MEMPHIS — The thank yous were almost endless, but absolutely necessary.
First there were the coaches. Not just the coaches at the University of Connecticut, but every coach in the American Athletic Conference.
They could’ve named Louisville’s Russ Smith or Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick the conference Player of the Year, and it would’ve been hard to argue.
But there was a reason Shabazz Napier was standing on the dais at the Gibson Guitar Company, looking out at his peers, accepting the award.
He wasn’t the conference’s leading scorer. That was Kilpatrick. His team didn’t have the conference’s best record. Smith’s did.
But Napier embodied something different.
So he posed for a photo with the trophy, hugged ceremony host Doris Burke, and stood in front of the flickering lights trying to explain that “something.”
“Bear with me,” he said.
He thanked his mother, Carmen Velázquez.
“All the sacrifices she made to better my life,” he said. “As a single mother with three children growing up in the inner city, she had all the excuses to give up, all the reasons to give up, but she never did.”
There was James Doran, the Huskies’ assistant trainer, Travis Illian, the strength coach. The managers “who come to rebound for us at the drop of a dime.”
There was his coaching staff and then finally his teammates.
“I do wish I was able to break this award down into 15 pieces,” Napier said. “Because without my guys, I’m nothing.”
In four years at UConn, Napier has been a single-minded scoring prodigy, a life-of-the-party joker, a difficult teammate, and the face of the program.
He won a national championship, considered transferring, weighed his NBA options, but ultimately stayed in Storrs, Conn. — through the departure of legendary coach Jim Calhoun, through the turmoil of the school’s NCAA Tournament ban a year ago, and now for the return this season to the NCAAs.
The experience made him constantly evaluate himself. More often than not, the people he thanked would be the people he leaned on, the people that ultimately helped mold him into a leader. It was something Napier’s 17 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game couldn’t explain, but he hoped his words could.
“I’m at a point where I’m successful at college basketball and people just believe, ‘Oh, he puts in a lot of work,’ ” Napier said. “Of course that’s true, but it’s definitely a lot of people putting in work around me, helping me and motivating me. I’m not Superman. I can’t do things by myself.
“It’s good to get all these awards, I won’t lie to you. But I don’t think I would handle it the right way if it was two years ago.
“I think I’m happier with who I am and who I’m becoming more so than getting these awards. And I understand that the only reason I get these awards is because of who I have beside me. I don’t think I would’ve noticed that my freshman, sophomore year.”
Tough kid, tough times
Calhoun had taken notice of Napier the moment he saw him. The coach was in Orlando on a recruiting trip. Napier was going into his junior year at Lawrence Academy after two spending years at Charlestown High.
Calhoun knew a little about Napier. He was smallish but tough, had the basketball on a string when he dribbled, and was such a good scorer that people couldn’t decide whether he was point guard or a shooting guard.
But seeing for himself was different.
“I remember seeing three or four really good plays, and I said, ‘Is that Napier?’ ” Calhoun recalled. “[An assistant] says, ‘Yeah, Coach, he’s like fourth or fifth on our list.’ ”
Napier became Calhoun’s top priority.
“Bottom line,” Calhoun said, “I said, ‘You know, let me watch him. You guys go to the other game.’ ”
He saw things in Napier that reminded him of a player he already had, Kemba Walker — the potential to be a great player and a great personality.
He also saw things that were similar to himself. Napier grew up in Roxbury. Calhoun was born in Braintree and coached at Northeastern.
“I saw a tough Boston city kid,” Calhoun said. “I’m a tough Boston city kid myself. So I saw a lot of parallels.”
Napier was the youngest of Velázquez’s three children.
“And I created so much headache,” he said.
Not that Velazquez needed any. She already had enough on her plate, and Napier realized it, even at a young age.
“She had to do a lot for us,” Napier said. “I don’t know how she was able to do certain things. Keep the light bill on, keep food on the table. It’s just astonishing. Still to this day, I don’t know how she did it.”
Napier would get five dollars every morning from Velázquez, and she would tell him not to spend it all. It got to a point where he wouldn’t spend any of it.
His mother wasn’t working at the time. Jobs were hard to find.
He knew she would provide, but he always wanted to make it easier for her.
“Still to this day, I always tell my mother I don’t want anything,” Napier said. “Of course, she still gives me gifts here and there.
“But she never made me feel like I was broke. She never made me feel like I didn’t have enough. She made me feel as if I had as much as that next person did. To this day, I really sit back and think, ‘Man, how did she do that?’ ”
What he realized was that she didn’t do it alone.
A ‘little brother’ thing
The first time Will Blalock met Napier, Blalock was at East Boston High School and Napier stood about as high as a ball bounce.
“He was a little, little dude,” Blalock said.
Napier was only 7 or 8 years old. His mother wanted Blalock to keep an eye on him.
“She was going through a rough time as far as, like, moving to different places and stuff like that all around Boston, staying where she could stay because, financially, she was just in trouble,” Blalock said.
Growing up in Mission Hill, Blalock didn’t have a little brother, but he started to look at Napier like one.
“He happened to just take a liking to me, and it was kind of a little brother thing,” Blalock said. “He was around me 24/7. It was cool, man. I would have him all summer.”
Watching after Napier was easy.
“Growing up, he wasn’t really much of a knucklehead,” Blalock said. “He got into regular little kid stuff, but never really too crazy. So it wasn’t really that hard.”
Napier had been playing basketball since he was 5, when he was already a marked man in the YMCA’s No Books No Ball League.
“He can write a book and say he was getting double-teamed in a No Books No Ball Roxbury league when he was 8, 9 years old,” Blalock said.
With Blalock, Shaun Davis, Will Dickerson, Tony Lee, Kenneth Jackson, and Steve Hailey, Napier had a cocoon of basketball junkies around him who would also serve as mentors. He looked up to them
“He was one of those little dudes, he would come to watch me and Steve play, and every time there was a stoppage in play, he would get the ball from the referee to work on his handle, moves, shooting, and stuff,” Blalock said.
“He kind of already had all that stuff even before I even met him. His ball-handling was always real good. He always could find the open man and he could shoot his threes. Even though he was real small, he would make sure he could get to the rim all the time, holding his form up. You could already see it.”
At the same time, Blalock was making a name for himself on the court. He starred at East Boston and on Leo Papile’s BABC teams. He went on to Notre Dame Prep and then Iowa State.
After his junior year with the Cyclones, Blalock decided to leave school and enter the NBA draft.
“I had a lot of people in my ear telling me, ‘Oh, you could be a late first-round pick,’ all this and that,” he said.
Then, in a workout with the Dallas Mavericks days before the draft, he rolled his ankle.
The Detroit Pistons took him with the 55th pick. He spent a year with them, then hopped around the globe from Israel to the D-League to Australia to Germany and most recently to Canada.
“I’ve been too well-traveled,” he said.
In eight years, he lived as many basketball lifetimes. When he talks to Napier, he tries to pass it along.
Clashing but connecting
Napier and Calhoun were so similar, it was impossible for them to not butt heads. Admittedly, they’re both at times probably too smart for their own good.
“There’s never been a problem with his intellect,” Calhoun said. “That was never a problem.”
Napier had the kind of personality that dominated a room. It was by design.
“Growing up, in high school, you’re like, ‘All right, I need to be the guy everybody knows,’ ” Napier said. “‘I want to be the guy that as soon as you walk in the building they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s Shabazz.’ ”
Initially, Napier said, that was the kind of attention he wanted. But he didn’t know how to handle it. Eventually, he would get phone calls from Blalock and they’d talk it through.
“He was going to be playing with a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Calhoun and I told him, ‘He’s not going to be putting up with all the antics and the b.s. you’re going to do off the court,’ ” Blalock said. “If you don’t straighten that up, you’re going to be sent home and you’ll be transferring to another school.’”
Early on, Calhoun was tough on Napier, but he had a purpose.
“He needed someone that was going to kind of kick his ass a little bit, but love him,” Calhoun said. “He always needed love.
“He’s like a good hound dog. He’ll sniff you out, find out if you really care. If you’re going to call him names and yell at him and push him, you also have to love him. I loved him.
“I think the greatest thing is, he knew it. Even when he wasn’t the Shabazz Napier we know today, he always knew that people — we at UConn — cared about him.”
They didn’t always see eye to eye, but Calhoun always felt he could get through to Napier.
“Through it all, through all these emotions, through the mood swings that we all go through especially at his age, he’s smart and he always understood,” Calhoun said. “I used to tell him, ‘You know what I’m saying to you is 100 percent true. You’re a smart guy. You know it’s true.’ ”
But when the Huskies struggled the year after winning the national title in 2011, Napier wore his frustration on his face. Walker was gone, and the team was ostensibly his to lead. Between Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond, now both in the NBA, Napier had plenty of talent at his side. But the Huskies were a disappointment. They went 20-14, 8-10 in the Big East. Alex Oriaki would transferred to Missouri. Lamb, just a sophomore, entered the draft.
Inside the locker room, the blame fell on Napier.
“I guess word got back saying that he transferred and Jeremy Lamb wanted to enter the draft because they didn’t get along with Bazz and they didn’t like the way he communicated with him,” Blalock said.
“We had the whole talk about, ‘Yeah, everybody’s a grown man or feels like they’re grown, but everyone’s different as far as how you can talk to them. Sometimes you can yell at this person but you might have to address it in another way when you’re talking about someone else. Everybody’s not the same.’ ”
On more than a few nights, Napier and Blalock found themselves talking into the late hours. Whether it was body language, communication, leadership, attitude, conditioning, work ethic, Blalock was always a call away.
In September 2012, when Calhoun announced that after a series of health issues he would be leaving, the news blindsided Napier.
“When I stepped down, he was very upset with me,” Calhoun said. “I didn’t tell him beforehand.
“That’s good that he cared enough about me and I cared enough about him. But my relationship will always be as strong, whether I coached him five years, two years.”
Napier kicked around the idea of transferring.
After Kevin Ollie was hired to replace Calhoun, it immediately became his challenge to persuade Napier to stay.
“I had to get him on my side,” said Ollie. “That was my biggest focus, to get him right, saying, ‘You can lead this charge. You can lead us through this darkness, because if you lead us through this darkness, it’s light right around the corner.’ And he just led us through.”
In his junior year, Napier averaged 17.1 points, 4.6 assists, and 4.4 rebounds for a team that wouldn’t be tournament-eligible because of poor classroom performance.
His eyes turned toward the NBA. Blalock told him to think carefully about it.
“I ended up being the last pick in the draft,” Blalock said. “I didn’t want that to happen to him. I told him one more solid year wouldn’t do anything but help your stock.
“I didn’t know at the time that I was going to be his blueprint per se. But I’m kind of glad things worked the way it worked — that way I can show him.
“I was more of a trial-and-error type guy. Now I won’t allow him to make the same kind of mistakes I made. Especially as far as leaving school early.”
‘A whole lot of stressful nights’
The Shabazz Napier in front of all those flickering lights at the Gibson Guitar Company with the long list of thank yous is different from the one that came to UConn four years ago.
The 26 wins UConn put together on the way to the tournament aren’t as important as what went into them.
“Sophomore year, guys were like, ‘He can’t do this, he can’t lead,’ ” Ollie said. “Now I get exit meetings, ‘If it wasn’t for Shabazz, we wouldn’t have made it through the season.’
“It’s totally different. Just what I heard as a player. ‘Bazz is tough to get along with.’ This and that. Now they’re saying he’s the most influential player on our team. That’s cool to witness.”
It was a process.
“He came a long way,” Blalock said. “It was a whole lot of stressful nights talking to him about it, but he came a long way.”
Now, looking back, not only can he appreciate his own maturation but everyone who was a part of the process.
“The ups and downs, it kind of shows you who you are as a person and who are the people around you,” Napier said. “Of course, when you’re in your highs, you see everybody. Everyone’s flocking to you.
“But the true people are the people that are staying when you need it the most.
“I had my highs and a lot of people were in front of me congratulating me. Then when times were low, you realized who were the most important people in your life. You just want to stay loyal to those people. You want them to continue to be by your side.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.