Shabazz Napier played two years at Charlestown High School before transferring to Lawrence Academy, one of many top Boston high school basketball prospects to choose prep school to enhance their careers.
It worked for Napier, now a Washington Wizards guard, who signed with UConn and won two championships with the Huskies.
A seasoned NBA veteran at 29, Napier wants to create a group of Boston-native athletes to help their communities and improve the public education system to ensure its best athletes stay in Boston Public Schools. It’s been an issue for years, with the latest being Dorchester native Terrence Clarke, who attended New Hampshire’s Brewster Academy before signing with Kentucky.
“For me, if you have the better opportunity to play somewhere else, then go for it,” Napier said from the NBA bubble in Orlando. “At the moment, we understand that public schools in Boston are not that great. That’s something that’s embedded in our life. That’s something that we’re fighting for at the very moment, so for us, I understood that. I’ve always said if you could get a better education somewhere else, then go for it. It will be more exciting to see guys stay at home. It will be more exciting to see our public school’s education be helped in a lot of ways.”
There are a growing number of NBA players with Boston ties, including Nerlens Noel, Noah Vonleh, Bruce Brown, Michael Carter-Williams, Georges Niang, Jake Layman, and Pat Connaughton. Most players are faced with the dilemma of playing for a prep school because the level of competition (and, perhaps, the education) is better. Napier supports the decision to pursue prep school, but he wants Boston public to become better.
“Basketball is definitely first when it comes to me, but it’s about understanding what can take you further and that’s education,” he said. “You can’t go wrong if prep schools are allowing you to go there for free.”
Napier said the local players need to make more of a presence in the city, with basketball camps that not only focus on skill improvement, but also educational opportunities.
“Just give back. Being able to do camps,” he said. “I did a camp last year for free at the Reggie Lewis Center, just being able to talk to kids, make them understand, be patient. These days everybody wants it fast, fast, fast, and it would be great for guys like myself to understand that you could teach them certain things. Now that we have an understanding of what’s going on, we can come back and teach them [and] be a support system for them.”
The pandemic has allowed Napier to reach out to some of his Boston cohorts about a collaboration. The Celtics conduct many camps and programs for local kids, but there could always be more, especially from players who share the same local roots and experiences as the younger generation.
“There’s been a lot of talk, especially this summer because that’s not much for us to do,” he said. “A lot of times, guys are either with their teams or going on vacation, but there’s been real talk about trying to establish a system that we can bring back to Boston. We’re coming into that realm, but it’s been a while since Boston has had so many NBA players. . . . We’re coming together and trying to figure it out.
“Boston is not known for their basketball yet, but more people will hear about us.”
Meanwhile, Napier is playing for his sixth NBA team, trying to carve out a steady role with the young Wizards, who are shorthanded, but have a chance to catch the Brooklyn Nets for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Napier started Washington’s opener against the Phoenix Suns, his 55th start in 341 NBA games.
The Wizards are just waiting for John Wall and Bradley Beal to return next season, so Napier is trying to make another impression for a new contract.
“Just continue to put in the work, that’s where I’m at. I’ll never complain, playing 20 minutes or zero minutes,” he said. “I think, for me, I’ve got a great opportunity to play, and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
This wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen for Napier. If you recall, LeBron James personally requested the Miami Heat draft him, and the club did with the hopes of James re-signing. James bolted back for Cleveland anyway, and Napier began a six-year sojourn mostly as a backup point guard. He’s amassed decent career numbers, but has not found a club that has placed complete faith in him.
“I just revert back to my mother. She didn’t have an easy upbringing, so for me to understand I’m planted in my love for the game,” he said. “I have family to lean on, friends to lean on, so for me it’s always understanding hard work is always going to take over. That’s what I live by. Hard work is always undefeated. I always felt that way. You work hard and eventually something will come from it.
“You’re in the NBA for a reason; you must be great at something. There are 450 of us. To me, what separates the greats is if you can do it consistently. Any NBA player, no matter who you are, can get 25 points in a game. It’s matter of opportunity. With me, there’s some responsibility with that opportunity. No one needs to come up here and jack shots. If we understand that, we will be able to take advantage of the misfortune of some other teams.”
Jaylen Brown takes his pulpit seriously
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown spent 10 minutes this week discussing his stance on social issues, imploring his generation to vote — especially those in the Black community. NBA players have spent the past two weeks unapologetically speaking out on various topics, using their vehicle to create awareness.
“I want to encourage the people in my community to get out and vote,” Brown began his interview Thursday. “Not just for the presidential election, but state representatives, elected officials. I think there’s a lot of power in coming together and voting, especially in the Black community. Politicians have made empty promises to the Black community year after year after year. I think they think that is OK and acceptable, and it’s not.
“We’ve got to get some guys out of office who don’t care, who don’t think it’s appropriate that we are trying to end systemic racism. I want to make voting a trend; I want to use my platform. I understand the apprehension from the African-American community. Politicians have made empty promises, as well as people feeling like, ‘Why would I participate in a political system that hasn’t necessarily participated with me?’ But I believe in small victories and getting the right people in office, [and] a big part of that is voting. Whatever color, whatever race, voting is important.”
Brown said NBA players’ affluence should not be a deterrent for speaking on issues of poverty, police brutality, and systematic racism. He won’t be silent.
“A lot of us get backlash because we are in a place of privilege, but we come from humble beginnings,” he said. “Just because we reached this place of privilege, why should we forget about our relatives, our friends, people in our community? It’s interesting how we’re held to a certain standard, but some politicians and certain presidents aren’t. I want to continue to use my platform to speak positively, be a voice for the voiceless.”
Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, encouraged the players to speak out on her daughter’s death at the hands of Louisville police. Many NBA players have called for the arrest of the officers that shot Taylor. Two officers have been fired.
“It was emotional for me, the fact that she could get on a call with a bunch of NBA guys and utilize her strength in front of us,” Brown said. “We know she was hurting. That was her baby girl that’s gone. Her daughter was killed. And for her to get on a phone call and exhibit that strength in front of us and say, ’We don’t want this to happen to the next girl or the next woman of color.’ I stand with her. I have a mom, I have nieces. It’s hard hearing that and not feeling some kind of way.
“I know some people are thinking, ‘She lost her life, oh well.’ This is not an ‘Oh well’ moment for us. I’m not going to be quiet.”
Brown, 23, said the past few months has been a learning experience. He has read up on historical moments and learned about events well before he was born.
“I pride myself in my research and try to come up here in front of your guys and be as thoughtful as I can, but there are definitely things that need to be addressed,” he said. “I research, I’ve taken classes, I read a lot, I try to be considerate about how people feel, but at the same time, there are issues in this country that are being sidelined.
“The way this America was designed, it wasn’t designed inclusively. It was designed for a specific group of people. I know that kind of makes people feel uncomfortable, to say that it’s not hard to believe that rewind 100 years ago, it was illegal for someone who looked like me to read and write. It was illegal for some people that looked like me to be in some places after 6 p.m. This is less than 70 years ago. It’s not too hard to believe there are some systemic effects that have come to light from how this country was designed.
“I don’t want history to kind of repeat itself. For people to treat each other equally, that means equality.”
LeBron James looking up to Colin Kaepernick
As the Lakers and Clippers kneeled for the national anthem before their game Thursday, LeBron James held up a clinched fist in reverence to Colin Kaepernick, who paid a heavy price for being the first to do so four years ago. James said he regretted not offering support for the quarterback earlier.
“I hope I made Kap proud,” he said. “Every single day I hope I make him proud on how I live my life, not only on the basketball floor, but off the floor. I want to always speak out against things that I feel like are unjust. I always want to be educated on things and go about it that way.”
Kaepernick is still officially out of work, but he has reacted to the NBA’s kneeling on his social media accounts. For many players and other professional athletes, Kaepernick has become a role model.
“Kap was one of the [ones] who stood up in times when it was uncomfortable,” James said. “People refused to understand. People refused to listen to what he was saying. If you go back and look at any of his postgame interviews, he was talking about why he was kneeling had absolutely nothing to do with the flag. It had absolutely nothing to do about the soldiers, the men and women who keep our land free. He explained that and the ears were closed. They refused to listen. A lot of my people in the Black community did listen, and we just thank him for sacrificing everything that he did to put us in the position today, years later, to have that moment like we had tonight.”
James said he has no concern of criticism regarding his stance. James is one of the more ridiculed athletes in sports history, and he had to learn to ignore the adverse reactions.
“No matter what you do in life, there is going to be somebody who doesn’t agree with you, whatever you do,” he said. “If you’re passionate, you’re true, and you’re authentic to whatever your cause is, then it doesn’t matter. I [couldn’t] care less about naysayers. I’ve been hearing it for too long and I’ve been done caring about that.”
So why didn’t James speak earlier or fully support Kaepernick four years ago?
“I don’t think at the time I was fully educated, strengthening my mind, reading, listening, getting as educated as I can on any situation, anything that’s going on,” he said. “That’s always who I am. At that time I wasn’t fully educated on the purpose. What is the purpose at hand and, honestly, Kap has taught me a lot about that.”
The Houston Rockets may have gambled and lost during the scrimmage portion of the NBA resumption as veteran guard Eric Gordon sprained his left ankle when he landed of the foot of Celtics center Vincent Poirier after tossing a pass. Gordon is expected to miss two weeks, which may hamper the Rockets’ chance of catching Denver for the third seed in the Western Conference. The Rockets began play 2½ games back of Denver, at the sixth seed. Coach Mike D’Antoni felt as if he had to get extended minutes for Russell Westbrook and James Harden, playing each three quarters because each reported to camp late. Westbrook admitted he tested positive for COVID-19, while Harden reported late for an undisclosed reason . . . Don’t expect many players with contract options to become free agents, because of the uncertainty of the salary cap and free agency. That includes Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, who is expected to opt in to the final year of his deal at $34 million. Even if Hayward opts in, the Celtics salary cap only rises $4 million. The team is almost certain to pick up the $5 million team option on center Daniel Theis, while Enes Kanter has a player option at $5 million he will most likely outearn on the open market after a solid first season in Boston. If Jayson Tatum signs the maximum extension as expected, his new contract would not take effect until the 2021-22 season. Jaylen Brown’s salary rises from $6 million this season to $23 million . . . The New York Knicks named Tom Thibodeau as their head coach, giving the former Celtics assistant a third opportunity to coach, with a franchise desperately needing respectability and a new culture. There is concern as to how the team’s younger core will respond to the tougher Thibodeau, who has worn on younger players in the past. But the Knicks need a strong, commanding voice and a defensive mind-set, which is Thibodeau’s specialty. It will also be interesting to see how he works with second-year forward RJ Barrett, who showed signs of being a cornerstone, and center Mitchell Robinson, who could be a dominant defensive presence because of his athleticism and shot-blocking ability. Thibodeau has young talent in New York, but the franchise has a poor reputation and has attracted zero premium free agents in the past several years.