BOSTON -- It had been five years since he'd last walked through these gymnasium doors at Charlestown High, Shabazz Napier told the capacity crowd that was retiring his jersey at halftime of the Townies' eventual 67-65 loss to New Mission.
And life, he told the crowd, "just goes by way too fast. You can't take anything for granted."
It was a celebratory night for Napier, a native of Roxbury's Mission Hill neighborhood who began and ended his high school career at Charlestown before moving on to his current status as star guard of the UConn Huskies. It was a time for reminiscing, with a hint of caution.
Steve Cassidy, Napier's coach during his tenure at Charlestown, chose to stick with the positive, remembering a Napier that was without parallel with his work ethic and intrinsic motivation.
Often a game or would conclude Friday night, Cassidy told, "Everybody else would be cleared out, and there's Shabazz with his iPod and headphones, just getting more shots up. Then I remembered next day would come, Saturday morning -- we'd have practice pretty early, 10 or 11 -- and I get this ding on my cell phone at 8:30: 'Coach, what time you getting there? I want to get more shots up'.
"To me, that sums it up. There's a lot of guys with great court vision, but there's very few people who've worked as hard as that. For me, Shabazz was most at peace in the gym."
There was plenty of good narrative during Napier's career. But it wasn't all glory, and Napier addressed the good and bad with the crowd on hand.
Napier talked about how teachers always told him "Shabazz, you're smart", and asked why he "didn't do it in the classroom".
"I was the class clown," he recalled.
He talked of his mother, Carmen Velasquez, how he watched her struggle, and how "every single day it hurt me. I just wanted to do what's best for her."
Napier, of course, received his diploma from Charlestown High in 2010. But following the 2007-08 season, his junior year, he transferred to Lawrence Academy, tucked away in the leafy suburb of Groton, where he re-classified as a sophomore. After two tremendous seasons that saw his stock explode and bring home a NEPSAC Class B title, Napier returned to his former high school in order to graduate.
Charlestown coach Edson Cardoso understood the criticisms going into this -- Napier didn't even score 1,000 points in his Charlestown career -- but firmly believes the proud alum deserves to be honored.
"He’s a kid that grew up in Mission Hill [in the] Roxbury area, a lot of kids grew up in the same neighborhood as him, and I felt that Shabazz is like a face of BPS [Boston Public Schools] now," Cardoso said. "[The stigma with] BPS, we don’t send kids to college, kids don’t make it in college, kids flunk out of school, I think he’s actually overturned all those rumors and all the statistics of our city kids.
"I feel like Shabazz represents the city right now and he deserves to have his number retired. A lot of people might disagree with me, might be pissed off at me, but I feel like this is something we needed for the program and for him, too."
Napier concluded his speech by encouraging students to take advantage of the opportunities that sprout, and to find inspiration in their lives. Asked to reflect later on his high school career, he said he has no regrets.
"I wouldn't change nothing," he said. "In life, you don't want to have any regrets. You're going to make mistakes, but as long as you keep pushing forward, good things will happen."