UConn coach, star align: Ollie and Napier share 'hearts as big as this room'
They stood side by side on the confetti-covered court at AT&T Stadium in suburban Dallas late Monday night, looking up to watch "One Shining Moment" - a video tribute to March Madness - on the giant screen.
That's when UConn men's basketball coach Kevin Ollie put his arm around senior star Shabazz Napier's shoulder, pulled him close and kissed him on the cheek. The touching moment was further evidence of their special bond built on a mutual love and respect, and forged through adversity during their four years together.
"(Ollie) was always there for me," Napier said. "I've never had a father in my life. And I feel like he was always a father figure to me. That's what I wanted."
In their final act together, Ollie and Napier helped the Huskies complete an improbable journey that concluded with Monday night's 60-54 victory over Kentucky in the NCAA championship game, the program's fourth national title.
They combined to form a powerful driving force, pushing UConn through one of the rockiest periods in program history that included a post-season ban due to academic failures, conference realignment and the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.
Before Napier evolved into one of the greatest basketball players in school history, he battled through some of his own adversity.
As a sophomore, Napier admittedly failed in his attempt to take over the leadership reins from Kemba Walker, his former teammate and mentor on the 2011 national championship team. There were times when he criticized teammates and isolated himself.
Napier turned to Ollie, an assistant on Calhoun's staff for two seasons before being hired as head coach in 2012, for support. He cried in Ollie's arms.
"He wanted to do it his own way," Ollie said. "But he understood you're not going to change UConn. UConn is going to change you. He started to conform to that."
Napier appreciated Ollie's caring approach and perspective as a former UConn and NBA point guard.
"He believed everything I did was with a lot passion," Napier said. "It may not be the right thing at the right time, but he understood that I gave everything I got. When you have somebody like that in your corner, you should always cherish that and (we've) just been growing up since."
They shared a similar mission - restore the program to what they consider is its rightful place among college basketball's giants.
Napier decided not to transfer like several of his now former teammates did when UConn received a post-season ban for last season. He followed the advice of his mother, Carmen Velasquez, who taught him about loyalty, commitment and the importance of earning a degree.
Last season, UConn laid the foundation for its championship run while both Ollie and Napier emerged in their respective roles. Hired as an interim coach, Ollie proved he was worthy of a long-term investment and received a five-year contract in December 2012.
The positive but demanding Ollie instilled confidence, an unwavering belief and brotherhood mentality in his team, driving the Huskies to an unexpected 20-win season in his first year. A maturing Napier developed a reputation as a clutch performer, fierce competitor and respected leader. His teammates fed off his energy and enthusiasm.
"We both have hearts as big as this room," Ollie said. "And we want UConn to win. That's the one thing I love my players to have, that want to win, and overcome and not stop when they hit the wall. That's what he has."
The Huskies continued their comeback this season. Every time they hit a rut, Ollie and Napier lifted them up. They talked about hoisting the national championship trophy come April.
As the seventh seed coming out of the East Regional, UConn overcame long odds to reach the Final Four, then shocked top-seeded Florida in the national semifinals on April 5 before taking down favored Kentucky.
Napier turned in one of the most memorable tournament performances in school history, averaging 21.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals in six games.
As part of his season-long pregame routine, Napier hugged Ollie before stepping onto the court for the national championship game. He scored a game-high 22 points and earned the Final Four's most outstanding player honor. He joined teammates Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey as the only Huskies to win two national titles.
Ollie said Napier's legacy will live on long after leaving Storrs.
"He's a great young man," Ollie said. "He's going to be graduating on time. That's just a great, great, great goal for him. … For him to come back and be a story that kids can look up to, not just on the basketball court, but getting your degree, is an amazing, amazing thing."
Parade of champions
What: Parade celebrating the national championships of the UConn men's and women's basketball teams
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Starts and ends at the Connecticut State Capitol Building, Hartford. A rally will follow immediately on the North portico of the Capitol.
More information: www.hartford.com
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