ARLINGTON, Texas — When the kids took the court at the Roxbury YMCA, hundreds of adults squeezed into the gym and the atmosphere was loud.
The cheering and yelling was fuel for Shabazz Napier when he was 5, 6, and 7 years old. The kid who loved to mimic the Harlem Globetrotters always loved to perform in front of the crowd.
The louder, the better.
"When he was a young kid, he was just so excited to play in front of crowds," said Tony Richards, who coached Napier at the Roxbury Y. "You could see that passion."
Richards has been coaching kids in Roxbury for 24 years. He runs a program known as "No Books No Ball," which requires kids to perform in the classroom before they can perform on the court.
So there's an element of pride as Richards sees Napier close to earning a degree at UConn while leading his team to the NCAA title game. Napier, now 6 feet 1, and UConn will face Kentucky in the championship game Monday night and there will be lots of interest back in the old neighborhood in Boston.
"That's the reward, seeing him graduate, too," Richards said. "He understands the importance of education. That's the beautiful part."
Napier's older brother Timmie first joined Richards' program. Shabazz was 5 when he came to the YMCA and he played under Richards until he was 14.
What Richards noticed immediately was Shabazz's unbridled love for the game. He was a kid who always was holding a ball, and he loved doing trick shots and Globetrotter-style dribbling stunts.
At the Roxbury Y, the baskets are regulation height and the court isn't altered for kids. So players, no matter their age or size, are required to shoot from the regulation free-throw line and from the regulation three-point arc.
Some kids simply didn't have the strength. Not Napier.
"Shabazz was shooting three-point shots when he was 6 years old," Richard said. "You could see he was special."
Richards also remembers Napier's mother, Carmen Velasquez, leaning on her son to devote as much energy to schoolwork as basketball. Velasquez raised three children as a single mother and Shabazz said during his press availability Sunday that his mother "inspired" him throughout childhood.
Velasquez did not graduate from high school and recently earned her GED. She always told her children that she wanted them to be better than her.
"Which is tough, because in my eyes my mother is perfect," Napier said.
Said Richards: "His mother was really strict and supportive. She was always at the gym, never absent. If he was out of line or clowning, she was right on him."
Roxbury is a working-class, tight-knit neighborhood. Napier's family lived in the Mission Hill section and he left the neighborhood to attend high school in Charlestown, the northern-most neighborhood in Boston. He also played AAU basketball for Metro Boston and later attended Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass.
But when Napier's name is called Monday before the biggest game of his career, he'll be introduced as being from Roxbury, not Boston. That's by design.
"He still has a lot of pride," Richards said. "He never forgot where he came from."