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“I’ve never been the tallest or fastest, but I’m using my IQ to succeed”: Shabazz Napier tells his journey


Shabazz Napier story started in Boston, in a suburb by the name of Roxbury and a playground, in Washington Park, following the older brother who had tried to play the game before him, then the best player in the neighborhood, Will Blalock, who spent some time in the NBA and in Europe after a successful college career at Iowa State. But in truth Shabazz Napier has always thought of himself as a basketball player. “I started at five years of age. My brother used to play, he’s older, so when I was very young, I started watching him. Then many of my friends played. I had a park by my house, well known in the area, it’s called Washington Park, and all we did all day was play basketball, have fun. My love for basketball was born there, when I was very young, it has developed over time and continues to exist now”. Here it is how Shabazz career developed as well.

COACH CALHOUN – “Jim Calhoun first came to see me at an AAU game when I was, I believe, a sophomore in high school. I obviously knew him and so it was very easy for me to decide to play for him at Connecticut. I played well on the AAU circuit during that time. I was lucky that he saw me and got that scholarship offer. I’m happy I went to UConn.”

THE FIRST NCAA TITLE – “It was exciting. As a competitor what you want is to win, to be part of the last team standing. For me, being in that position was just exciting. All the hours spent working and practicing, taking care of your shape, with the strength coach. The time spent running and working over the summer came into an epic ending. We won; we hoisted the most important trophy. Anyone who plays basketball or plays sports competitively wants to be on the last team standing at the end of the season to hoist that trophy.”

THE FREE THROWS HE MADE IN THE 2011 SEMI-FINAL – “Many times, finding myself in that kind of situation, I thought about when I was a young kid. About all the things I had to do and overcome as a kid. When you grow up where I grew up, there are so many things that are beyond your control. But when you play basketball what you can do is play, have fun, enjoy it. In my case, the passion I have for basketball kind of takes away all the negativity I’ve experienced in my life. When I go to the free throw line, whether it’s at the end of the game, with no more time to play or at the beginning of the game, I never think about how important that shot is, about the consequences of scoring or missing, I just think about playing as I did when I was a kid at the park, at seven years old. I just think about having fun and shooting and making them.”

THE CHOICE TO STAY IN COLLEGE FOR FOUR YEARS – “The main reason I stayed for my senior season is that in my third year we were banned from the NCAA Tournament, and this didn’t sit well with me. In my second year, we had one of the best teams in the country. We had won the title the year before and we predicted we could do it again. But that year I didn’t play well. And then the next year, like I said, we couldn’t play the NCAA Tournament. At that moment I felt I owed to UConn, to the coaches, to the fans and I decided the best thing was to stay another year. It went definitely well, because it was a great season. But basically, I stayed because the university had given me a lot in the first two or three years and I felt I owed them and wanted to finish better”.

THE NCAA TITLE AS MVP – “Winning the title was exciting, it was incredible. As I said, for me the only thing that matters is winning. I always try to do my best as an individual, but in the end I want to be part of the team that wins, I want to hoist the trophy, I want to go through and progress to the playoffs. What I like about the game is not the individual achievements, but the team achievements. I want to be the player who wins the most games, that’s what interests me. Hoisting the trophy is the only thing I want.”

THE DEFENSE OF THE RIGHTS OF STUDENT-ATHLETES – “I think I have said what was necessary to say, I believe that different standards are expected from student-athletes than regular students, but I think an important step forward has been made, I don’t think that what I said started it although it was in the press, because there was already a movement of that type. Northwestern was looking for a way to pay its football players. This is why the question was aske. I don’t think it started with me, but maybe I helped. This is a game, but when money becomes involved, then it’s more than a game.”

THE NBA – “I think the place where I was able to express what I am capable of doing was Portland. When I was with the Portland Trail Blazers I played alongside Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum and being able to play against them in practice raised my confidence. And then I was able to see them up close, seeing how they practice helped me a lot. And I used everything I learned when maybe they couldn’t play, and it was my turn. I flourished in a couple of games and my confidence became even stronger. And later also in Charlotte I showed what I could do at that very high level”.

OVERCOMING THE SIZE DIFFERENCE – “Practically throughout my career I have always been the smallest player on the court. I’m not just saying as a professional, I’m also talking about when I was a kid. I’ve never been the tallest or the strongest, but I’ve always had an ability for finding ways around defenders, for finding ways to get to certain areas of the court and be in the right position to score, to win, to make a steal, to make a block. Over time I understood the game better and better. I’ve never been the tallest or even the fastest, but I’ve used my IQ to try to be the smartest at figuring out the game. When I lose, I always look at the film to understand what I did, what I should have done. And before games I study the opponents, how they rotate on defense, what they do when switching, what they do to defend the pick and roll, how they defend against players similar to me, I try to understand how I can manipulate their defense, their offense and give my team a few more chances to win the game.”

HIS LEADERSHIP – “When I was very young, I had to understand how to check my emotions, how to learn certain things on my own and now you see a leader on the court, but in truth it hasn’t always been like this, because some things only come through experience. You have to learn to understand what the best way is to reach certain players. You can’t talk to everyone in the same way, to some you have to speak more nicely; to others you can be rough, but in the end they need to know that you are only doing it to help them. We have to love each other. But everything is built over time, the time it takes for them to understand who you are, that all you want is to win and that you have a passion for this game. However, give my teammates a lot of credit, they allow you to be a leader. But for me the opposite is also true, I have no problems when someone tells me what I can do better for the team.”

MILAN – “It’s been a great experience so far, I’m obviously talking on the court, we’re playing well, we’re playing together, we’re getting to know each other, and the staff is of the highest level. The off-court experience is also great, I didn’t get to venture out much as most of the time when I’m done in the gym I just want to sleep, take a nap. I can’t complain about anything, it’s nice to be in a country I’ve never been to, where I can learn a new culture and new things.”