When people hear the name “Shabazz Napier” they think of a two-time NCAA National Champion. They think of a kid who has become a household name. They think of the guy Miami traded for on draft night to try and make LeBron James happy.
But for me, I think of the feisty little kid with cornrows and glasses that I once called my teammate in the Roxbury YMCA’s “No Books, No Ball” basketball league. I think of his mom, Carmen Velasquez being the loudest in packed gym during our Saturday morning games. I think of his older brother Timmie leading his high school team to the state championship game at the Boston Garden and scoring 27 points.
*** *** ***
Before Napier became a two-time champ, household name and the main target on Pat Riley’s draft board, the Mission Hill native spent long days fine-tuning his game at Boston’s Washington Park.
“I’d be there from 10:30 in the morning until no lie, 8:00 at night,” the new Miami Heat point guard said. “My mom used to whistle..and if you heard the third one, you knew you were in trouble.”
Those long days began to pay off big time when Napier had his coming out party on the national scene at the 17U AAU Nationals in Orlando, FL while running the show for Metro Boston. In the midst of Metro’s run, Napier would match up with future NBA guards Phil Pressey and Austin Rivers while leading his team to the Sweet 16.
Metro Boston teammate and childhood friend Troy Robinson, who went on to play at the Division I and II levels, remembers Shabazz’s performance during their trip to Florida like it was yesterday.
“We knew we were matched up with Phil (who had formerly lived in Boston) and we made a joke about it amongst ourselves just to kind of hype [Shabazz] up a little bit,” Napier’s former teammate said. “But he’s pretty steady — he didn’t really get phased by it. When we played them, Shabazz guarded Phil from the jump and without a doubt, he won the matchup.”
After Metro’s upset victory over Pressey and Team Texas, spectators and coaches flocked to Napier’s next games, including a matchup with Team STAT and Austin Rivers in which Napier would drop 24 points.
“By the time we played Austin Rivers’ team, the whole sideline was packed out,” Robinson said. “He came out and torched them from the beginning. He was shooting NBA ranges. He went to the basket and it was against [Rivers] so it meant a lot to see him do it. I think once we won that game, he solidified himself as one of the best guards in the country.”
Suddenly, instead of hearing from local Atlantic 10 schools such as UMass and Rhode Island, Napier was catching the eye of major coaches in the Big East and ACC. Not only did his performance in Orlando prove that he was one of the nation’s top guards, but it showcased his toughness to the few who knew he was playing through injury.
“He was playing with turf toe the whole time we were down there,” Robinson said. “And he still lit it up.”
Shabazz would ride that momentum into his last year at Lawrence Academy where he would lead his squad to a perfect record of 29-0. In his final high school game, Napier scored 23 points against a St. Mark’s team that featured a starting lineup of five future Division I players. Shortly thereafter, Jim Calhoun extended the 6-1 point guard a scholarship and because of Napier’s work ethic and will to win, the rest was history. Napier both started and ended his collegiate career on NCAA National Championship teams.
Behind the scenes there’s been group of people who have believed in Napier since those days in which his scrappy approach would ignite the packed crowds every Saturday at the Roxbury YMCA.
“People just see the product.” Napier said. “If it wasn’t for the people beside me, then I wouldn’t be here.”
Tony Richards, founder and commissioner of the Y’s “No Books, No Ball” youth basketball league Bazz and I once played for, noticed some characteristics early on in Shabazz’s demeanor that have continued to separate him from the competition.
“[Shabazz] has always had a hunger for the game and a passion and desire to get better,” said Richards. “He worked at it and has a passion for it…that sets him above and beyond [the competition].”
In the older division of Richards’ “No Books, No Ball” basketball league was Napier’s brother Timmie Barrows — who would become a Boston Globe All-Scholastic player and lead Belmont (MA) High School to the State Championship game while averaging 25.5 PPG during their run.
Before their mother would whistle for them to come into the house, the brothers would compete against each other on the blacktop at Washington Park.
“[There were] a lot of competitive battles,” Napier said. “Older brother, younger brother stuff but we always pushed each other..[Timmie] always wanted the best for me.”
So when Napier was selected this past June with the 24th pick and then immediately dealt to the Miami Heat, it was easy to understand why Barrows was overjoyed once he heard his brother’s name called.
“[It’s] a dream come true,” Barrows said. “Seeing [Shabazz] grow up from a young boy going to college [and] now playing for Miami- one of the best teams in the league. I’m proud of my little brother.”
Napier’s AAU coach Oscar Lopez, who helped the new member of the Miami Heat gain national exposure during Metro Boston’s run at the 17U AAU Nationals, was another key figure in Napier’s life who was overcome with emotion on draft night in Brooklyn.
“Knowing him [he feels] just blessed and happy for the opportunity,” Lopez said. “Sky is the limit man — I’m so happy for him.”
Napier told reporters on draft night that the chip he’s carried for years on his shoulder “never leaves” and Lopez believes that after going 24th overall, it will only get bigger.
“He already has a chip on his shoulder but it’s only going to get worse,” Lopez said. “He’s going to make every team pay for not drafting him.”
But Napier’s competitive nature has not only allowed him to win two National Championships, but also to had a positive impact on the youth in the City of Boston in more ways than he could imagine.
“I didn’t realize the kind of impact that I had,” Napier said. “My brothers told me about kids just wanting to meet me and do things that I’ve done. It’s just crazy because honestly growing up I was in that position and to kind of flip roles now, it’s definitely a blessing. I’m going to take it in stride and do whatever I can to have a positive influence. I was super lucky and super blessed to have mentors in my life that pushed me on the right path. It just made everything so much easier for me. Kind of my gift back would be doing the same thing. I plan on doing that.”
Richards already recognizes the immense impact that Shabazz’s successes have had on the youth of Boston as well.
“[These kids] have something to look forward to and someone to look up to, letting them know that the dream is still alive and that the dream is possible. [Shabazz has shown them that] their aspirations can get [them] somewhere.”
And that’s why the former Husky is a ray of hope for the up and comers from the city of Boston including 2015 ESPN top-50 recruit Jalen Adams, who became the latest point guard hailing from Roxbury to commit to UConn on this July.
“Seeing what Coach Ollie did with a local guard from where I’m from, it definitely made a difference,” Adams told ESPN’s Adam Finkelstein. “It [makes] me believe that if I put in the same amount of work that I could potentially end up with a similar opportunity.”
As Napier passes the torch to another Roxbury raised ball player at UConn, he has some new business to take care on South Beach. One thing is for sure though: Miami is getting a proven winner with a gritty Boston attitude.
From playing in front of a packed house during those Saturday’s mornings on MLK Boulevard to being a two-time national champion, Shabazz has risen to the occasion time and time again. There’s no doubt that he’ll do the same in the 305 but first, he’s bringing a few people with him on his trip down the east coast.
“Funny thing is growing up, nobody thought I could be this good.” Napier said. “Those folks that was with me from the beginning, when I was that little annoying kid with glasses..[they’re] here for a reason.”
How will Napier fare as a pro?
Follow Matt on Twitter at @DimeMatt.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.