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No such thing as 'just a role player'

Among the most engrossing UConn athletic events in quite some time Monday night produced some narratives beyond the burgeoning legend of Paige Bueckers.

Put it this way: There is nary a postgame interview session when UConn coach Geno Auriemma doesn't have his fastball. But Auriemma went full Nolan Ryan after his team's win over South Carolina — particularly during an impromptu an ode to role players — that coaches on every level ought to posterize, memorize and then personalize to all of their players.

The context of Auriemma's soliloquy: He was asked a question about the contributions of players other than Bueckers to Monday night's win.

Here is the full quote:

"Sometimes people make comments like, 'She'll never be anything but a role player,' like that's some kind of disease or something," Auriemma said. "Really? Good. I'd like to see what a concert would sound like if the guy who is supposed to bring Billy Joel's piano out doesn't bring it out.

"Yeah, 'She's just a role player. Well, guess what? Everybody's role is really, really important. And you just have to play it to the best of your ability. So if you're going to be a role player, you've got to be a star in your role, whatever that is. Aaliyah Edwards and Aubrey (Griffin) and Nika (Muhl), that's what they were. That's what they are most nights. Some nights more so than others.

"But that's the way life is. There are guys who lug the piano up on stage and there are guys who play the piano. And there's a reason why the guy who plays the piano gets paid all the money. Because that's what people come to watch. Paige is a good piano player."

Ah, but one of life's great realities is also one of its enduring disappointments: We all can't be the piano player. Some of us lug it on stage. Some of us tune it. Some of us sing background. Some of us play the sax. Others sell the popcorn.

High school coaches in particular ought to copy and laminate Auriemma's comments and hand them out indiscriminately to aggrieved players and parents who don't quite understand the gist: not everybody is good enough to be the figurative Paige Bueckers.

Example: During a state playoff basketball game once, a coach (from Notre Dame of Fairfield) removed one of his players for missing a shot.

Coach: "Why did you shoot?"

Player: "Because I was open."

Coach: "You were open because you can't shoot!"

That's why coaches take great pain to create and define roles best for the team. And seeing as how Auriemma has won more championships than anyone else — with gaggles of loyal former players singing hosannas to him — who is anyone else to argue?

I can't tell you the number of otherwise nice, decent people I know who still hold a grudge against their kid's high school coach — for no other reason than the coach dared turn their child into a role player. It inhibited the kid's chance to get a scholarship. The kid deserved more than to be a piano-lugger. Kid coulda been a contender.

Of course, high school sports should teach us that we all have our roles. I mean, I'd prefer not to stick my hands into a toilet every day. But we sure do need plumbers. That's exactly what Auriemma meant when he said, "you just have to play it to the best of your ability. So if you're going to be a role player, you've got to be a star in your role, whatever that is."

And I know when my hot water is on the fritz, the greatest star in my sphere at that moment is Murray Renshaw, famed local plumber. No, Murray doesn't get the big bucks like Billy Joel. But when Billy's sink gets clogged, he needs a role player in his life, too.

Auriemma knows that championship seasons are built on two things: Whether you have a Paige Bueckers, who can somehow pull the ripcord when the ground is rushing toward everybody and doom seems imminent; and whether the players around Bueckers understand their roles and do it the best they can.

That sage otherwise known as The Rock said it more crudely: "Know your role and shut your mouth." Either way, whether through the gospel of The Rock or Geno Auriemma, the message is clear: Role players count. Always will.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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