In March, Bostonians watched with pride as Mission Hill native Shabazz Napier led his University of Connecticut Huskies to the NCAA men’s college basketball championship, while earning MVP honors. Amid the hoopla, Napier confided to reporters that he regularly goes to bed “starving” while at school, and thus became the face of a broader conversation about whether student athletes should be compensated for the millions of dollars they bring into their universities.
Napier isn’t going to be hungry much longer, as he prepares for a lucrative career in the National Basketball Association. But his comments helped feed the longstanding debate about those student athletes who won’t ever make the NBA, and whether inner-city kids are pursuing a false promise. After all, only three out of 10,000 high school basketball players will make it to the NBA, according to research provided by the NCAA. The grim statistical reality serves to encourage teachers, parents, and community leaders to dissuade young people from pursuing what they see as a quixotic quest.
It shouldn’t. As distant a goal as it may appear to become a professional basketball player, the positive effect that it has on the wider community is impossible to ignore. While no teenager should expect an easy pathway into professional sports, the mere attempt keeps kids out of trouble, brings pride to communities, and has the power to draw disparate people together.
Mission Hill isn’t a large neighborhood; it has less than half the residents of Jamaica Plain. The Alice Taylor Apartments complex is a mid-sized public housing development that sits just behind Northeastern University’s west campus. It’s where Napier grew up. But he’s not the first soon-to-be NBA draftee to come from there.
An astonishing nine NBA players come from this single block of housing, including Wayne Turner, Will Blalock, and the WNBA’s Sheylani Peddy. Since the early 1960s, on average, every five or six years, a new player emerges from the Alice Taylor Apartments to play professional basketball. This unprecedented concentration of talent caught the attention of filmmaker Brian Culkin, who is now in final production of a documentary called “The Mission,” which tells the story of how this small community sent so many of its kids to play professional basketball.
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