AURORA, Ill. — Ryan Boatright may now be known best for overcoming a sprained ankle to help lead the UConn Huskies to an unexpected men's basketball national championship this year. But for the several hundred people who welcomed him back to his hometown of Aurora, Ill., on Saturday afternoon, he'll always be an East Aurora Tomcat.
"He's our real hometown hero," said Roscoe Greene, the president of the Quad County African American Chamber of Commerce, just one of the many civic leaders who came out to the Paramount Theatre in a ceremony organized by the city of Aurora to celebrate Boatright's national championship.
"The Boatright name is synonymous with East Aurora High School," said East Aurora School Board President Raymond Hull. "It stands for blue-collar, hard work and excellence … When he was in school, he stimulated the entire Fox Valley. Wherever he played, people went to see him."
Boatright, who is now a junior at UConn, scored 2,289 points for East Aurora High School, including a 63-point performance that broke the school's 41-year-old single game scoring record. He was named Illinois Mr. Basketball in 2011 — the only Aurora student to ever win the honor.
A parade of speakers — from Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner to Boatright's second grade teacher — welcomed him home and congratulated him on the national championship. Boatright's mother, Tanesha Boatright, thanked the community for their support of them both over the years.
"I hadn't even gotten in the car yet after the (national championship) game when I started getting texts from everyone asking how we can honor Ryan," she said. "I didn't even know that we won yet. I don't know about you, but it still seems like a dream to me."
"Having the support from your hometown means a lot," said Boatright, as he got up to respond to the accolades. "Excuse me if I get choked up."
Boatright broke down when be brought up his cousin, 20-year-old Arin Williams, who was shot to death during a robbery attempt earlier this year.
"Rest in peace Arin Williams, I loved him," he said. "After Arin passed, I really had to focus, and it bothered me. But I knew that he wouldn't want me stuck in a room depressed, and not doing something that I love, which is basketball."
The ankle that Boatright injured with nine minutes left in the national championship game is feeling better, although he's still doing some rehab to get it back to 100 percent. But despite the pain, he never thought of leaving the game.
"It was hurting," he said. "But the moment was too big. I couldn't sit out at that point … I tied my shoes up real tight, and I just tried to keep moving."
He finished the game with 14 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. He hit the step-back jumper that gave UConn a 56-50 lead with 4:13 to go. But most important for UConn, he played shutdown defense on Kentucky's Andrew and Aaron Harrison, helping the Huskies hold on to the 60-54 victory. His ability to guard some of the top scorers in the tournament helped bring national attention to Boatright, especially on a Connecticut team that was seeded seventh and not expected to make a title run this year.
"At my size, at the next level, you have to do other things besides score the basketball," he said. "For little guys like me who play the point guard position, defense is key."
Now the question for Boatright becomes whether to return for his final year of eligibility at UConn or make himself eligible for the NBA draft. He still hasn't decided.
But with a long line of fans waiting for an autograph or a picture, it was a decision that could wait for another day.
"This is my home," he said. "I'm proud to say on national television that I'm from Aurora, Ill."