NEW YORK — Shabazz Napier says there is a distinction to where he is from and where the University of Connecticut senior guard was born and raised.
Every time he takes the court for the Huskies, as he will Friday night in a Sweet 16 matchup against Iowa State in the NCAA East Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden, Napier makes certain he is announced from Roxbury, Mass., and not just Boston.
“I was born and raised in Roxbury,’’ Napier said. “It’s in the inner city of Boston and there’s definitely a pride in that. It’s the inner city and when you can come out of a place like that, all you can think of is, hope and blessings.’’
Boston’s inner city also gave him a swagger on the court that came from his rough-hewn background.
“At the end of the day, it depends on what path you choose and I chose the right path,’’ Napier said. “Not to say that I’m better than anybody else, but I just feel like I was blessed to be put in this situation where I knew what I was worth. That’s what’s lost in a lot of kids — they don’t understand what they’re worth.’’
While Napier might have been born Boston Strong, he forged a Roxbury toughness on the court, where his hardscrabble upbringing influenced his fearless approach to the game.
“It was just the way I was raised — by my mother [Carmen Velasquez] and by the community,’’ Napier said. “I was always raised to be tough. That’s what I feel like I show out there — my toughness. Whether it’s diving for a loose ball or never giving up on a play, that’s the toughness that you get — wherever you’re from — so that’s where everything I exert out on the court comes from.’’
That much was evident in UConn’s 77-65 victory over Villanova last Saturday in Buffalo. Napier helped UConn vanquish two Philadelphia schools in the span of three days. He scored 24 points in an 89-81 second-round overtime victory over Saint Joseph’s March 20, then followed up with 25 points against Villanova.
Napier’s toughness came to the fore when he took a knee to his right shin in a collision with Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard. With 4:01 left in the game, Napier hobbled to the bench with what was described as a deep bruise.
Napier returned 37 seconds later.
He continued to attack the basket, driving for a crowd-pleasing scoop shot about a minute into his return.
“He’s just a great player,’’ UConn coach Kevin Ollie said of Napier, who averages a team-high 17.8 points per game. “He’s hard to guard, especially when he’s offensive-minded and aggressive because he’s a great facilitator. He leads our team in assists [4.9 per game] and he does whatever it takes for us to win.
“When I have the ball in his hands at the end of the game or at a crucial time, I couldn’t think of a better guard to do it because he’s not scared of the moment and he’s not scared to fail, because failure leads to success.
“And he’s done a great job for us.’’
Particularly with his ball fakes. Villanova coach Jay Wright lauded Napier as being perhaps the best in country.
“I think with my ability to make shots and penetrate and get other guys going, it makes it easier for me to pump-fake and get guys in the air or something like that,’’ Napier said. “But it’s kind of something that I go to if I need it. I learned that from Kemba Walker. He did the stepback pump-fake, got you in the air, got to the foul line.
“When you learn something from a great player . . . and I believe he learned it from A.J. Price, you tend to use it when you need it.’’
With the Huskies two wins from reaching the Final Four in Dallas, Napier has been compared to Walker, now with the Charlotte Bobcats, who guided UConn to the 2011 national championship.
“This is a different team,’’ Napier said. “I’m not Kemba Walker. He’s way past me. I’m never going to get to who he was at this stage. But at the end of the day, this is the 2013-14 team with great players on it.
“Hopefully we’ll get to the Promised Land like he and that team did. But it’s going to be hard, so we’ve got to take it one step at a time.’’
It helps that UConn has a battle-hardened point guard from Roxbury.
So to merely say Napier is from Boston doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his narrative.
“Yeah, it wouldn’t, because Boston is definitely a big place,’’ Napier said. “I represent Boston, but if you really want to be specific, I represent Roxbury and at the end of the day that’s where I was born and raised and when I hear ‘from Roxbury, Massachusetts,’ it’s a beautiful thing to hear.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org