By Tim Casey
NEW YORK -- As Andrea Walker stood in section 105, row 4 of Madison Square Garden late Sunday afternoon, a few Connecticut fans noticed her. They shouted her name. Minutes earlier, UConn had defeated Michigan State in the NCAA tournament's East regional final in front of a sold-out crowd packed with Huskies' fans, including Walker. She was hard to miss.
She wore a white number 15 UConn jersey with "Walker" stitched across the back, a replica of the uniform top her son, Kemba Walker, made so famous during his sensational college career. On the court below her, the Huskies' players and coaches were cutting down the net and celebrating the program's first Final Four berth since 2011, when Kemba led UConn to its third national title.
"This is our house," Andrea Walker screamed. "Our house."
For Andrea, the scene brought back some wonderful memories. Three years ago, on this same floor, Kemba had one of the most memorable performances in recent college basketball history in helping the No. 9 seed Huskies to five victories in five days to win the Big East tournament championship.
Even though Andrea now lives in Charlotte and her son is the Bobcats' starting point guard, she remains a devoted UConn supporter. She's particularly fond of Shabazz Napier, the Huskies' best player and point guard who's become known as the second coming of Kemba.
Andrea is a good friend of Carmen Velasquez, Napier's mother. They met in October 2010 during UConn's "First Night" festivities (the school's version of " Midnight Madness") before Napier's freshman season and Walker's junior season. The two still speak on the telephone nearly every day and hung around this past weekend. On Sunday, they sat in the same section and stayed in the arena until security guards told everyone to leave a little past 5 p.m. They then walked together up the stairs and into the concourse before heading outside.
"That's my buddy -- I love her to death," Velasquez said of Walker as they stood in the concourse. "We just click. When we first met, it was just like a bond. It was meant for us to meet each other. We have a bond together. That's my sister. As Shabazz says, Kemba's his brother. That's my sister. I love her."
Velasquez and Walker grew close because of their outgoing personalities and shared experiences raising their children in poor cities surrounded by drugs and violence. Napier grew up in Roxbury, Mass. outside of Boston, while Walker grew up in the south Bronx. Both boys were small for their age but never lacked for confidence and spent all day competing at local parks. Still, there were plenty of talented players from their neighborhoods who didn't have the grades or the discipline required to compete in college. Napier and Walker were the exceptions.
"It's not easy to raise young men to accomplish so much through high school, through college and into the future," Velasquez said. "There's not a lot of kids [who make it], but we were blessed to have kids that wanted to make it easier for us. They stayed focused, they played ball, they stayed in school, got the grades they needed and here we are."
Velasquez and Walker spent as much time around their boys as possible and told them they needed to work hard and keep their academics in check when chasing their basketball dreams. Both women rarely missed any of their sons' games and always worked to provide financial support for them, although it wasn't easy.
"We came out of the projects -- every so often a few people make it out," Walker said. "We're just fortunate that we were good parents and followed behind our kids and made sure they did the right thing… We go to work every day, we take care of them, we show them that they don't need to be the same as everyone else. Somebody has to be different."
Now, UConn fans can't help but point out the similarities between Walker and Napier. Both are 6-foot-1 point guards best known for their versatility, leadership, toughness and ability to make shots at the end of games. Like Walker did during the 2010-11 season, Napier is an All-American leading a team that few predicted could make it this far.
When UConn won its first two NCAA tournament games this year to advance to the Sweet 16 in Madison Square Garden, Andrea knew she had to fly to New York from Charlotte, where she has resided since her son was drafted in 2011. Kemba couldn't make it because of his NBA schedule, but his mother wasn't about to forgo a chance to see the Huskies compete a few miles from where she lived for so long. She wasn't disappointed, as Napier had 25 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists on Sunday in a performance that resembled Kemba's remarkable 2011 NCAA tournament run during which he averaged 23.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game.
"I'm a UConn mother true blood for life," Andrea said. "I'm a follower. I'm a believer. This is me. I miss this life. I definitely miss this college life."
This past weekend, she soaked in as much of the atmosphere as possible. Late Sunday afternoon, she and Velasquez joined dozens of UConn fans waiting outside Madison Square Garden's 8 Penn Plaza exit to greet the players and coaches before they boarded their bus home to Storrs, Conn. Velasquez nudged her way to the front of the line.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I got first dibs."
Around 6 p.m., Napier emerged and swung open the door. Velasquez hugged her son, who still had a strand of the net he had cut down more than an hour earlier attached to the back of his navy blue UConn hat. As rain fell, Napier posed for photos and signed autographs. He didn't deny anyone's request.
Soon, Velasquez and Walker escaped from the lousy weather. They walked with a few others to the Local Cafe, a restaurant across the street at the corner of 33rd Street and Eighth Ave.
Later that night, Walker had a flight scheduled home to Charlotte, but minutes after the Huskies won on Sunday, she was already thinking about this weekend. She's planning on heading to AT&T Stadium outside of Dallas on Saturday to watch UConn play Florida in the Final Four. Velasquez was happy her friend would be with her once again.
"Of course, she's here to support me," Velasquez said. "She just said, 'We're going to Texas, baby.' I said, 'Yes, we are.'"
* * *
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.