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The parallel college experience of Shabazz Napier and me

By Jesse Rifkin
On October 4, 2013

Running into UConn basketball star point guard Shabazz Napier in the Student Union food court the other week felt oddly like seeing a longtime friend, though it was the first time we had ever met. In a strange way, our college careers had played out similarly.
He was from Massachusetts; I was from the next state over in Connecticut. He entered UConn in August 2010, as did I. He received offers to attend Providence and Massachusetts; I received offers to attend Syracuse and Boston University. His freshman year he won a national basketball championship, my freshman year I placed ninth in the New York City Air Guitar Contest.
Okay, so the similarities only sync to a point.
In other respects we were drastically different. His college tuition was 100 percent paid for; on my end, not so much. Also, his middle name is Bozie. Seriously.
I came into college having been the high school class clown. While Kemba Walker may have been team leader, Shabazz was the most fun. His moves were fancy and being the team's shortest player it was like rooting for David over Goliath. His quirky personality was exemplified by John Woike's Hartford Courant photograph capturing the team from the knees down - every player wearing plain white sneakers except Shabazz wearing bright red. Or this quote from Courant sports reporter Mike Anthony: "After a practice in Austin, Texas, Napier started singing aloud at the Erwin Center, causing coach Jim Calhoun to look at him, smile and say about his team, 'My sixth-grade class.'"
I had plenty of fun my freshman year, though I also learned how to be more serious when necessary, just like Shabazz did during the Final Four game against Kentucky. UConn was up two points with 16 seconds left. Shabazz lost the ball, an elementary mistake likely to cost UConn both the game and the entire season. Kentucky shot a three-pointer to win, the ball bounced off the rim, and stunningly Shabazz - the shortest player on the court - outleapt every player to grab the rebound with two seconds remaining. The guy who wore bright red shoes and sang during practice stayed as cool as a cucumber, calmly sinking both foul shots to send us to the championship.
Sophomore year I took on leadership roles, as vice president of Marketing Society, an Editorial Board member at The Daily Campus and greater involvement with UCTV - just as Shabazz was named co-captain and had to replace the country's best college player Kemba Walker as starting point guard. Yet Shabazz never lost his sense of fun: during First Night festivities he voluntarily sat in a chair while Ryan Boatright dunked over him! And who can forget his 30-foot prayer versus Villanova with less than a second in overtime? "Of course I thought it was going in," he said afterwards. "I don't take shots to miss."
In the Daily Campus newsroom during that game, everybody gathered around the television holding their breath. Right as Shabazz launched his shot, the editor-in-chief - who clearly didn't care about sports at all - stepped out of her office impatiently, saying, "You know, this is a functioning newspaper." Clearly, Shabazz did not impress everybody.
Heading into junior year, I considered transferring. My college grades were significantly better than my high school grades, as were my extracurricular awards and honors, so I considered the possibility that perhaps I could be accepted somewhere better. Ultimately I stayed here.
The UConn team was disqualified from postseason play due to low academic scores from former players. (Though not because of Shabazz, one of only four players to earn a 3.0 grade point average both semesters last year.) Upon hearing of the postseason ban, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond left for the NBA, while Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith transferred to tournament-eligible schools. Although I don't know with certainty, surely some of the top basketball teams in the nation wanted Shabazz. He stayed. I respect that.
My junior year, I was named the best college newspaper columnist in the country by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, while Shabazz finally acceded to being the highest-scoring player on the team and among the best college guards in the nation. Especially when the game was critical: during one five-game stretch he scored 100 points, 88 of them in the second half.
Truth is, most of my freshman year friends I don't keep up with or talk to anymore. Yet, although we did not meet until the other week, Shabazz Napier was among my favorite UConn people my freshman year and remains so. For both of us, our final basketball season as UConn students commences in a few weeks. Neither of us can wait.

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