Dom Amore: UConn women’s basketball standout Paige Bueckers never forgets to honor where she came from and the Black women who got her here

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Paige Bueckers stood before the large audience in Las Vegas last July, apologizing for her unsteadiness as she was just getting over ankle surgery, and delivered a two-minute speech that left no doubt who she was and where she was coming from.

“I’m just a small-town kid with really big dreams,” she said, holding the ESPY award for top college athlete in the country.

Some of those dreams could be symbolized by the sprawling Gatorade ad, a mural at the nearby Mall of America. The small-town kid that came home with her UConn women’s basketball teammates to play for the national championship has become larger than life. “Interest in this event increased by about 300 times when we found out she was coming,” a long-time Twin Cities scribe told me.

But Bueckers’ dreams are larger still and concern far more than herself. The opportunities that come with being one of the most recognized athletes in America mean far more than monetizing her name, image and likeness.

“The life I have now as a white woman in a Black-led sport, I want to show a light on Black women,” she said during her ESPYs speech. “They don’t get the coverage they deserve.”

As Bueckers shouted out to the Black women in her life from the ESPYs stage, Tara Starks, back in Buecker’s hometown of Hopkins, Minnesota, felt the power of those words well up in her eyes. Bueckers was in fifth grade when Starks spotted her and invited her to play with older kids on her AAU team.

“I know that I’m a Black woman who has been a huge part of her life, so when she did that speech, it really touched me because she speaks up for things that no one else will speak up for,” Starks said. “And part of it is because of experience and the things that she’s been around and the things she has seen. It brought me to tears to see her say, ‘Hey, Black women do not get the attention they deserve.’ I felt a small part of that was including me.”

Starks is also the coach at Hopkins High, where Bueckers played. Her daughter, T’Aire Starks, is launching a coaching career as a graduate assistant at UConn.

“She’s like a mother figure in my life,” Bueckers said. “She has been my coach since fourth or fifth grade. We’ve been through a lot together. She was the one who got on me first. She’s been my coach for forever, but we’re more like family now. She’s super hard on me because she loves me, and we love each other and we have mutual trust, a really good bond.

“She deserves a lot of attention and credit for what she’s doing and what she’s done her whole coaching career. She doesn’t get the attention and credit she deserves. All the powerful and wonderful Black women in my life deserve that attention. She’s definitely a reason for that speech. There are a lot of people and reasons I decided to make that speech, but her and the other women in my life were a huge reason behind it.”

Bueckers’ words resonated far beyond Minnesota and the people who have coached her.

“I’m going to say this,” South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley said. “She’s not a child, but children and old people, they speak truth to power, and if Paige recognizes it, she’s got a powerful voice in our game. If they haven’t listened to some of the older coaches, the fore-mothers of our game, the legendary people, if people haven’t listened to them, let’s hope they listen to Paige and adhere to her words because they hold true. When it happens, when opportunities happen, I get to sit here and talk to you and represent women’s basketball on the biggest stage, and I am a Black woman.”

Upon Bueckers’ return to the Minneapolis area, she immediately jumped into local causes. Win or lose in the national semifinals against Stanford on Friday night, Bueckers plans to host a free pop-up supermarket that will distribute 6,000 free meals to students with food-security issues, partnering with Chegg, an educational platform, and Goodr, a firm that provides hunger relief.

“Paige cares a lot about a lot of things, not just basketball,” UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma said. “She cares about her teammates. A lot of the things she gets, she makes sure that they get. That speech, I think it reflects her background, how she grew up, her family dynamics. And in today’s world, I think it’s pretty remarkable that young people have a perspective that goes beyond themselves and their sport, they’re very conscious of what’s going on around the world and what impact they can have on it. And she has the platform to act on it.”

Bueckers, still seven months away from turning 21, has a grasp of the power of her words and gestures. It’s why, even as a high school player, she never let a youngster seeking an autograph walk away without one.

“She’s a normal kid, she’s a cool kid,” Starks said. “The little kids look at her as some kind of superhero. The other people, her peers, they look at her, ‘that’s my homegirl. That’s my friend.’ The first thing she wants to do when she gets here is hang out with her buddies, hang out with the people that she’s played with. She has time for everyone.”

Bueckers doesn’t forget the people who helped her get here, and they don’t forget her. As she returned from her knee surgery and struggled for weeks to find her game, Tara Starks was watching.

“My daughter called me [before the Indiana game last week] and said, ‘Can you talk to Paige? She’s not shooting the ball. Coach is telling her to shoot it and she’s not shooting it,’” Starks said. “I texted her, and I said, ‘Hey, I know your legs are not under you and you’re not as strong as you usually would be and you’re not 100 percent, but the one thing I know you’re capable of is you can knock down open shots. Shoot the ball, don’t stop shooting, shoot till you get hot.’”

With the Bridgeport Regional final in overtime on Monday and the chance to play in a Final Four eight miles from the house she grew up in jeopardy, Bueckers got hot and led the Huskies here.

“I was sitting on the edge of the couch and I’m hollering at the TV,” Starks said. “‘Come on, kid, take over.’ I knew then she wanted to get back home.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com