Napier has promises to keep ... to his mom

Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Carmen Velasquez, the mother of UConn star Shabazz Napier, cheers for her son during the No. 9 Huskies' recent win over Maine at the XL Center in Hartford.

For Father's Day, Shabazz Napier buys a gift to show his love, respect and appreciation.

It's a meaningful and important gesture for Napier, as meaningful and as important as his mother has been to him.

That's right. Napier honors his mother on Father's Day.

As a single mother, Carmen Velasquez raised three children, including her youngest, Shabazz Bozie Napier. She did her best during trying times, sometimes having only a little more than unconditional love to give to her family.

No one has meant more to Napier than his mother. His emotions rise to the surface whenever he talks about her. He draws strength and determination from her.

"I've never had a father in my life," Napier said. "I've had father figures but not a father. So she's been my mother and father to me.

"On Father's Day, I give her the gift. … That's where I get my ability to never quit, to always stay focused and to always strive to be great. My mother is not perfect but she strives to be great every day. She does the things that make it easy for me to be happy."

A 22-year-old senior, Napier is the heart and soul of the UConn basketball team. He's an inspirational leader and the team's Mr. Big Shot, authoring as many clutch shots as just about anyone in the program's history. He's considered one of the top guards in the country.

Napier also has worked hard to excel in the classroom, earning a spot on the Athletic Director's Academic Honor Roll as a junior.

He gives much of the credit for his success to his mom.

"My mom is my world," Napier said. "Without her, I don't know where I'd be at this point. She's always had my back."

When told about her son's loving words, Velasquez was clearly touched, calling her son a "sweetheart."

But she deflected the praise.

"This is his dream," Velasquez said. "I just gave him the basketball at five and a half and he took it from there. ... I've seen his determination. He put his heart into it, matter what obstacles came along."

Napier's dream seemed a like long shot growing up in Mission Hill, a rough neighborhood in Roxbury, Mass.

Life was a daily struggle. For a short period, Velasquez sent Napier to live with a close friend, Will Blalock, who served as a mentor. Playing basketball helped keep Napier off the street and out of trouble.

She kept him on track academically when he didn't take school as seriously as he should. All three of her kids graduated from high school, a noteworthy accomplishment considering the hurdles they faced. Napier attended Charlestown High School.

Looking back, Napier appreciates his mother even more now. He learned some valuable life lessons from those difficult times.

"Throughout my whole life, I lived in bad areas," Napier said. "My mother has been trying to do the right thing no matter what was going on. As a single parent raising three kids, it's always tough, no matter who you are.

"She made all types of sacrifices. She made sacrifices to make sure our bill was paid and the electricity was on. There were some times we had no lights and times where we had no food on the table, she made do with whatever we had.

"It just showed me that you should never quit. There's never a day you should sit down and give up. The easiest choice you could make in life is to give up. My mother never even thought about giving up … It pushed me to always do the right thing and pushed me to always never give up and go hard with everything I do."

His mother continues to be there for her son.

Every home game, she sits within cheering distance of the court. She wears her son's UConn jersey.

She was at Reliant Stadium in Houston in 2011 when UConn won a national championship during Napier's freshman year.

Before converting two pressure-packed, game-clinching free throws with two seconds left in the 2011 national semifinal victory over Kentucky, he made eye contact with his mother in the stands. Velasquez cried tears of joy.

They've shared many emotional moments during Napier's career.

"He believes in his mother," coach Kevin Ollie said. "They've been through a lot of things and they've overcome by sheer will and the love that they have between each other, and that's a great thing and you never want to separate that."

In his mother's eyes, Napier's greatest accomplishment at UConn will have nothing to do with basketball.

Napier will be the first member of his family to graduate from college. He contemplated leaving school after his junior year and entering the NBA Draft but ultimately elected to stay because of a promise made to his mother about getting his degree.

"The only thing that she asks us to do, that if you're going to start something, you've got complete it," he said. "I told her I would definitely get my degree. Before I made my decision, she reminded me about my promise."

Come May 11, graduation day, Napier will fulfill his promise and honor his mother by walking across the stage and picking up his diploma. It also just so happens to be Mother's Day.

Velasquez gets emotional when thinking about what that moment will be like.

"Oh, wow," she said. "It's going to be something special. We're both going to cry."

g.keefe@theday.com

Shabazz Napier, UConn's senior leader, returned to school because he promised his mother, Carmen Velasquez, that he would be the first member of his family to graduate from college.
Fred Beckham/AP Photo Shabazz Napier, UConn's senior leader, returned to school because he promised his mother, Carmen Velasquez, that he would be the first member of his family to graduate from college.
Carmen Velasquez, the mother of UConn star Shabazz Napier, cheers her son on during a recent game at the XL Center in Hartford.
Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Carmen Velasquez, the mother of UConn star Shabazz Napier, cheers her son on during a recent game at the XL Center in Hartford.
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