By Steve Yanda
Sunday, November 8, 2009
The stairs that climb into another desolate barrio begin next to a concrete wall splashed with red spray paint. A capital "S" and an "í" converge to serve as an affirmation. Yes. Left over from President Hugo Chávez's 2006 reelection campaign, Sí served as a means to foster loyalty among youth voters in return for all that Chávez had accomplished so far. He had rebuilt many of the outdoor basketball courts in barrios all across Venezuela's capital -- new paint jobs, new backboards, new rims, new nets, new fences.
In Caracas, the word stands for strength and promise and unity, a reward for patience shown. But here, patience remains in short supply.
Concrete gives way to crumbling orange brick and littered tin roofs. Tangled extension cords funnel electricity from the municipal lines down below, into parts of the city the government doesn't service. Barrios build vertically; the standard of living falls as the incline steepens.
The noise, though, grows with each step on this mid-August afternoon. Out of an unfinished home, salsa music blares, interrupted by the concussive bounce of a basketball. Inside a rectangular, 12-foot high, chain-link fence, six teenagers play: three-on-three, make-it-take-it. A 17-year-old named Arangel Carrillo dribbles the ball at the top of the key, sweat dripping off the bangs mopped across his forehead. He drives to his right, charging fiercely into the lane without regard for the pair of defenders swarming in his path. He dribbles once through his legs as he nears the basket, right hand to left, and then the ball is gone, tossed blindly behind his back to an open teammate. The shot clanks off the rim; play continues.
"Oh, yeah!" a voice from above yells in Spanish. "Look at the Greivises!"
Up another flight of steps, four men sit outside a house and look down upon the pickup game. Each is armed with a 9mm pistol and a sneer. They are malandros, drug dealers who reign over run-down neighborhoods such as Cristo Al Reves, whose literal translation is "Upside-down Christ." The dealers are in the market for new recruits.
The malandro who called out to the boys was referring to University of Maryland basketball star Greivis Vasquez, a rare example of the barrio's alternate path, of a kid who bounced his ball incessantly until it led him to another country and to the doorstep of a once-unfathomable career. To be a Greivis is to be a success, an aberration to the lifestyle most young Caraquenos choose.
The kids ignore the drug dealer. They know he is mocking them, painting them as wannabes. After an hour, the boys leave the court. At a reporter's mention of Greives's name, they acknowledge: "Callejero! Callejero!" The street-baller. They say they emulate him because he is their country's best, and they know he is the best because he is on the TV channels broadcast from America, the country that has set sports and pop culture standards in their homeland for decades.
"We're proud of him because he's from the barrio, too," says Cesar Hernandez, 19.
"It's a cool representation of our barrios and our country that he's playing for a university in the United States," Albert Goto, 16, says.
But more is expected of Venezuela's preeminent rising basketball talent than that. As he continues down the steps, Goto is asked whether Vasquez, a guard entering his senior season in College Park, can make it to the NBA. He nods his head. Yes.
For many Venezuelans, athletic events serve as brief respites from the harsh economic and political realities that consume their existence. Several of their countrymen have played different levels of college basketball in America, but only two have made it to the NBA. Carl Herrera, a 6-foot-9 forward, lasted eight seasons and was a role player on the Houston Rockets' back-to-back title teams in the mid-'90s. Oscar Torres, a 6-foot-6 guard, spent two seasons in the NBA earlier this decade, but his impact was minimal. Since 2003, Torres's final NBA season, a nation growing increasingly enamored of basketball has yearned for another reason to believe that one of its own can compete at the sport's highest level. The current buzz surrounds Vasquez.
Inside Domo Jose Maria Vargas, an open-air arena in La Guaira along the northern coast of Venezuela, the country's top basketball players scrimmage at the end of a late-summer workout. Members of the national team, which in the coming weeks would compete in the FIBA Americas tournament in Puerto Rico, split into two groups, just as they had all week. Vasquez, a 6-foot-5 point guard with a buzz cut and a closely trimmed beard, leads the group sporting maroon mesh jerseys. He wears No. 21, just as he does in Comcast Center.
The maroon team trails by a basket late in the scrimmage when Vasquez drives to his right into the lane and sinks a shot. He looks immediately to the opposing squad's bench, holds his hands out wide and exclaims in Spanish: "Who's going to win? Who's going to win now?" His teammates on the bench smile. Vasquez's team hasn't won a scrimmage in the past few days, and he's been unusually quiet. They knew it wouldn't last -- the losing or his silence.
A few moments later, Vasquez dribbles the ball once more at the top of the key. Tie game; next basket wins. He surges into the lane, gets off a shot in traffic and watches the ball fall through the net. "I told you!" Vasquez proclaims.
"He's always right there, taking responsibility," says Francisco Diez, the Venezuelan national team technical director. "He likes to take the last shot. I'm not comparing him to Michael Jordan, but Michael Jordan say many times, 'I'm responsible for the last shot.' That's what Greivis likes to do."
The appearance, the hyper-macho bravado, the no-look passes, the last-shot gumption, post-game jabbering -- all of it would have been familiar to Maryland basketball fans, who over the past three seasons have come to expect such outsized boisterousness from their team's most talented player. He once recorded a triple-double against North Carolina, who would go on to be national champions that season. He once spewed curse words at his own team's fans, some of whom had been booing him, as he dribbled the ball up the court during a game. Vasquez's skill is matched only by his ability to bewilder.
In Venezuela, Vasquez's athletic prowess makes him widely recognizable. He entered the NBA draft last summer after a junior season at Maryland in which he was recognized again by all-ACC honors and led the Terrapins to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Vasquez believed he possessed enough skill to be drafted in the first round, but NBA talent evaluators informed him otherwise, especially in a draft pool heavily saturated with point guards. He was told he needed to develop more consistency in his shot. Vasquez is tall for his position, which was viewed as a plus, but he was advised that he needs to be more agile to stay in front of smaller, quicker NBA point guards. He withdrew his name from the draft on the final day.
The first man ever to tell Vasquez he was good enough to one day play in the NBA raps his knuckles against the driver-side window of his Mazda6. Music would fuel the half-hour drive inland from La Guaira to Caracas, and from the passenger seat, Vasquez controls the dial. He inserts a reggaeton CD and turns to a song by Alexis y Fido. "This," he says, "is my anthem."
Bartender, give me a drink
'cause I want to dance and wreak some havoc...
Vasquez's shoulders rock back and forth, his head bobbing as he swings his arms in sync with the beat. The sun sets to his right as they pass barrios to his left. Vasquez turns up the volume and claps his hands.
"You know what's funny?" he says of the man to his left. "He hasn't been to one of my games."
"I don't go to college games," Robert Gonzalez responds with a smile. "I go to NBA games."
Vasquez calls Gonzalez his uncle, though they are not related by blood. When Vasquez was 13, he and a friend participated in Fundacion Yvan Olivares, a nonprofit youth sports organization that Gonzalez oversees. The friend brought Gonzalez over to watch Vasquez play ball one day, and Gonzalez was struck by Vasquez's talent and confidence.
When Gonzalez mentioned the NBA, Vasquez figured the guy was just trying to be nice. In time, Vasquez and Gonzalez grew closer, and their relationship eventually spurred a life-changing move. Gonzalez had a connection to Tommy Lloyd, a Division I assistant at Gonzaga University, and Lloyd had a connection to Montrose Christian, a high school in Rockville with a nationally renowned basketball program. Though the separation would be difficult at first, the choice was easy: Vasquez would move to the United States and hone his basketball skills under Montrose Christian Coach Stu Vetter. Upon Vasquez's arrival at age 16, Vetter told the emerging point guard the same thing Gonzalez had said three years earlier. That, Vasquez says, is when he knew he had a chance.
Gonzalez passes several signs posted on walls along the way that read Sí, before pulling up to an apartment building in a section of Caracas called El Coche. A car belonging to Vasquez's older brother is parked across the street, and the top of the sedan's front windshield is adorned with a transparent sign that reads "The Next NBA 21," a tribute to Vasquez's number and presumed future career stop.
When the elevator door opens on the seventh floor, Vasquez begins to gyrate as he waits to enter his mother's two-bedroom apartment. "Bartender ...," he sings. Ivis Rodriguez answers the door with a hug for her youngest son, though it's not long before she rolls her eyes and calls him by his nickname, Loco.
Vasquez and his older brother, Ingerman Sanoja, used to play basketball with two mini-hoops --one attached to the kitchen door frame, the other to the door that led to their room. Vasquez ran tirelessly down the hallway, dunking and hanging on the flimsy plastic rims at every opportunity. One day when Vasquez was 6, Sanoja, then 16, went to take a shower and left his brother to play by himself. With the water running, Sanoja didn't hear the rim relent under Vasquez's weight or the thud of his brother crashing to the floor. Pictures from the aftermath show Vasquez with a missing front tooth, but that changed nothing.
"All day he played," Rodriguez said. "Fanatico."
Rodriguez says she doesn't know the origin of her son's intense passion. His father once played semi-pro baseball, but his fervor did not approach Vasquez's in the slightest. When Vasquez was in the womb, he kicked so hard and so often that Rodriguez suffered a uterine infection.
"Where does it come from?" she says with a smile. "He's always had it."
Vasquez's basketball idol growing up calls his protege "a crazy guy." They used to play ball, Vasquez and Rommel Colina, on an outdoor court in Coche. Around 6 p.m., they would gather with the rest of the neighborhood players and pick teams, and even though Colina was eight years older, Vasquez often demanded they be on opposite sides. Colina was the standard by which Vasquez could mark his development.
Colina, 30, smiles as he recalls those days. Colina, the son of a widowed police officer, grew to be a 6-foot-5 point guard with silky moves who played two years at a junior college in Hillsboro, Tex., one year at Southwest Baptist University -- a Division II program in Bolivar, Mo. -- and one year at Division III McMurry University in Abilene, Tex. Colina then returned to play professionally in Venezuela for two seasons. On his college breaks, Colina would play Vasquez.
Envious of Colina's success, Vasquez mimicked Colina's style as best he could -- the fake moves, the creative passes, the clutch shooting, even the celebratory wiggle after making a big shot. But though he grew in Colina's mold, Vasquez rarely could defeat him on the court.
Evening would give way to darkness, and some of the local kids would headhome. Even as a 12-year-old, Vasquez would insist that Colina stay, and together with Vasquez's best friend, Luis Chiro, and Pablo Vasquez, one of Vasquez's cousins, the foursome would play two-on-two, Vasquez and Colina guarding each other the whole time.
"When we would win, he'd want to fight us," Colina said. "He'd want to fight me, and he'd want to fight his cousin. He'd start cussing. He almost cried on me every time he lost because he'd try to fight us. He's crazy."
From his home adjacent to the court, Nestor Salazar often could hear the late-night contests, just as he could hear Vasquez's unremitting dribbling up and down Avenue de La Rinconada Coche during the day. Salazar, who has coached in Venezuela's professional league since the 1980s and leads the country's national team, lives a few hundred yards from the apartment building where Vasquez grew up. When there was no one to play with, Vasquez dribbled in the street by himself.
"When a car would come by, Greivis would guard his ball like this," Salazar said as he hugged himself tightly. "Because that was his basketball, and if he dropped it and the car ran over it, he wouldn't have a basketball anymore. He was very protective of his basketball."
From the time he was 9 years old, Vasquez was recognized as the best player his city had to offer in his age group. By age 13, he was traveling with the national development program to a tournament in Chile. Crowds nearly always marveled at his skill and his flashy courtside manner. Salazar saw that adoration as a blessing.
"When you live in the barrios, every boy has to prove that he's a man," Salazar said. "Some boys do it through fighting or through having a gun. And then there are people who do it through sports. And Greivis proved his manliness through basketball."
Colina says he came close to becoming a malandro himself. He once carried a gun; he made some money selling drugs. But only on the court did he truly feel authoritative. So he tolerated Vasquez's tantrums, even as their games sometimes neared 3 a.m. and the winning had nearly lost its thrill. Colina saw in Vasquez a focus far superior to what he had possessed at the same age.
Vasquez was scared of the malandros, just as Colina had been, and he had friends who were killed selling drugs, just as Colina had had. Colina was also tempted by the lifestyle, just as Vasquez had been. But Vasquez resisted. He always had something else to occupy his time, such as the considerable task of defeating his mentor. Vasquez triumphed about once a month, and when he did, "he'd just pull his shorts down and start running with his ass out," Colina said. "It was crazy. He's crazy."
The tour of Caracas begins in a white Toyota Land Cruiser with a dream-catcher and a strawberry-scented air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. Vasquez is wearing designer shades, singing "Bartender," managing the stick shift with one hand, text-messaging with the other, all while winding down a two-lane hillside road.
Here, traffic lights merely provide suggestions, and the idea of being pulled over for speeding is laughable. During his first few months driving on the Capital Beltway after coming to the United States, Vasquez felt constricted.
"It was a big-time adjustment," Vas-quez says. "It was hard because I grew up seeing people speeding in cars and all that."
When Vasquez came to the University of Maryland, he was united with a coach who mirrored his personality. Gary Williams bore the same white-knuckled drive and immense passion that he saw in his new point guard. They would occasionally clash, as those types of personalities often do, but their devotion to each other strengthened exponentially as Vasquez's career unfolded.
Vasquez started 21 games as a freshman, including one at Duke University in which he fell one rebound shy of recording the school's first triple-double since 1987. He earned all-ACC second team honors his sophomore year, but the Terrapins did not receive a NCAA tournament bid. On the court, Vasquez tried to make up for Maryland's deficiencies -- often to the team's detriment. He tried to be all things to his team offensively and ended up displaying a lack of trust in his teammates. The Terrapins lost 15 games during their 2007-2008 campaign, and Vasquez's facial contortions and on-court gesticulations broadcast his frustration for all to see.
His coach could empathize. "I'm a demonstrative person on the sideline," Williams said last winter, "and Greivis kind of plays like that, and he receives some criticism for that. But you know, it's much easier to calm somebody down a little bit than to try to get him up all the time. Plus, on your team you need different people, different personalities. ... Greivis is the guy that kind of gets things stirred up."
Vasquez struggled as Maryland got off to a disappointing start in his junior season. His shooting percentage sank; his decision-making came into question; and during an early January home game against Georgia Tech in which the Terrapins trailed by 10 with less than 10 minutes to play, Vasquez tired of the jeers coming from his own school's student section. He unleashed one vulgar directive, then another and another after that, each one aimed at the fans. When the game ended, the fact that Maryland stormed back to win was almost overshadowed. What was with Greivis?
He issued a public apology soon after, but his slump endured, as did the criticism. At his campus apartment 12 days later, Vasquez explained that his relationship with the Maryland fans was fine, but then he issued a plea.
"They just got to be a little bit patient with me and just support me and give me time, 'cause I know I can do some good things for the team," he said. "It's just, you know, I just need support, that's all."
Vasquez veers onto an exit ramp in an area of Caracas called El Valle. Seated next to Vasquez in the Land Cruiser is his father. Gregorio Vasquez smiles as his son maneuvers through traffic, but he doesn't hesitate to provide instruction. It's always been that way, father guiding son in the proper direction.
When Greivis was a boy, Gregorio would take him to see the Caracas Cocodrilos, the city's professional basketball team. And when Greivis was old enough that the malandros started pursuing him, Gregorio let the professional games serve as a motivation to keep his son's focus on basketball. The son of a businessman who works for a real estate business knew how to get a point across. Do you want to do drugs and get killed, Greivis? Or do you want to live the good life?
Vasquez had seen the way neighbors, friends and family members held Gregorio's opinion in high esteem. He saw that people came to his father for answers, so he listened.
"Sometimes people misinterpret it," Vasquez says of the way he carries himself. "But the reason I do it and I play with so much passion is because I have a family that motivates me. I have a whole country that motivates me."
Near the back of a bus taking the Venezuelan national team from practice to the team hotel, Hector Romero, a 6-foot-7 forward who has played professionally in Europe for the past five years, tried to explain what it is like to carry one of his country's heaviest labels: next. When Romero was the leading scorer at the University of New Orleans for two seasons earlier this decade, he was considered an all-but-certain lock to be Venezuela's third NBA player. Then he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in his final collegiate game. The NBA passed him by, though he caught on with teams in Italy, Greece and Spain.
Romero is sure that one day Vasquez will make money playing basketball. The question is whether he'll fulfill a national prophecy or settle for a more prominent profile in Europe. Baseball ranks supreme in the Venezuelan sports hierarchy, but basketball is making a push for greater attention -- and, thus, greater funding. Another Venezuelan in the NBA would help the sport's appeal, not to mention what it would do for the well-being of Vasquez's family.
"As soon as he starts making money, all these people are going to jump on his back, and he's going to have to carry them and help them," Romero said. "It's personal, because he's got everything to lose."
Oscar Torres sits a few rows up. Though his short-lived NBA career ended six years ago, he continues to be a key performer on his country's national team. During his time with the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, Torres competed against his share of quick, athletic point guards. Vasquez's strength, Torres notes, is not his athleticism, so he says Vasquez must make up for that with precise passes and reliable three-point shooting. That, Torres says, will determine how long Vasquez's NBA quest lasts.
"He has a good chance," Torres said. "But it's not easy. It's not easy to play in the NBA because you are Latino and maybe you have 1,000 people in front of you. You have to work hard, very hard. ... Everybody wants to play in the NBA. In the NBA, you need everything perfect."
In Caracas, Sí is a pro-government word. Saying, voting or implying "yes" in any public forum hosted by the existing power structure means you are for the government. The government routinely buses in thousands of people to march in favor of its agenda. Participants are handed free lunches, 50 bolivares (about $300) and T-shirts with "Sí" on the front.
Since the 2006 election, however, some promises have been left unfulfilled. Chávez said appointed officials would quell growing corruption in the popular mission programs the government had implemented in 2003, but the manner in which state funds for the missions are distributed remains a mystery because the books are closed. According to Alejandro Velasco, assistant professor of Latin American studies at New York University, the appointed officials do not investigate the corruption aggressively for fear of exposing its existence at the highest levels of the administration.
"Much more broadly, I think the problem is that a culture of unaccountability has been created so that an entire party, a very large part of the state, functions in an unaccountable way, which then leads to corruption," Velasco said. "Not just in the missions, but in other sectors, too."
Chávez said his government would provide subsidized food to low-income families and pour money from the country's booming oil industry into health and education programs. But Francisco R. Rodríguez, assistant professor of economics and Latin American studies at Wesleyan University, wrote in Foreign Affairs in spring 2008 that there has been no significant improvement in health and human development beyond that which is normal in the midst of an oil boom. Chávez said he would redistribute land and wealth. In fact, income inequality remains vast.
If Vasquez reaches the NBA, that alone will do nothing to solve his country's problems, of course. But he, at least, sees a career in the pros in the context of Venezuela's struggles.
"I want to be the guy that by the end of my NBA career or whatever I do, to have a company, to have something that generates jobs," Vasquez said. "And I know that it's going to take a lot of work, but in the meantime, I have to do some right things with my image. I want to be somebody that everybody likes and everybody goes to and everybody remembers, because I'm a good guy that wants to help. I want to help."
With eight months remaining until next year's NBA draft, Venezuela's new best hope for basketball notoriety says it will be crucial for him to be more level-headed on the court this season and more mature in his comments off it. He understands the emotional investment that his country's basketball fans have placed in him. Many of the people in Vasquez's home city -- especially those who come from its poorest sectors -- want Sí to stand for something in which they all can believe. For now, they can believe in him.
Steve Yanda is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.