Latinos no longer rare in college basketball
Traveling across South America, John Chaney heard plenty of claims. Most turned out to be untrue, the player not quite as tall, fast or talented as advertised.
``They'd say almost anything to get a chance to come to the United States,'' the former Temple coach recalls.
One did live up to the billing: Pepe Sanchez, a dynamic point guard from Bahia Blanca, Argentina, who followed Chaney to Philadelphia, became an All-American and took the Owls within a game of the 1999 Final Four.
Little did this unlikely pairing know that they would help open college basketball's door to Latin America - a door that soon could be kicked wide open.
``You just didn't see many kids from Latin America then,'' Chaney said. ``There were a few around - I think (N.C. State's Jim) Valvano had one - but there just weren't many Latino kids around. Now, you see them popping up all over.''
The globalization of basketball was sparked in large part by the 1992 U.S. Dream Team. It has led kids to take up the sport in countries where soccer has ruled and baseball or even boxing were higher on the sports chain.
In the nearly two decades since Michael Jordan led the Americans to gold, many of those kids have grown up, honed their skills and headed to America to play college basketball.
Maryland star point guard Greivis Vasquez is from Venezuela, as is Gregory Echenique, Rutgers' second-leading scorer. Cal sophomore guard Jorge Gutierrez was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and Dominican Republic native Edgar Sosa will be counted on heavily with all the injuries at Louisville.
Argentine Juan Fernandez, who Chaney helped recruit, is Temple's third-leading scorer and Brazilian Jonathan Tavernari is third in scoring at BYU.
Kansas State seems to have a direct pipeline for Latino players.
Point guard Denis Clemente and center Luis Colon moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in high school and their coach, Frank Martin, was born in Cuba. The Wildcats have another Latino on the way, too: recently signed forward/center Freddy Asprilla is Colombian.
Once an afterthought in the recruiting wars, Latin America has become a hotbed of talent that can no longer be ignored.
``We're all looking for players who can help us win games,'' Martin said. ``If there's somebody from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, maybe one day Cuba, who can help us win games and represent our universities the right way, we'd be fools not to take advantage and bring those guys to our universities.''
It's been 20 years since Seton Hall, whose international players included Puerto Rican forward Ramon Ramos, lost in overtime in the NCAA final to Michigan. But the seeds of this Latin American infusion started a few years later with the Dream Team.
The 1992 U.S. Olympic team, the first with NBA players, captivated the world by dunking and dominating its way to gold in Barcelona. The players on that team were known, of course, but the Olympics turned them into larger-than-life figures, sparking the dreams of kids around the world who hoped they too could be like Bird, Magic and Michael.
``Everybody loved the Dream Team,'' said Colon, who was into kickboxing and wrestling before taking up basketball. ``When Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and all those players did that, we followed the NBA 100 percent in Puerto Rico.''
Latin American professional leagues are now filled with talented players and teams. The national teams are no longer patsies for American and European teams; Argentina shocked the world by winning Olympic gold in 2004, the same year Puerto Rico knocked off a U.S. team filled with NBA players in the opening round. The Americans finished third.
Now the NBA is filled with Latino players, too, including San Antonio Spurs All-Star Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Miami Heat point guard Carlos Arroyo (Puerto Rico) and Phoenix guard Leandro Barbosa (Brazil) - just to name a few.
``You see that they can do it, you believe anyone can do it,'' Cal's Gutierrez said.
The fraternity of Latino players in college basketball is still small, but it's tight-knit. The players have a camaraderie from knowing they're on the ground floor of something that could become huge.
``It's a pride thing. I'm very proud of Latin American players making it to this level, even to the NBA,'' Colon said. ``There's so many more Latin Americans here than there used to be. I feel really good that we have this opportunity and maybe the new generation will do good things.''
The next wave should be coming soon.
Thousands of Latino players already fill high school rosters across the country and youth programs in Latin American countries are sure to get better as interest grows and better coaching is available.
One of the greatest untapped basketball resources is about to be blown open.
``There's a lot of young dudes in South America that you don't even know (about),'' Kansas State's Clemente said. ``They have a chance to go practice and come to NBA rookie camps, so you can tell they've got talent. I think they're going to keep coming.''
The door's already open.