Much of New England is in the Shabazz Napier fan club now, but coach Tony Richards was there from the beginning.
When Napier, one of the best kids Richards has coached in a legendary 24-year youth basketball career, takes the court for the University of Connecticut in the Final Four Saturday night, Richards will recall the precocious 5-year-old who caught his eye one afternoon at the Roxbury YMCA many years ago.
“His older brother Timmy was playing for me,” Richards recalled. “But Shabazz always had that energy and that love for the game. He was like a little Globetrotter. The league I ran then was for kids from 7 to 9, but he played anyway, even though he was only 5.”
Napier, who plays point guard, speaks often about his close ties to the Roxbury community, and how those ties have nurtured him. He later played for Charlestown High and Lawrence Academy before enrolling at UConn, where he is a senior. Richards coached him until he was about 14.
When Richards started coaching kids in Boston neighborhoods, his motive was not purely love of the game. “I started the program with an idea to keep my son and my nephew off the streets,” Richards said. “We just wanted to keep these kids in a league and off the streets.
Thus his program, “No Books, No Ball.” was born. The idea was that to play on his court, you had to take your schooling seriously.
From a handful of kids at the Roxbury Y, the program quickly mushroomed. There turned out to be a lot of kids, and single parents, looking for a safe alternative to the streets. About 240 kids now take part in the program every year, paying $125 a head. Much of that goes for uniforms and the now-obligatory trophy for each player at the end of the season.
Richards talks often about the “tough love” aspect of his program, in which discipline and academics easily trump athletic prowess.
“At least 60 to 70 percent of our kids will have lost interest in playing by 11th grade,” Richards said. “That not what it’s really about.”
For the ones with the drive and talent to play at a higher level, Richards emphasizes that those dreams would not come true without taking school seriously, a detail sometimes lost on adolescents.
“Without the academic part, the basketball part is a dream that will just die,” he said. “It’s like a balloon with the air seeping out.”
Richards runs his league while holding down a full-time job as a bridge inspector for the MBTA. “It’s a Houdini act, for sure,” he said.
It helps that some of the kids he mentored two decades ago, including his son, are back to coach their successors. The games, which moved to Orchard Gardens a few years ago, have become neighborhood attractions.
“Some of the mothers tell me it’s like a weekend outing,” Richards said proudly. “They come to watch their kids and stay and watch two or three other games. The energy is just electrifying.”
As for Napier, known for being at his best under pressure, Richards said his poise is nothing new. “He’s played under that pressure all his life,” he said. “We yelled at him when he was a little kid, so he’s used to that.”
Saturday afternoon, Richards will be overseeing his league’s annual championship game at the Reggie Lewis Track. After the game, Napier's brother will present the league’s Most Improved Player Award, now named for Shabazz Napier.
After that, Richards and few friends plan to head to Slade’s to cheer on an old friend in his quest for a championship, a boy from Roxbury on a national sports stage. Still, Richards says coaching basketball is secondary to offering guidance.
“You see these single mothers, you see these kids that need mentoring,” he said. “That’s the energy that keeps me coming back.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.