting his friends or spending time together off the court, Napier enjoys being with his friends.
When he is not playing basketball or studying for class, he is usually playing FIFA. The biggest dilemma he has off the court and outside the classroom is deciding which team he is going to use to beat freshman center Amida Brimah. Napier likes to play as Real Madrid, Chelsea or reigning European champions Bayern Munich. He used to play as Barcelona, but he stopped because Napier, normally the shortest player on the court when he is playing basketball, did not like playing as Lionel Messi because of his physical stature.
"I can't do anything with him," Napier said of the 5-foot-7-inch Argentinean superstar. "He's too short."
But while he continues to act like a normal college student, he is the center of attention in college basketball. He is the center of teams' defensive strategies when they play UConn. He is being talked about by pundits and scouts from coast to coast. He is piling on the accomplishments - he became the Huskies' eighth-leading scorer all time on Saturday with 1,688 points. He is Kemba Walker. He does not care about that talk.
"Right now, I'm not too worried about that," Napier said after passing Cliff Robinson (1,664) and Wes Bialosuknia (1,673) on the all-time scoring list Saturday. "I'm just worried about winning...When you're at the end of the roads and you look at it and you see what you've done, it's definitely a special feeling. But right now, I'm staying in the moment. I'm just going to continue to work hard and get better."
Instead of worrying about awards and honors, Napier wants to follow in Walker's footsteps as a leader. When he arrived in Storrs as a wide-eyed, unseasoned freshman, Walker took him under his wing, grooming him for command.
Napier learned a lot about being a leader from Walker, but Mamadou Doudou Diouf, a close friend to Napier and a captain on the UConn men's soccer team in 2013, played his part as well, and he may be partly to thank for Napier being in uniform this season.
Diouf, now a rookie with the Vancouver Whitecaps, skipped the MLS SuperDraft twice to stay at UConn and continue his pursuit of a national title and his degree. After Diouf decided to stay following his junior season, Napier sought his advice, once even chasing him down when he saw the Senegalese striker getting off a bus near the Student Union. Napier wanted to know what made Diouf stay when there was virtually a guarantee of being drafted.
"I was running to him because he was doing the same thing, deciding whether or not he should stay and come back," Napier said. "And his situation was different than mine because he's from Senegal. I'm from the United States, so my country's much better economically.
"But he decided to come back and I was asking him, 'What were you thinking about?' 'How were you going through it?' And he was just going back to his family, mother and father. And that's the biggest thing he told me, that it's about you and your family, no one else. My family's my mother, and I promised her that I'm going to get my degree, and that's what I did.
"Me and Mamadou, we have a close bond. When he's on the field, he's the same way I am. I may be a quiet guy, maybe just settled in. But when I get on the court, it's a whole different ballgame. I'm the most hated guy you could probably have on your team because I'm going to go after it and make sure our team gets the win."
There are six games left in the regular season, after which the Huskies will go to Memphis for the American Athletic Conference Tournament. After that comes the NCAA Tournament.
No class of UConn players has ever won two national championships, but the way Napier has not only played this season, but led his team as well, Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander could make UConn history.
"This guy wants it," Diouf said. "He wants it. He wants it, and he knows that now is his time to show because his team needs him, and he's not afraid."
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