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Correction to This Article
This article gave an incorrect dollar amount for 50 bolivares, a sum worth about $8.

Court drama

After deferring his dream to play in the NBA, Greivis Vasquez is returning to Maryland for his senior year. But in Venezuela, they're more interested in what comes after that.

Maryland basketball's Greivis Vasquez is a star in College Park -- and a bright hope back home in Caracas, Venezuela.
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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.

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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.

***


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