Calhoun's return has been exactly what Napier needed

Shabazz Napier, right, was thrilled to see Jim Calhoun return to the coaching sideiines in time for the postseason.
Shabazz Napier, right, was thrilled to see Jim Calhoun return to the coaching sideiines in time for the postseason. Sean D. elliot/The Day Buy Photo

When Jim Calhoun recently returned to practice for the first time in a month, sophomore Shabazz Napier greeted his head coach like a long lost relative.

Napier warmly hugged Calhoun.

Ever since Calhoun rejoined the team on March 2 after a medical leave of absence, Napier has been a happier Husky and the Huskies a better team.

Coincidence?

Not according to Napier.

"I need him here," Napier said. "He's the reason why I committed here. I love when he yells at me. I hate when he never talks to me. He's just a father figure to me. Sometimes you need that father figure to pick you up and tell you everything is going to be fine.

"… He's just that person that you want to be with you all the time."

Napier, UConn's outspoken and enthusiastic starting point guard, will be running the team when the Huskies (20-13) open NCAA tournament play against Iowa State (22-10) Thursday night at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville (9:20 p.m., TBS).

The Huskies enter postseason playing their best basketball this season, winning three of their last four games since Calhoun returned.

Napier has helped lead the resurgence, averaging 17.2 points and 5.2 assists in the last four games, including scoring 26 points in a Big East tournament second-round win over West Virginia that basically clinched an NCAA bid.

He's also experienced his share of speed bumps this season. At times, he missed the presence of the no-nonsense Calhoun, who has sat a total of 11 games - eight with a bad back and three serving an NCAA suspension.

Calhoun wasn't there to admonish Napier for a bad turnover. He also wasn't there to give an approving nod for a good play.

Perhaps more than any Husky, Napier draws strength from Calhoun.

Napier, who grew up without a dad in his life, considers Calhoun and assistant coach Kevin Ollie father figures.

"They don't sugar-coat anything," Napier said. "They let me know what I'm doing is wrong sometimes and what I'm doing is right. You don't want to hear it, but that's what a father is and that's what a father does. … That's what Calhoun is.

"… Him coming back is a blessing for me."

Their bond runs deeper than basketball.

They both share Massachusetts roots - Calhoun grew up in Braintree and Napier resides in Roxbury. So there's an unspoken understanding there.

There are also other similarities between the two, according to Napier.

"We both want to win," Napier said. "We both have passion. When we're upset, we've both got that mean look. We're more like each other than we really realize. … He's just the same way as I am. We want things to be perfect but we know for a fact that it's not going to happen."

While Napier relies on Calhoun's leadership, he's still developing as a floor leader. He's had some missteps, including questioning his teammates' heart after a loss to Marquette on Feb. 18.

Looking back, he regrets that way he expressed his feelings.

"I've been trying my best to be that guy," Napier said. "Let me just say this: I'm not perfect myself. … Guys have been playing their hearts out every since then. I just appreciate everything they've been doing."

Ollie, a top-notch leader during his playing days at UConn, has encouraged Napier to be positive, encourage his teammates and lead by example, just as Kemba Walker did during UConn's national championship season last year.

Napier remains a work in progress, Ollie says.

"He's responded," Ollie said. "He's had his ups and downs… I think he's grown. Hopefully, he'll continue to stay with it. He's still trying to figure it out. … He has the personality. He's smart. But it's a process. You grow and learn from your mistakes."

Napier's teammates are responding to his leadership. The Huskies are sticking together on the court with Napier serving as the glue.

"He's a great teammate," freshman Ryan Boatright said. "He's a leader, too. … Shabazz is going to be Shabazz, man."

g.keefe@theday.com

Hide Comments

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments