STORRS, Conn. — Her son was leaving UConn. Tanesha Boatright was pretty sure of it.
In the days leading up to his decision on whether to remain in school for his senior season or throw his hat into the ring of the 2014 NBA Draft, Ryan Boatright had spent countless hours debating his decision with his mom; his younger brother, Michael Boatright McAllister; and his grandparents, Tom and Linda.
The same questions were bandied about each day, with no definitive answer.
By the morning of April 25, he had to have a final decision. The night before, Boatright talked with UConn coach Kevin Ollie one more time by phone, then sought some final advice from mom.
“I would love for you to get your degree,” Tanesha told him. “But that’s just me being a mom. I want you to be happy. If you think you can go back and be happy, do it. If you think you can leave and be happy, do that. You’re my son. I will adapt to whatever decision you make.”
“OK, mom,” Ryan replied, and he said he’d sleep on it.
Tanesha went to bed believing Ryan was going to go pro. It just felt that way. But at about 3 a.m., Ryan knocked on her bedroom door and entered the room with some surprising news.
“Mom,” he said, “I think I’mma stay.”
“You ready?” Tanesha responded.
Ryan crawled into his mom’s bed and the two fell back asleep. A few hours later, he called Ollie with the news.
And with that, one of the most intriguing careers in UConn men’s basketball history — marked by highs of an NCAA championship and lows of friction with a star teammate and the loss of a beloved family member — was being extended one more season.
Boatright hails from some impressive athletic stock. His maternal grandfather, Tom Boatright, was an all-state running back at East Aurora (Illinois) High School who went on to star at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. He was eventually offered a $10,000 contract by the Chicago Bears in 1975, but never played for them. Seems there was this other pretty good running back named Walter Payton in his way.
Rather than take the chance of cracking the Bears’ roster as a punt returner, Tom went back home to take care of his family: his wife, Linda — a former Aurora High cheerleader who met Tom when the two were in seventh grade — and his young daughters. In 1988, he started the Aurora Flyers track club, which would spawn dozens of Division I college track stars over the years, including three of Tom’s four daughters: Katrina (Illinois State), Lakeya (Iowa) and Tominique (Arkansas).
“[Track] was my thing, too,” Tanesha noted. “And then, I got pregnant.”
At age 17, her track career and college dreams were derailed when she gave birth to Ryan on Dec. 27, 1992.
From an early age, Ryan displayed the quickness and athleticism of his grandfather — particularly on the gridiron.
“I thought he was gonna go to the NFL and be a running back, like my dad,” Tanesha said. “He was so quick on the field, with his shake-and-bakes.”
But at the age of 13, Ryan received a scholarship offer from USC head coach Tim Floyd after attending a USC basketball camp, and basketball became his focus. That controversial offer would become somewhat of a burden on him at East Aurora, as rival fans would taunt him during games, saying he wasn’t good enough to play in college.
— Tanesha Boatright
“He’d have tears in his eyes, people were really riding him,” Tom recalled.
Ryan backed out of his commitment to USC during his junior year after Floyd abruptly resigned following allegations of recruiting violations involving O.J. Mayo. He eventually committed to West Virginia. But on the very same day he pledged, WVU coach Bob Huggins got a commitment from another speedy guard, Jabarie Hinds. Feeling that was “deceitful” on the Mountaineers’ part, according to Tanesha, Ryan re-opened his recruitment again. A few days later, then-UConn assistant coach Andre LaFleur called, asking if Ryan was still available.
“Heck, yeah!” said Tanesha, a longtime admirer of Ray Allen who used to call Ryan “Jesus Shuttlesworth” after Allen’s character in “He Got Game.” At one time, when she couldn’t afford to pay her cable bill for a few months, Tanesha played “He Got Game” — along with “The Story of Sebastian Telfair” — repeatedly for young Ryan and Michael.
A couple of weeks later, Ryan committed to UConn. Looking back, Tanesha has few regrets about the situations with Floyd — “a great person” — and Huggins.
“He learned, at an early age, how to take criticism,” Tanesha pointed out. “In this basketball world, there’s a lot of criticism. It grew us into strong people.”
They’d need that strength.
Practically from the time Boatright first donned a UConn uniform, he bumped heads with another head-strong guard. But despite a few scrapes in practice, even arguments captured by TV cameras, Boatright’s well-publicized relationship with Shabazz Napier was never as bad as many believed.
“It wasn’t to the point where we hated each other,” Boatright noted. “The younger years of me and Shabazz, we just both had a lot of maturing to do. Coming from what we came from and having those fearless and not-back-down attitudes that we both had, we bumped heads a little bit. But we always loved each other. We had some good times, we just bumped heads a lot, just seeing stuff different. But we always wanted the best for each other.”
Napier, with his late-game heroics and superior statistics, drew the lion’s share of media attention.
“Shabazz deserved it,” Boatright said, in hindsight. “He’s a great player, he hit some tough shots. He was the leader of our team, the face of Connecticut. Jealousy isn’t a thing with me. I’ve never been a jealous person. I want the best for all my teammates.”
Following the Huskies’ 63-58 loss at Cincinnati on Feb. 6, Tom Boatright approached Napier, put his arm around his shoulders and whispered in his ear.
“I told him to put us on his back,” Tom recalled. “He looked at me like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I believe in you, put us on your back.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yes, sir!’ “
The rest, of course, is history.
♦ ♦ ♦
“I’m gonna have to get on a plane. He’s not gonna be able to get through this.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Still, last season was a tough one for Boatright on a personal level. On the night of Jan. 13, his cousin, Arin Williams, was shot to death in the bathroom of a Mexican restaurant in Aurora. Williams, whose father is Ryan’s uncle, lost his mother to a brain aneurysm when he was an infant and was more like a brother to Ryan, who took the death hard.
“There were moments in his voice, [I said to myself], ‘I’m gonna have to get on a plane,’ ” Tanesha said. ” ‘He’s not gonna be able to get through this.’ “
But, with help and support from his teammates, Ryan got through it, missing just one game to attend Williams’ funeral. Still, the pain of Williams’ death will never go away. Tanesha remembers Arin telling her early in Ryan’s freshman season, “One day, Ryan’s gonna be the face of that school.”
At First Night festivities a few weeks ago, Tanesha was in the crowd as her son was the last player to be introduced, his face up on the videoboard — the face of UConn.
“I got so emotional,” Tanesha said. “There are moments you remember, [Arin’s] not here.”
In the national semifinals against Florida in April, Tom watched from behind the bench as UConn got off to a horrible start. The Gators led 16-4 midway through the first half, and Ryan (or any other UConn player) couldn’t get much of anything going.
Then came “The Whistle.”
Any member of the Boatright family knows about “The Whistle.” It doesn’t matter where Tom is sitting, how big the arena is — a high school gym or AT&T Stadium — or how many people are in the crowd, Tom’s whistle can always be heard above the din.
“We always knew what time it was when we heard the whistle,” said Mike McAllister, now playing at Merritt Junior College in Oakland, California.
After Ollie called a timeout with about eight and a half minutes left in the first half, it was time.
“I was walking back to the huddle; he did The Whistle,” Boatright recalled. “I just looked at him. He told me to calm down. ‘Elbow straight, down the middle of my nose, through my eyes.’ We came out, DeAndre [Daniels] hit a shot after that, we got a stop, then I hit a 3, and we rolled from there.”
Boatright’s trey sparked a 21-6 UConn run to close out the half and give the Huskies a 25-22 halftime lead. UConn would never trail again before cutting down the nets.
But this wasn’t Boatright’s first trip to a Final Four. Three years earlier, Boatright and his family were at Reliant Stadium in Houston, where Ryan had played in a high school all-star game. While the Boatright family sat up in the nosebleeds watching UConn beat John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats in the national semifinals on April 2, 2011, Tom pointed down to the court and told Ryan, “Man, that’s where you want to be.”
Three years later, the Boatrights’ seats were much better, and Ryan’s defensive tenacity and strong all-around game (14 points on 5-for-6 shooting) helped lead the Huskies to victory against Calipari and the Wildcats in the national championship game.
Now, Ryan Boatright is back where he wants to be, to try to do it all one more time.