March Madness is, unfortunately, nearing an end and college basketball will officially be in the books come early Monday morning. We’ll have to wade through the boredom of summer baseball until Duke and Kentucky and Kansas are back at it, sporting up-and-coming superstars and athletic freaks of nature alike.
As such, we must now live in the moment and enjoy all of the competitive hoops coming up over the next few days, since it won’t be long until primetime games in North Texas are replaced by offseason workouts removed from the public eye. I myself will be enamored by the offensive execution in crunch time, the defensive schemes in the paint and the adjustments made by Billy Donovan and the rest—as many other basketball fans are, when the games get tight and the going gets rough under the bright lights.
I’m most enamored by the University of Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier, a gritty point guard from Boston’s inner city and quite possibly the brightest star still competing in the tournament. He is now a senior, tasked with bringing steady leadership to a relatively inexperienced band and coming up with big shot after big shot in the closing minutes of close contests. It may be a cliché at this point, but Napier really does do it all for his team—in terms of scoring in pick-and-roll situations, grabbing rebounds from the weak side, and pressuring opposing guards in the backcourt. Napier’s numbers reflect the versatility of his game, as March Madness’ premier Jack of all trades.
I love watching him compete, especially against stronger and faster players with more impressive physical attributes. Napier plays the game with conviction and never seems rattled by his opposition or the stage, a true testament to the point guard’s mental toughness as a marquee student-athlete in a cutthroat sport. This mental toughness precisely allows Napier to play the role of senior leader to a group of less accomplished players in need of support and a guiding hand. He leads with his play, first and foremost, but that doesn’t stop Napier from pointing and yelling and even consoling when necessary. He presses the right buttons, and seems to fully grasp the collective pulse of his team: Not a single circumstance on the floor seems surprising or overwhelming for him. It’s really fun to watch, when a senior leader just gets it and plays with that steely resolve.
Moreover, it’s far less common nowadays, with so many student athletes leaving school early to explore the professional game and forgo a college education in the process. Shabazz Napier seems like a rarity now, a very talented player at a basketball school with “senior” written right by his name. The excitement surrounding college basketball is so often generated by the big-name freshmen with glitzy high school careers to their names. Players like these perceive college as a minor stepping stone, standing in the way of a professional paycheck coming only a few months down the road.
The meaning of student athlete and college basketball in general has lost some of its luster, and this can in part be attributed to mere association. I personally don’t associate a five-star recruit with the school of choice, beyond sheer bookkeeping. Freshman year is just a formality for so many of the collegiate basketball players garnering massive national attention. It makes Shabazz Napier’s personal story that much more special, as an upperclassman and the senior leader of a team on a hot streak. I have come to identify him with his school, with the hue of that gray jersey and the parquet of Gampel Pavilion. Napier is a true Husky, playing for the University of Connecticut first and foremost, and he’s played for multiple coaches, with all sorts of teammates, and in all kinds of situations over the years. Over the years. That’s what separates Napier from John Calipari’s yearly freshman crop. Because he’s spent so much time playing at the collegiate level—and spilled so many heartfelt tears along the way—that time is so much more meaningful to him. Four years is a pretty large chunk of time, and to spend it all wearing the same jersey is truly something. Shabazz Napier is a consummate student-athlete with a real stake in the collegiate game—and he’ll leave a pretty darn impressive legacy in Storrs once his time is finally up.
For that, I’m enamored by the depth and complexity of that touching story, as it takes some time—many years of trials and tribulation—to develop such a narrative. The same goes for Doug McDermott and Russ Smith, two other high-profile senior leaders with a permanent place in college basketball lore. They won’t be remembered as nomads looking for the first exit out, but as student athletes who’ve screamed and bled and cried for the collegiate game and their respective college team.
Let’s appreciate Shabazz Napier as a senior point guard leading his basketball team deep into March. The University of Connecticut means something to him. The competitiveness of college basketball means something to him. The juggling of academics and sports, it all means something to him because he’s invested so much time and effort. That’s why his narrative, developed over the past four years, means something to me.
As a college basketball fan, Shabazz Napier means something to me because he represents something greater than himself—he’s the living embodiment of a touching personal story.
I’ll be rooting for him, this weekend and over the coming years, as he officially completes his collegiate journey and takes the next step, wherever it may lead. If you truly love college basketball, there’s no reason not to root for Shabazz Napier. He is what the sport, at that level, is all about.