By Tim Casey
For the life of him, Shabazz Napier couldn't understand why he wasn't allowed to compete. It drove him crazy. All of the best basketball players in his Boston neighborhood gathered for tournaments that drew big crowds. Will Blalock, a teenager who Napier idolized, dominated against adults twice his age.
Instead of joining in on the action, Napier had to wait until timeouts and halftime. Decorum be damned, he would take the ball from referees and practice dribbling and shooting, showing off his moves in front of the fans until the games resumed. He was 9.
"They weren't going to let him play, but he felt like he deserved and would fit in with grown met at a young age," Blalock said. "He was always really confident."
Napier is still as self-assured as ever, and for good reason. Now a senior at Connecticut, he leads the team in scoring, rebounds and assists and is renowned for his late-game heroics. Barely over 6-feet and weighing only 180 pounds, the point guard is among the most valuable players in the nation and a likely All-America pick. He is drawing comparisons to Kemba Walker, the former UConn point guard who led the underdog Huskies to the 2011 NCAA tournament title.
"I can see that," Walker said. "We kind of had a similar team. He's just a natural born leader. He's definitely capable of [leading UConn deep in the NCAA tournament]."
Despite the accolades and belief in himself, Napier is aware enough to know that he's had help along the way from people who guided him through a shaky past. He grew up without a father in a poor city surrounded by drugs and violence, didn't always take his academics seriously, received scant interest from major colleges until late in high school, struggled getting along with teammates, considered transferring from UConn and thought about leaving for the NBA.
As Napier enters the final few weeks of his college career, he has plenty of mentors to thank. None have been more influential than Blalock and five other men known as the "Fab 6," a group of friends who have looked after Napier since he was a little boy with huge dreams.
"If I didn't have them, I probably wouldn't be playing here," Napier said. "I don't know what I'd be doing, but I wouldn't be here. They keep me on the right track."
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When Napier started playing basketball through the "No Books No Ball" program at the YMCA in Roxbury, Mass., Carmen Velasquez sensed her son had found his passion. At 5, he was the youngest in the league by two years, but he fit in without a problem. During the summers, Velasquez dropped Napier off at Washington Park across from their small apartment. He spent all day there, taking breaks only when his mother blew her whistle, signifying she was checking in on him.
It was at Washington Park and at other local courts where Napier met Blalock and Steve Hailey. They were more than six years older than Napier and two of the best guards in the region, but they took a liking to him. Napier never left their side.
"Everywhere they went, he was with them," Velasquez said. "I didn't have to worry too much."
Velasquez, a single mother with three children, struggled financially but did her best to provide for her family. Although Napier and Velasquez saw each other every day, he lived with Blalock and Blalock's mother for three summers until Blalock left for Iowa State in 2003, when Napier was 12.
"We had a stable situation - - it just happened to be in the projects," Blalock said. "We were around each other every single day. All we did was we either watched basketball on TV or we were playing somewhere whether we had a game or whether we were just playing just to play. (Napier) was around basketball 24-7."
Besides Blalock and Hailey, the "Fab 6" consisted of Will Dickerson, Shaun Davis, Tony Lee and Kenneth Jackson. All lived in or near Boston's Mission Hill projects. They weren't relatives but called each other brothers. Hailey ended up playing at Boston College, Lee at Robert Morris and Jackson at Iona. Blalock, who spent three years at Iowa State, was selected in the second round of the 2006 NBA draft but appeared in only 14 NBA games before playing in the NBA Development League and professional leagues overseas. Davis and Dickerson were older than the others by a few years and competed at small colleges. Dickerson is now an NBA agent for Klutch Sports Group, the agency started in late 2012 by Rich Paul, LeBron James's longtime friend.
"[Napier] is our little brother," Hailey said. "It was really nice having him around. I would say Shabazz saved us more than we saved him. … He always paid attention to what we were doing and who we were around. We couldn't do anything that we thought he wouldn't approve of."
Hailey remembers Napier as a "book worm" who once sat next to him between games at an AAU tournament reading while Hailey studied. Some of Napier's classmates called him a "nerd" because he wore glasses.
As Napier got older and entered Charlestown High School, he wasn't an ideal student. Blalock warned Napier that he had a similar experience and had to transfer from East Boston High School to Notre Dame Prep to focus more on his grades. Napier didn't listen.
"He's always been a pretty smart kid," said Oscar Lopez, Napier's coach for the Metro Boston AAU team. "I just think when he was in school, a lot of his friends were clowning around, so instead of focusing on his books, he focused on being a clown. He always liked to play around."
After three years at Charlestown, Napier wasn't on track to qualify academically for college, so Lopez reached out to local prep schools. In the fall of 2008, Napier enrolled at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., 40 miles northwest of Charlestown. He received a scholarship to the expensive school ($50,000 in tuition alone), repeated his junior year and lived on the rural campus. The time away from home helped him on the court and in the classroom.
"I would say there is no question that the day Shabazz arrived that he was an unbelievable basketball talent," said Kevin Wiercinski, Napier's coach at Lawrence Academy who is now an assistant at the school. "I think he understood [eventually] that he needed to be about more than just a sweet crossover dribble and an awesome jumper."
Entering the summer of 2009, Napier had received offers from Division I colleges such as Massachusetts, Providence and Rhode Island. Within a couple of months, Napier's list of schools grew as he held his own in tournaments against top guards such as Austin Rivers and Phil Pressey.
"He was always talented," said Pressey, a Celtics rookie who has known Napier since they were both in eighth grade. "He really exploded [that summer]. … We knew he was good, but he really didn't get looked at [before then]."
At the 2009 AAU Nationals in Orlando, UConn coach Jim Calhoun walked by a court and noticed "Boston" on a team's uniform. Calhoun grew up in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood and loved the city. Even though he had a list of players he wanted to see and none participated in that game, he stopped and watched Metro Boston. Calhoun stayed for the entire contest, intrigued by Napier's skills, toughness and attitude. The Boston natives had a similar aggressive demeanor.
"On a basketball court, particularly, neither Shabazz nor I have ever been known to be laid back," Calhoun said. "No one's ever used that term about us."
During the 2009-10 school year, Calhoun remained in touch with Napier, who was receiving more attention. Coaches from Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, Georgetown and other colleges stopped by campus to watch Napier.
Lawrence Academy went 29-0 and won the New England prep school Class C title as Napier had 23 points, 8 assists and 8 steals against a St. Mark's team that had players who signed with Duke, Georgetown, Arizona and Iowa. Four times that season, Napier had plays in the final minute that led to victories, according to Wiercinski.
"You walk out there and you shake people's hands and [say], 'Great game, great game'," Wiercinski said. "The only reason you're out on top is because we had him and they didn't."
Soon after the season ended, UConn offered Napier a scholarship and wanted him to enroll in the fall of 2010. The problem was, when Napier started at Lawrence Academy, the school planned on him staying three years and being part of the class of 2011. Instead of sticking around Lawrence for another year to complete its strict academic requirements, Napier returned to his old school for a couple of months and graduated from Charlestown so that he could head to college early. Calhoun encouraged the unusual arrangement, made sure Napier met the NCAA's and UConn's qualifying standards and convinced Napier it was the best move.
"He didn't know if he was ready [for college]," Calhoun said. "That's not like Shabazz. Shabazz has a great deal of confidence, but I guess he wasn't gearing himself up to be ready. But he was ready. At least I thought he was."
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By the time Napier arrived at UConn, any doubts he had about dominating at the next level had been erased. Kevin Ollie, in his first season as an assistant coach after a 13-year NBA career, recalled the first time he worked out Napier. The freshman gave shooting and passing tips to Walker, the team's junior leader and starting point guard.
"I was like, 'Who's this little kid out here directing Kemba?'," Ollie said.
Napier and Walker soon became good friends and related well to each other. Both grew up poor in tough city environments (Napier in Boston, Walker in New York), were the youngest of three children and made a name for themselves as 6-foot-1 guards in a sport dominated by bigger guys. Even their mothers grew close and still talk often.
"That's my girl," Velasquez said of Andrea Walker, Kemba's mom. "I love her to death."
Entering the 2011 Big East tournament, UConn had lost four of its previous five games and had a 9-9 conference record. The Huskies then won five games in five days to capture the league title and gain an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed.
With UConn leading Kentucky by two points with five seconds remaining in the Final Four, Napier grabbed a defensive rebound and made two free throws on the other end to clinch the victory. Two nights later, the Huskies defeated Butler for the third national title in school history. Walker, the tournament's most outstanding player and a first-team All-America, credited his backup for some of his success.
"[Napier is] definitely the reason why I kind of excelled, especially against other players, because we went after it in practice so much," Walker said. "He's very good defensively. He definitely challenged me a lot."
For Napier, having Walker around every day helped ease his transition to college. He reminded Napier of Blalock, Hailey and other members of the "Fab 6."
"[Walker] was a big brother figure to me," Napier said. "I needed that in my life. All my life, I've always been searching for a father figure. I landed with a big brother that took care of me."
As a sophomore, after Walker left for the NBA, Napier became the starting point guard for a team ranked fourth in the USA TODAY Sports and AP preseason polls. The talented Huskies featured freshman center Andre Drummond and sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb, both of whom would be selected among the first 12 picks of the 2012 NBA draft. They never lived up to expectations, though, finishing 20-14 and losing by 13 points to Iowa State in their first game in the NCAA tournament. Napier had trouble in his new role.
"I did a ton of things wrong," he said. "I didn't know how to be a leader. I would be upset when we'd lose games and didn't know how to talk the right way to certain teammates."
Napier suffered another setback in September 2012 when Calhoun announced his retirement. The two didn't always get along, but they shared a burning desire to win, almost to a fault. Still, Napier thought of Calhoun as a father figure. They had long talks about basketball and life, so Calhoun sensed Napier was "let down" when he told him he would no longer coach at UConn.
Besides Calhoun leaving and Lamb and Drummond heading to the NBA, the Huskies were also ineligible for the 2012-13 postseason because of poor Academic Performance Rate scores. For a week and a half after Calhoun's retirement, Napier considered transferring. He spoke through his options with his family and Ollie, who was hired to replace Calhoun but given only a one-year contract.
"There were a lot of difficult things," said Ollie, a UConn point guard from 1991 to 1995 who now has a contract through the 2017-18 season. "Anybody with a sound mind is going to sit back and reflect and try to make the best decision for him. We're very thankful that he made the decision to stay at UConn and see it all the way through."
Ollie made his head coaching debut last November facing No. 14 Michigan State on a military base in Germany. With unranked UConn trailing by two points with 5:08 remaining, Napier made a three-pointer, giving the Huskies a lead they never relinquished. In the final 15 seconds, Napier clinched the upset by going 4-for-4 from the free throw line. Throughout the season, he continued making big shots, including helping UConn to four overtime victories in the final six weeks. Napier was a first-team All-Big East selection and averaged 17.1 points, 4.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game.
For the next few weeks, Napier contemplated entering the NBA draft even though he was projected as a late second-round selection. He decided to remain at UConn. He yearned to play again in the NCAA tournament. He also wanted to keep a promise he had made to his mother several years earlier: He would graduate from college.
"I needed him to get that degree," Velasquez said. "Basketball's not guaranteed. You can always get hurt. Once you have a degree, to me, he can do anything."
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For nearly an hour in late December, Blalock waited in a concourse at Webster Bank Arena in Connecticut after watching UConn defeat Eastern Washington. Blalock, who recently had foot surgery and had crutches, hung around to speak with Napier. The man who helped raise Napier remains one of his mentors and best friends. When Napier finally arrived, Blalock joked with him and gave him a hard time for taking so long. Napier explained he had showered, talked to teammates and spoke to the media for a while. He was in demand, as usual.
Velasquez stood nearby with her familiar attire: a blue UConn jersey with her son's uniform number (13) across the front and back. She attends all of the home games and some road games. She watches the rest on television, wearing the same jersey and standing until UConn first scores, just like all Huskies' fans do in arenas across the country. Napier has provided her with plenty of good memories. He is on track to graduate with a sociology degree, and he is in the midst of a breakout senior season.
Napier is averaging a career-high 17.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and is shooting 43.9 percent from the floor, 41.7 percent on three-pointers and 88.1 percent on free throws. He is also leading the American Athletic Conference with 5.6 assists per game. UConn (18-5 overall, 6-4 in the conference) is on its way to a likely NCAA tournament berth, where Napier will have a final chance to perform on the sport's biggest stage.
"Guarding Shabazz Napier's probably the most difficult thing of any player you have to defend because he makes every free throw [and] he makes smart plays," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after Napier scored a career-high 30 points against the Cardinals on Jan. 18. "He's really developed into a great point guard."
More than his statistics, Napier is revered among the UConn faithful for the moments late in close games when he doesn't shy away from the spotlight. Against Florida on Dec. 2, Napier missed a jumper with three seconds remaining but teammate DeAndre Daniels tipped the ball back to him. Napier then made a shot from near the foul line as time expired, giving UConn a 65-64 victory. Napier's play led to comparisons with Walker, whose clutch shots defined the 2011 national championship season, including a step-back jumper at the buzzer to defeat third-ranked Pitt in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.
After Walker made that shot, Napier immediately grabbed him with both hands and lifted him off the ground, celebrating the win. Three years later, it's Napier's turn to shine, and he hasn't disappointed.
"This year, quite frankly, he really has matured greatly as a kid, he's matured greatly as a basketball player and greatly as a leader," said Calhoun, who still attends some practices and games and talks to Napier frequently. "He's got a long way to go, as he says and I've said to him, to [match] what Kemba did. … But he's having a terrific, terrific year. He's having one of the best years, in my opinion, in the history of UConn."
Napier's college success and television exposure have made him the player kids back in Boston idolize. He hasn't forgotten his roots or the people who made it possible for him to fulfill his dreams. He's helped coach Metro Boston and brought teenagers from his old AAU program to shoot at UConn. And when he's in Roxbury during the summers or school breaks, he stops by the gyms he used to frequent.
"He's like a rock star," Blalock said. "When he comes home, if a kid's having a bad game in his little 13 and under game and Bazz walks in, it's like, 'I automatically gotta put on a show because he's here.' They love him."
It's similar to how Napier acted when Blalock or Hailey or one of the other four members of the "Fab 6" used to watch him play. The group still follows him closely, traveling to Connecticut for some games and watching the rest on television. Their children refer to him as "Uncle Bazz."
Napier's an adult now, finishing up a storied college career and hoping for an NBA future. All eyes are on him. He wouldn't want it any other way.
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.