Inside the unique bond between Puerto Rico and native son J.J. Barea


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — It’s a festive, fiery atmosphere at Roberto Clemente Coliseum, with fans filling the seats well before tipoff on this early July night, dancing and cheering and chanting in anticipation of the biggest basketball game on Puerto Rican soil in years.

“Us and Mexico, we don’t like each other,” Puerto Rico star Jose Juan Barea (as he’s called at home instead of by the initials known by NBA fans) said a few nights earlier after a surprisingly competitive 84-80 win over Cuba in what was expected to be a warm-up of sorts for this matchup with archrival Mexico.

Barea keeps the crowd in a frenzy by feeding big man Jorge Bryan Diaz for an assist off a pick-and-roll on the opening possession, then driving for a baseline floater the next trip down the court. Every Puerto Rican bucket is cause for celebration.

A few minutes later the crowd falls into a hush. Barea had just crashed into a video board located on the baseline after driving and delivering a leaping dime to Javier Mojica for an open 3-pointer.

The fans, perhaps many of whom lined the San Juan streets for a parade that backed up traffic for miles when Barea returned home after helping the Dallas Mavericks win the 2011 NBA championship, are suddenly scared into silence as their hero writhes in pain on the hardwood, holding his right side.

A bruised hip can keep him on the bench for only 80 seconds. This game — part of a FIBA World Cup qualifying window and a progress report of sorts for the island’s comeback story — means way too much to Barea, who has never played a game of this magnitude for the national team in front of his home crowd.

Inside an arena that last September served as a shelter for people displaced in Hurricane Maria’s devastating wake, Barea’s adrenaline overrides any pain as he makes his way back to the court.

FIVE DAYS AFTER the storm hit, Barea finally managed to get in touch with his parents. He found a family friend with a working phone in the Mayaguez neighborhood where he grew up and where Jaime and Marta Barea still live. They ran to the house when the neighbor told them their youngest son was on the phone.

“I was thinking that I’m going to tell him, ‘J.J., we need to do something,'” Jaime Barea says.

As soon as Jaime picked up the phone, his son said that Mavs owner Mark Cuban had agreed to let him use the team plane to fly down to Puerto Rico, loaded with food, water and supplies. Barea told his father that he’d make the trip the next day — missing the first practice of training camp — and rattled off a list of items his group would deliver.

“What do you need?” asked Barea, who raised six figures in an online fundraiser he launched the day the Category 4 hurricane struck Puerto Rico and received additional donations from various corporations, several in Dallas’ Latino community and many in the Mavericks organization.

“He is always thinking about his country, about his people, the needs that we have here in Puerto Rico,” says Luis Molinary, the national team doctor and a neighbor of one of Barea’s uncles. “When we saw Jose Juan coming in that plane with all that stuff for the people that needed it the most, wow. I felt like, that’s Jose Juan.

“That’s the big heart that he has for us.”

Barea had lived through Hurricane Georges in 1998, when his family went without electricity for a month, and saw the carnage that storm caused. He knew from following the news that Maria was much worse, with extensive damage throughout the island and an official death toll that would grow to 2,975.

He felt, regardless of the federal government’s role, that it was his duty as a high-profile professional athlete to help struggling Puerto Ricans as much as possible.

“We have an example: Roberto Clemente,” Barea says, referring to the Puerto Rican baseball legend and humanitarian who died at 38 years old in a Dec. 31, 1972 plane crash while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, a couple of months before the coliseum named after him opened.

“That’s our example; we’ve got to follow it. Starting with me and the baseball players, if everybody does their job to help … And I think we did a good job, we did a good job of helping. The basketball players, the baseball players, the artists, the singers, whatever — we’ve got to help.”

Many Puerto Ricans who play in the major leagues helped provide aid to their homeland after the hurricane, perhaps most notably Houston Astros star shortstop Carlos Correa, who sent a plane loaded with supplies.

For Barea’s part in helping Puerto Rico, he earned the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award and the Hall of Fame’s Mannie Jackson Award recognizing human spirit. They were essentially family honors.

Barea traveled to Puerto Rico once in the wake of the hurricane last fall, but the Mavericks’ team plane made the trip five times, delivering more than 100,000 pounds of food, water and supplies in all. Barea’s wife Viviana Ortiz, a former Miss Puerto Rico who is now a stay-at-home mom to their 2-year-old daughter Paulina, ran point on the other four trips, focusing full time on the relief efforts while Jose Juan prepared for the season, pitching in by fundraising and helping load the plane.

Ortiz organized the missions with the assistance of their parents and other relatives in Puerto Rico, who served as liaisons to local government officials. The first trip brought the basics: food, water and power generators. The efficiency improved as their relief efforts continued, as selected cities provided orders to fill, including specifics such as medicine prescriptions.

“We had it all set up,” says Barea, whose 11th-story beachfront condominium in San Juan had doors blown off and sand and water blown in but no major damage. “When [the plane] got to Puerto Rico, different cities came with different trucks. We filled every truck to different cities. We went to different communities that needed a lot of help.”

Most of Puerto Rico went months without electricity after Maria, and many streetlights still don’t work a year later. The dark streets and unrepaired roads are daily reminders of the storm in San Juan, and some luxury beachfront hotels still haven’t reopened due to damage from sand or water, but Puerto Rico’s capital city is in relatively good shape.

That’s not the case for many of the inland towns, where blue-tarp roofs are a common sight.

“There’s still a ways to go. You see it every day,” says Fernando Sepulveda, a doctor who has been a friend of Barea’s since childhood.

“I still have patients who don’t have a roof over their heads. It’s just a tarp. San Juan is sort of a bubble, I’d say.

“When you get more into the island, the rural aspect of the island, there’s still a way to go. It’s not so much an issue of having water or food at this point, but having a roof over your head.”

“When we saw Jose Juan coming in that plane with all that stuff for the people that needed it the most, wow. I felt like, that’s Jose Juan.”

Luis Molinary, Puerto Rican national team doctor

Construction costs have soared in Puerto Rico due to demand and, in some cases, the difficulty of getting supplies to the sites. The poverty level hovers around 50 percent throughout much of the island, especially further inland. For example, Ortiz’s hometown of Corozal has a median household income of $16,219 with 52.9 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to government statistics.

Barea wants to help Puerto Ricans in those situations, dedicating much of the funds raised by his foundation to put roofs over the heads of families whose homes were damaged, including all of the proceeds from his annual golf tournament.

“Now it’s about rebuilding,” Barea says. “In the middle [of the island] are the worst. To get there, the roads are awful. The houses are not that great. The electricity is awful. Even now, any little rain, they lose electricity. And not everybody got it back. I’m guessing there’s got to be like 20 percent that are still without electricity, for sure.

“The people are amazing. But it’s still really bad. They ain’t got nothing.”

FANS GO WILD when teammate David Huertas hits a 3-pointer while falling into the courtside seats, one of four triples the former Ole Miss star made in the first quarter, this one putting Puerto Rico up nine and causing Mexico to call a timeout.

Barea marches to the middle of the court, waving and screaming at the crowd to keep up the energy. Puerto Rico coach Eddie Casiano sprints from the bench across the court and hollers at the crowd, animatedly pointing at the floor as if to say, “This is our house!”

“The passion that we show when we play, it’s natural,” Barea says. “We’re born like that. Especially when we put that jersey on, it just takes over.”

The intensity ratchets up a couple of more notches in the second quarter when Mexico star center Gustavo Ayon and Puerto Rico big man Ricky Sanchez mix it up. Ayon, a muscular, 6-foot-10 former NBA journeyman who is now a cornerstone for Spanish power Real Madrid, gets mad when a Sanchez elbow pops him in the mouth while they fight for rebounding position. They bark at each other, and Ayon attempts to get even on the next possession, intentionally sliding his foot under Sanchez as the Puerto Rico center shoots a corner 3, a blatantly dirty tactic.

Sanchez swished the shot and exchanged a few choice words with Ayon, much to the delight of the crowd. Technical fouls were called on both players.

“Ricky! Ricky! Ricky!” the crowd chants as Sanchez slowly walks to the free throw line and Barea stands in front of the bench, motioning with his arms for the fans to keep it coming. The rivals keep their emotions in check the rest of the game, a back-and-forth affair. Mexico leads by one when Barea checks back in with seven minutes remaining.

Puerto Rico takes the lead seconds later when Gian Clavell, a shooting guard who was briefly Barea’s Mavs teammate while on a two-way deal last fall, hits a 3 and then another off a Barea assist the next possession.

Wearing a pair of LeBron 15s painted as Puerto Rican flags, Clavell scores all 17 of his points in the second half, celebrating so much after one 3 that Barea had to remind him to run back on defense. Clavell hopes for another crack at the NBA, but he’s reporting late to the Golden State Warriors‘ Summer League team so he can play in this game.

“I couldn’t miss this.”

“I’VE DONE THIS drive like 500 times,” Barea says as he cruises the sometimes scenic 2½-hour ride from San Juan to Mayaguez in his Maserati SUV, reminiscing about all the times his hand-me-down Volkswagen Jetta made the journey after practices with the junior national teams.

These days, Barea gets to his hometown on the west coast of the island only a few times a year, but one of his first stops is usually the neighborhood of Barrio Paris. He pulls up at an outdoor basketball court with a metal roof and bleachers, where he learned the game, to meet his dad and Tommy Zapata, who coached Barea beginning when he was a 3-year-old who could dribble the ball with either hand. He still donates uniforms and equipment for the youth leagues run by Zapata.

The kids hooping on the court play it cool when Barea shows up on a summer afternoon, waiting until their pickup game ends and his conversation pauses before asking to take selfies with the local legend. Barea usually gets swarmed for pictures during public appearances in Puerto Rico.

Barrio Paris is a poorer part of Mayaguez, filled with housing projects, where Barea’s father used to drive daily to pick up his sons’ teammates. Barea, whose father is an engineer and mother is a retired professor and volleyball and tennis coach, grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood a few miles away.

“On the court, he’s a lion. But outside, he’s a little cat.”

Jaime Barea

When he walks into his childhood home, Barea points to a section of the wall that showcases the advanced degrees of his brothers (Jaime, a doctor; and Jason, an engineer) above his high school diploma, a subtle reminder from his parents that he’s about 12 credits shy of getting his college degree from Northeastern.

“I’m the disappointment,” Barea jokes.

There is, of course, no truth in that jest. The walls in his parents’ office are lined with photos of him — Barea’s favorite is of him slicing between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for a layup during the 2011 NBA Finals — and his awards. His father Jaime has a stack of the biography Puerto Rican sportswriter Chu Garcia penned about Jose Juan, titled: “BAREA: PEQUENO PERO GRANDE” (small but big) — and proudly hands one to a visitor.

For all of his professional success, Barea’s parents beam most about how their youngest son has maintained his gentle, giving nature as the spotlight on him has intensified.

“On the court, he’s a lion,” his father says. “But outside, he’s a little cat.”

Barea is a bigger deal in Puerto Rico than he ever imagined while growing up, when his goal was to play for the national team. He started dreaming bigger in his late teens, when he matched up against NBA prospects in international competition, and carved out the longest NBA career of any Puerto Rican-born player (12 seasons and counting, coming off his best statistical year) despite going undrafted.

Basketball is nearing baseball in popularity in Puerto Rico. However, Barea has been the lone active NBA player from the island for much of his career, while the island produces Major League Baseball players by the bunches, adding to the adoration of him in his homeland.

Barea’s celebrity really exploded in 2011 for two reasons: He played an important role in the Mavericks’ surprising championship run, joining little-used 1980 Los Angeles Lakers guard Butch Lee as the only Puerto Rican natives to win NBA titles, and his romance with Zuleyka Rivera, a former Miss Universe who is a famous Puerto Rican actress and model, became public knowledge.

Because of Rivera, a favorite of the Puerto Rican tabloids, Barea became a crossover celebrity of sorts at home. He did not enjoy that aspect of fame, particularly as his breakup with Rivera, the mother of his 6-year-old son Sebastian, became tabloid fodder, as did his dating life afterward.

“It’s a little bit difficult to get used to that, because we’re low-key people and family,” says Jaime Barea, who shooed paparazzi away on the day that his son married Ortiz.

“But it comes with the territory. … He has learned to live with it better than us. I’m not that used to that publicity or fame, but he has taken it very well because he has a humble personality.”

Barea picks his spots carefully to go out in public in San Juan, frequenting restaurants where management can accommodate him to allow some privacy. He has become efficient at a step-smile, step-smile routine to keep it moving while posing for selfies as he walks in public.

“In Mayaguez, he can walk here,” Marta Barea says. “Maybe people will come here the first day that he’s around, but after that, everybody knows that he’s like family. In San Juan, it’s a different atmosphere. It’s really hard. It has been a challenge for us, because we never thought Jose was going to be this great celebrity.”

Barea makes a point to use his celebrity to benefit Puerto Rico’s basketball culture, particularly at the grassroots level. Before the hurricane, his foundation focused on refurbishing basketball courts like the one he grew up playing on in Barrio Paris, especially in poor areas. He holds several basketball clinics each summer throughout the island.

“That’s where it all started for me,” says Barea, who has also played and coached in Puerto Rico’s summer pro league. “That’s my passion. My best times in life was playing basketball, learning how to play basketball and competing in basketball all over Puerto Rico, from high school to when I was 8 years old playing against different cities in Puerto Rico. I’ve been in every level.

“Everything in Puerto Rico got me ready to go to the States and be able to go to college and then to make it to the NBA. It feels like I’ve got to give back to the kids.”

Barea’s basketball camps, which are always free, aren’t just about teaching skills. They’re a means of providing joy and hope throughout Puerto Rico.

“For a lot of people, it’s been a struggle. They’re working to get back to normal. Nights like this, for the [people] that couldn’t go to the game and watched it on TV and for everybody that was there, it was special.”

J.J. Barea, on defeating Mexico in front of his home fans

With the help of many volunteers, and coordinated by confidante Jose “Chino” Torres, a scout and assistant coach for Puerto Rico, Barea throws a party for the entire community around his basketball camps. They serve food, put up bouncy houses for the younger children and bring in doctors to give care to those who can’t afford it.

“He loves Puerto Rico. He shows it,” says Sanchez, the center for the national team who has played with Barea since they were teens. “He’s with the people. He makes himself available to the people.

“The people know that Jose Juan is part of Puerto Rico. He feels it. He feels it in his heart, and it shows in his play.”

WITH THE CROWD doing its best to will Puerto Rico to the win against Mexico, Barea once again serves as the closer, as he did against Cuba, when he snapped out of a shooting funk in sweltering conditions (the arena’s old air conditioning unit struggles when the place gets packed) to score eight of his 15 points in the final 2 minutes, 38 seconds.

“Yo soy boricua! Yo soy boricua! Yo soy boricua!” the crowd chants in a sing-songy cadence — some media members on media row even joining in — as Barea goes to the line after an and-1 drive to put Puerto Rico up four with 4:54 remaining. Rough translation: I am Puerto Rican!

On the next three Puerto Rico possessions, Barea feeds to Ramon Clemente, a power forward from New York who barely speaks any Spanish, for two dunks and a layup off pick-and-rolls. Barea has struggled with his shot again (1-of-6 on 3s, 3-of-7 from the line) despite a two-hour solo shooting workout the day after the Cuba win, but he dominates this game with his playmaking, dishing out 11 assists.

There is a little drama left, happening when Huertas sprinted up the sideline and away from the referee after a questionable foul call with 1:32 remaining. The crowd gets so rowdy, yelling and stomping their feet, that the stands shake as Mexico misses all three free throws.

A Barea drive and lefty finish to beat the shot-clock buzzer with 35 seconds remaining provides the dagger. He grabs the final defensive rebound to seal Puerto Rico’s 84-79 win, starting the postgame celebration by spiking the ball on the court.

“Ceeeeer-veza! Ceeeeer-veza!” Barea and Torres playfully chant in the locker room, wanting to crack open some beers to toast the win. A cooler full of 10-ounce Coors Lights arrives soon.

Carmen Yulin Cruz, the San Juan mayor who rose to prominence for publicly pleading for assistance and criticizing the emergency response from President Donald Trump’s administration after Hurricane Maria, stops by to congratulate the team, going locker to locker to express her appreciation.

Each player is also handed an envelope stuffed with $500 in cash, further proof of this game’s importance to Puerto Rico. It’s the first time Barea, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money traveling with his family and buying team dinners while competing around the world with the national team, has ever been paid for playing for Puerto Rico. He donates the money to his foundation, as he does with all of his endorsement and appearance fees from his homeland.

This night is so sweet because it’s much bigger than basketball.

“It’s special, man,” Barea says. “There’s no words to describe that feeling — the game against Mexico, the atmosphere, the people.

“This is going to be a process to recover from the hurricane. For a lot of people, it’s been a struggle. They’re working to get back to normal. Nights like this, for the [people] that couldn’t go to the game and watched it on TV and for everybody that was there, it was special.

“Especially when Puerto Rico wins, everybody wins. Everybody’s happy, and it gives energy to the whole island.”

THE PUERTO RICO national basketball team’s unofficial victory party has been going for a couple of hours in the roped-off corner section of Eco Sports Park’s busy rooftop bar, overlooking pickup soccer games played well past midnight on fields that were flooded last fall.

Barea savors the feeling of one of the best nights of his life as he sips rum and Coke, enjoying a beautiful 78-degree night at the complex, which also features basketball and sand volleyball courts and is located just a strong-armed long toss from Roberto Clemente Coliseum.

Barea hasn’t felt this kind of emotion after a game since wrapping a Puerto Rican flag around his shoulders when the Mavericks claimed the Larry O’Brien Trophy after clinching the 2011 NBA title.

“Oh man, it’s up there,” Barea says with a smile that hasn’t left his face since the final buzzer sounded. “Game 6 in Miami is special, but playing here in San Juan in front of my people with a crowd like that, it don’t happen much.”

Puerto Rico’s plight is never far from Barea’s mind. He and his wife continue to commit much of their free time to aiding the recovery from the storm.

But this is a night of celebration, one that Barea has been hoping for his whole life. The party kicks into another gear when the karaoke machine gets cranked up in the section where he’s hanging with several teammates, their significant others and friends.

“My wife can really sing, yo,” Barea tells a visitor.

Sure enough, a couple of songs later, Barea’s better half grabs the microphone and delivers a concert-quality performance, the kind of karaoke show one might expect from a former Miss Puerto Rico whose sister is an opera singer.

Ortiz, sporting a sleeveless version of the white Puerto Rico basketball T-shirt her husband is wearing, requests “Preciosa” for her first turn. She nails every note of the verses adapted by Marc Anthony to the celebrated song by Rafael Hernandez about Puerto Rico’s beauty, closing her eyes and extending her left hand toward the sky as she passionately belts out the chorus.

Yo te quiero,
Puerto Rico
Yo te quiero,
Puerto Ricoooooooo

“I love you, Puerto Rico,” a verse that perfectly captures the vibe of the night, as well as the relationship between Barea, his family and their recovering, resilient homeland.

Source : ESPN