Jeff Jacobs: Napier Checks Another Off List With Graduation

STORRS — Astronaut and UConn alum Rick Mastracchio is making news for delivering Saturday's graduation address to the UConn school of engineering from the International Space Station.

But let's be honest. If Shabazz Napier space-bombed the video, screaming "Hungry Huskies!" from 230 miles above the Earth, at 18,000 mph — roughly the speed Ryan Boatright plays basketball — we wouldn't be a bit surprised. We'd shrug and say, "Shabazz, man, he can pull off anything."

Nobody, nobody ever filled the student-athlete stat sheet better.

National championship as a freshman? Check. Stayed at Storrs despite the retirement of a Hall of Fame coach and academic problems that knocked UConn out of the NCAA Tournament and sent a number of players leaving? Check. Not only accepted the impossible chore of following in Kemba Walker's sneakers, but performed a string of unforgettable late-game miracles? Check. Won a second national championship as the unquestioned senior leader? Check. Issued a student-athlete manifesto at the Final Four that turned into a national firestorm for the NCAA? Check.

And, finally, after being named to the dean's list and the athletic director's honor roll during his four years, graduates Sunday at Gampel Pavilion from the school of liberal arts with a major in sociology? Huge check.

"When you've been through everything I've been through, basketball-wise, maturity-wise, it's a blessing to be where I am today," Napier said. "I had a chance to leave, but the great support I have, my mother, people from back home, they knew what was best for me. That was to get a degree.

"One thing my mom always told me. 'Basketball, they can take away from you. Your education, they can't.' It's a beautiful thing to say I finished my final exams [Thursday], I graduate on Sunday and my family gets to be a part of that. A beautiful thing."

When we spoke at senior night, Carmen Velasquez said the one thing she taught her three children was when you start something you finish it.

"The most important thing for me is that degree," Velasquez said. "Basketball is his thing, but God forbid if you get hurt. He can definitely go somewhere with that degree."

Velasquez, who sacrificed for her kids through tough times and tough Roxbury, Mass., neighborhoods, talked that night about how she's going to cry at graduation. She has been both Napier's mother and father and that's why he gives her a gift on Father's Day. But this Sunday, Mother's Day, he gives his mother the greatest gift of all. Napier becomes the first in his family to gain a college degree.

"To see her even happier than us winning the national championship — I know that sounds crazy — but it's amazing to have a mother who understands what's important in life," Napier said. "My mom understands how important basketball is, but school doesn't come second to it."

Although LeBron James said he'd make Napier the first point guard taken in the draft, most figure he'll go later in the first round. He has a basketball career ahead of him. That doesn't mean he has given the power of his degree no thought.

"I want to do something with coaching. I don't know if it'll be college, NBA, high school, don't know," Napier said. "I don't want to be too far away from the game and I want to do something that helps out my community. Getting a degree, to be an inspiration to a lot of kids, is kind of insane for me. The best thing I can do is to give back to those who are where I was not so long ago. There is a way out. There is a positive path you can take. It's going to take a lot of hard work, but you definitely can take it."

People see the games. People see the adulation. Napier said he doesn't think a lot of people sufficiently understand the rigors for serious student-athletes.

"You can't really be upset with them because they only see us playing basketball," Napier said. "A lot of things can go right or wrong for you. As a freshman, you're trying to learn how to juggle a lot of things. Of course, there are tutors and a lot of outlets to help you. UConn is tremendous with that. It still isn't easy."

Napier pointed to an 8 a.m. class he had this spring semester.

"I had to wake up 6:45 to 7 and there are certain days with classes back to back to back. I may be in class from 9:30 to 1:45 and at 2:30 you have basketball," he said. "There are times when we don't do well in school or we play bad in a game because we didn't sleep enough. It's never perfect, but the one thing successful student-athletes can do well is juggle."

Amateur juggler. Check.

When Napier arrived at Storrs he was interested in criminal law and justice, but because of the added requirements, he focused on sociology.

"I'm kind of a math guy, I like figuring out certain problems," Napier said when asked what were his favorite classes and what were most difficult. "Lab classes were difficult for me. Certain times we're not able to be there because of basketball, and I am one of those people who learns much better in the classroom.

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