HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — My final interaction with Paige Bueckers during a three-day February trip to Minnesota was in the living room of her family’s St. Louis Park home, where for an hour she sent her little brother, Drew, in all directions by throwing a football and yelling, “Catch it, bro!”
I thought the kid was going to crash though a window, but he didn’t.
I thought both of them would eventually run out of steam, but they didn’t.
And finally, I thought, if anything is going to be difficult for this young woman who has made all the challenges of a spotlight look easy, it’s going to be leaving her brother behind as the next leg of a basketball magic carpet ride was set to take her from the Twin Cities to Storrs.
Who knew how complicated life, and discussions with Drew, would soon become? That a pandemic would sweep the nation in March? Or that in May a Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin would kneel on the neck of a man named George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, killing Floyd and spawning a global uprising over social and racial injustices with those horrifying actions 10 miles from Bueckers’ home?
We all watched Minneapolis closely this summer, but from afar. Bueckers has spent her entire life in and around a city that became the epicenter for something that shook the world.
“It was pretty crazy,” she said Monday during her first interaction with the Connecticut media since arriving as a UConn freshman in late July. “There’s been a lot of difficult conversations with the Black Lives Matter campaign and how people go against it and how people are supportive of it. I’m one of those supporters. Like they say, all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter and I’m huge for it.”
She mentioned Drew, who is 7 and biracial. They share the same father.
“I have a little brother who is mixed with Black and white,” said Bueckers, who is white. “I want him to grow up in a world that accepts Black people and doesn’t judge them based on the color of their skin. So I’m all for it. And if I lose supporters because they don’t agree with it, I don’t need those people, anyway, on my side.”
Welcome to Connecticut, Paige.
Continue to speak your mind.
I’m sure you will.
You’re now part of a basketball team that does it as well as any group in America.
You’ll fit right in.
Bueckers is polished, as far as teenagers go. She is a rock star in Minnesota. Thousands attend her Hopkins High games. Hundreds line up for her autograph. She’s been among the most celebrated high school players in America for a few years, the Class of 2020’s top recruit, this year’s Gatorade basketball player of the year and athlete of the year, a varsity player since she was in eighth grade. She’s been on the cover of magazines, including Slam and Sports Illustrated. A documentary film crew followed her every 2019-20 move.
So she’s new to UConn, but not new to being the curiosity of a community. She’s the latest “star” to land here surrounded by the greatest of basketball expectations — Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, even Christyn Williams, have also felt it to some degree — and she arrives at a time when the internal Gampel Pavilion expectations are increasingly about a voice.
UConn was among the first teams in college sports to speak out on issues of impact, issuing a statement May 31 that began, “As a team, we are hurting,” and went on to express outrage over racism and police brutality. It was powerful. Every team member, incoming freshmen included, had a say in its wording. And it was the first of many steps, part of an effort to make sure conversation about race in our state doesn’t fade over time like it often does in our country. Several players on Monday’s Zoom call wore shirts that read, “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.”
“We’re trying to cook up something for the season,” Williams said. “There’s definitely going to be a change in something to support the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Geno Auriemma thought back to the 1960s.
“It was college kids who led the charge,” he said. “It was young people who led the charge, who said ‘Hey, this world needs to change.’ And little by little, they were able to effect change in so many ways, culturally, socially. It was an incredible time.”
So is 2020.
“I think they get a bad rap, today’s generation,” Auriemma said. “I think they’re smart, and they’re socially conscious. I’m just amazed at how insightful they’ve been in the questions that I’ve asked them. Because the world that we live in right now is complicated, and it’s got a lot of layers to it.”
Bueckers, who lead her team to 62 consecutive victories before the cancellation of Minnesota’s Class 4A state championship game, will most likely do wonderful things at UConn. She has incredible vision and handle. She’s all no-look passes and long arms and legs and herky-jerk moves that leave defenders still as a statue.
She’s got personality, too. So much confidence. We’ll hear it and see it for four years. The world will. Bueckers has 553,000 Instagram followers. More than Sue Bird. More than twice as many as Stewart. More than five times as many as Diana Taurasi.
“I’m just trying to use my image and my platform to promote the Black Lives Matter campaign and bring justice and equality into the world as much as I can,” Bueckers said. “Stewie and Sue, they’ve really used their platform to do great things in the social justice campaign and I’ve just tried to follow in their footsteps, and we’ve talked about it. They just said, ‘Use your voice, don’t ever be silent, don’t ever let up.’ ”
Eventually the conversation turned back to her brother. She connects with Drew via Facetime every day.
“It sucks having to have those conversations with your little brother on how he should act because of his skin color,” said Bueckers, who attended several protests and donated to food drives in Minneapolis. “He’s so young so he doesn’t truly understand it. … Just having that fear of one wrong judgement and his life could be on the line, it’s super scary and something that I want to help change. It’s not just me living in fear. It’s everybody who is related to a person of color. Anything I can do, anything to make this world a better place for black people, it’s huge for me.”
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