The Connecticut Huskies defeated Kentucky Wildcats on Monday night in Dallas to win their fourth title in 15 years, but it was the boldness of their words that was even more impressive.
Shabazz Napier has never been one to wait. UConn’s senior point guard has long embodied a certain sense of urgency with the ball in his hands, slashing and dribbling and pulling up from anywhere as if it was a brief acknowledgment that his time in college was too precious to waste. A player like that was not about to let the biggest moment of his life pass without making a point that had been stirring inside of him for two years. Jim Nantz was about to ask something nondescript, but it was clear Napier had his answer before even hearing the question.
“I want to get everybody’s attention real quick. If I could have your attention. ... If I don’t have your attention, let me get your attention. “This is what happens when you ban us.”
Napier said it as if he was addressing both everyone and no one at all, using his few fleeting seconds with a microphone and an entire country watching to let the NCAA know what they got wrong. A year ago, Napier would have been watching the tournament from home if he hadn’t been too busy watching “River Monsters”. A year ago, UConn was serving a postseason ban for too often failing to graduate players from 2007-2011.
It was an audacious thing to say in the moment; for a second, it felt like Nantz might pull the mic away and go to someone else. It wasn’t exactly out of character, though. Napier has used the entirety of the 2014 NCAA Tournament as his stage, and that wasn’t always only limited to basketball. The Most Outstanding Player of this chaotic, hectic tournament made sure his words counted, too.
Napier made waves before tip-off on Monday when asked about the possibility of college athletes one day being paid, or at least receiving the improved treatment that’s found at the heart of the unionization attempt by former members of Northwestern’s football team. Napier did not mince his words.
It may be hard to believe a player as dynamic as Napier at a program as storied as UConn ever struggled to find a meal, but perhaps he wasn’t just talking about himself. Few ever experience the stage Napier was on this weekend in North Texas, a rare place where whatever he said carried an extra bit of gravity. As he proved all tournament long, Napier is not the type to shy away from the moment.
For Napier and his UConn teammates, it must have been extra sweet to accept the trophy from Emmert one year removed from being disallowed to play in the NCAA Tournament because players who arrived at the school long before they did didn’t graduate. The NCAA continues to perpetuate the myth of student athletes, failing to recognize they made UConn spend the last month in Memphis, Buffalo, New York and Dallas because of the tremendous amount of money at stake. They were everywhere, really, but back at class in Storrs, CT.
It’s hardly the first or the last time a program or a player will feel like it received a raw deal from the NCAA, but the choice to speak out against it is encouraging. This is how change can start, with an undersized point guard not being afraid to speak his mind in front of a national audience. UConn defeated Kentucky to win its fourth national championship in 15 years on Monday night, but the victory also allowed a statement that was just as impressive.