UConn Forward Feels the Pull of the Family Name
“My dad always said that he was the last ambassador Mr. Kennedy received,” said Gamal Collier, Gershon’s son and Napheesa’s father, who lives in St. Louis. (This could not be confirmed; Kennedy’s schedule for that day and the next morning included scheduled meetings with several United States ambassadors.)
Napheesa Collier, 20, who was born in Jefferson City, Mo. — the birthplace of another former UConn star, Maya Moore — never met her grandfather. Gershon Collier died in 1994, two years before Napheesa was born. But she has heard numerous stories from her father, about the importance of self-sufficiency and responsibility and upholding the family name.
“It’s such a big deal, getting independence for a whole country,” Napheesa Collier said.
“I don’t think it necessarily influenced how I lived my life or played sports,” she said of her grandfather’s prominence, “but it gave me a real sense of pride about” Sierra Leone “and made me want to do more things to help my country.”
Her grandfather, who later became an educator in the United States, also became an inveterate fan of the Yankees and the Giants. Inevitably, Napheesa and her family also became sports fans and athletes. As a 6-foot-1 sophomore, she is one of college basketball’s most reliable shooters. Her younger brother, Kai, 19, plays football at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
Gamal Collier, their father, mentioned the national soccer team of Sierra Leone, Manchester United and the Giants, and said with a laugh over the telephone, “That’s the order of things in this life.”
UConn women’s basketball also has ascended to that list.
As the N.C.A.A. tournament began, Napheesa Collier ranked second in the nation with a shooting percentage of 69.3. She plays with a quiet forcefulness. Her hands are reliable, her footwork around the basket graceful from years of playing soccer. She runs the court tirelessly. And, Coach Geno Auriemma said, she is not restricted by the clutter of self-doubt.
“She never overthinks anything; she just goes out and plays,” Auriemma said. “When you’re young and don’t have a lot of bad experiences, things don’t get in the way. It’s like if you don’t play golf long enough to miss a lot of five-foot putts, you never think about missing them. The trick is to keep a young mind. That’s very difficult for athletes to do.”
At a recent practice, Collier, who is known as Pheesa or Phees, missed three shots in a row. Auriemma said he found himself yelling, “What’s wrong with you today?”
“She’s raised the bar so high,” he laughed, adding, “If she misses a shot, I’m flabbergasted.”
The expression on Collier’s face seldom seems to change. Perhaps, her father said, this calm comes, at least indirectly, from her roots in an African country that, in its brief history of independence, has faced the challenges of political turmoil, civil war and, most recently, the Ebola outbreak of 2014.
“Of all the Africans, we have the most equanimity toward hardship and disaster,” said Gamal Collier, who works in biopharmaceutical sales and might have said the same of many nations on the continent.
“No matter what happens, we persevere,” he said. “Basketball is quite a privilege in being at UConn. You don’t get better than that. We demand that our kids take these opportunities seriously and do the job.”
The Colliers also represent a multiculturalism that infuses UConn’s roster. Napheesa’s father is black and his heritage is in West Africa. Her mother, Sarah, a health care executive, is white and grew up on a dairy farm in Missouri. The two met when Gamal moved from New Jersey to Missouri to attend Lincoln University in Jefferson City, where a number of expatriates from Sierra Leone have immigrated.
“I always heard from movies and stuff, don’t talk about politics and religion at the dinner table,” Napheesa said, chuckling. “We would talk about anything, really. Nothing was off the table. I think we’re really open with that.”
In a recent interview about whether UConn would visit the White House if it won its fifth consecutive championship, Collier gave a nuanced response, saying, “I don’t really support Trump, but I would still go out of respect for my team.”
First, there is a more immediate trip to consider, to the Final Four, and the one in the summer to see her grandmother in Sierra Leone on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
Collier has heard many times from her father that the average Sierra Leonean woman of her age does not have the same bountiful opportunities. Instead, she can be expected to live a traditionally subordinate life of housework and childbearing.
“Putting yourself in those situations changes everything,” Collier said. “I’m so blessed to have been born in America and have the opportunities I have. It makes me want to give back to my family in Sierra Leone even more.”
The Sierra Leone Association of Jefferson City, begun in 1994, has about 60 members. It finances a scholarship program designed to help children in Sierra Leone who were orphaned by the Ebola crisis or cannot afford to pay school fees. More than 80 students have received aid, the association’s website said.
That is the project in which Collier said she would like to become involved.
“My dad jokes, ‘You should be cooking for us; if you were in Sierra Leone, you would have cooked when you were 12,’ ” Collier said.
“But on a more serious note,” she added, “women have to do all the cooking, cleaning. They have babies really early. They don’t get to go to school. Hopefully we can provide for some people to go to school and better their lives.”
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