Ryan Boatright doesn't see basketball as a game.
Since he was a 13-year-old prodigy and gave a verbal commitment to USC, the undersized guard with the impressive leaping ability has understood that the sport was going to give him an opportunity that no other man in his family had — to get a college education and escape the streets of Chicago.
"Basketball saved my life," said the now 21-year-old Boatright, who is generously listed by UConn as being 6-foot tall. "That's why I take it so seriously. That's why I'm passionate about it, because it saved my life."
With the graduation of Shabazz Napier, Boatright has become a co-captain and the team's unquestioned leader. He has moved from being a combo guard back to the point this season.
Boatright — generously listed at 6-foot, 175 pounds — stayed at the school through NCAA sanctions, the retirement of Jim Calhoun and the opportunity to start a professional career after winning a national championship last season.
Leaving early, he said, would have meant reneging on a promise to his mother that he would get the degree she never had the opportunity to pursue.
"He has had this drive, this warrior's mentality since he was a young boy," said Tanesha Boatright, who gave up her own dream of a college track scholarship when she became pregnant with Ryan at age 17. "That has always been a drive for him to succeed, knowing that I made sacrifices to be a mom for him."
Boatright grew up outside of Chicago in the suburb of Aurora, Illinois, in a neighborhood he describes as "rough." When they closed housing projects in Chicago, many of those people moved to his neighborhood, he said. He said there was a lot of drugs and gang wars.
Tanesha Boatright said she steered her son toward athletics to keep him away from trouble. He was a star football player and track athlete. But it became clear when colleges started talking to him in middle school that basketball was his sport.
"She took a lot of criticism when I took that (USC) scholarship offer, people calling her a money-hungry mother and things," Boatright said. "But it wasn't like that. She never put any pressure on me. I put pressure on me."
His commitment to USC faded away when coach Tim Floyd left the school in 2009. Boatright eventually decide to attend UConn. Part of that decision came from his relationship with then-assistant coach Kevin Ollie, who had come out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles to play point guard at UConn and, eventually, the NBA.
"He wasn't a guy who wanted to make excuses. He works hard to get better every day. That's what I liked. I was like that," Ollie said. "I wasn't looking for no handouts. I was going to take my minutes. I was going to take what was mine. And Ryan has those same characteristics."
Boatright was forced to miss 11 games as a freshman as the NCAA investigated claims his mom improperly accepted gifts from an AAU coach and others. He and his teammates were forced to miss the NCAA tournament his sophomore year because previous players had failed to meet academic standards.
"I worked so hard to get to college and then it was all just snatched from me my freshman year and my sophomore year," he said. "That was frustrating. But I wasn't raised to be a quitter."
He only came close to leaving once, he said. That was last season, after his cousin, 20-year-old Arin Williams, was shot to death in January during a drug deal in Aurora. The two had grown up as brothers in the same house. Boatright began to wonder if staying in college was the right thing or if it would make more sense to go pro early, get some money and get his family into a better situation.
"I was in a dark place," he said.
He decided to come back, he said, in part to improve his NBA draft stock. But it was also about showing his younger brother, 18-year-old Michael, and his sisters, 12-year-old Dasia and 10-year-old De'ahjah, what it means to honor a commitment and see something through to the end.
Tanesha said Ryan has been like a second father to his siblings. He gives his brother advice on life as a basketball player at a junior college in California and video chats every night with his sisters to help them with their homework.
Boatright is on track to graduate in May with a major in sociology. His mother can be brought to tears just talking about it. It's also a moment Ryan said will mean more to him than cutting down the nets in Texas last spring.
"A lot of people doubted me," he said. "They see the tattoos and they see the swag and they think that I am too cool. But I'm intelligent and I refuse to fail. I've got to be successful for a lot of different reasons."