Hispanic interest in college hoops grows
Growing up in Miami, Frank Martin knew of only two sports: baseball and football.
This was the 1970s, and for a melting pot of Latin American immigrants like South Florida, there was little to broaden that perspective. The Orlando Magic and Miami Heat were nearly two decades away from existence, the University of Miami was in the midst of its 15-year period without basketball; Florida International didn't sport a team. Only Division II Biscayne College offered any sort of high-level basketball outlet.
Martin, whose family had immigrated to the United States from Cuba, was going to be a baseball player. That was his father's plan; that was the plan of most fathers.
"You go to the parks, and there might be 30 people playing basketball," Martin remembers. "You go watch pee-wee football, there were 3,000. Little league baseball? Even more. People knew baseball, so that's what was pushed on me."
Today Martin is the head basketball coach at Kansas State. Bucking his father's wishes and the trend of most Latin American kids, he discovered hoops in high school and hung on for the ride.
But as his Wildcats ready for the season, the trend clearly has shifted. Right there in America's heartland, Martin's best player is Denis Clemente, a Puerto Rican whose second cousin is the late baseball legend Roberto Clemente. Starting center Luis Colon is also a native of Puerto Rico.
Buoyed by the globalization of the game, basketball is gaining a strong foothold in countries where football and soccer traditionally have ruled. From South America to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and even Cuba, the roundball is gaining ground, and college rosters are reaping the benefits.
Greivis Vasquez will lead the charge at Maryland while Gregory Echenique is ready to lead at Rutgers. Both are Venezuelan by birth. On the West Coast, Jorge Gutierrez is expected to play a significant role for Mike Montgomery at Cal. Gutierrez was born in Chihuahua, Mexico.
That's just to name a few.
"The sport has picked up tremendously across South America, Latin America, all over," said Marcos "Shakey" Rodriguez, Martin's mentor and the legendary Miami-area high school coach. "I'd say it's probably the second-biggest sport worldwide after soccer."
In Argentina, where Diego Maradona remains revered, the 2004 Olympic basketball team is a not-so-distant second mind of the country.
The surprise gold-medal winners not only stunned the world, but they also rallied the youth of their country into a frenzy for basketball.
"I wish I could do a research study, because in 15, 20 years you're going to see a new generation of basketball players from this country," said Pepe Sanchez, a former All-American at Temple and a point guard on that Olympic squad. "This is going to be a nation rich with basketball talent from the kids who watched that team."
The sport has picked up tremendously across South America, Latin America, all over. I'd say it's probably the second-biggest sport worldwide after soccer."” -- Coach Marcos Rodriguez
Argentina isn't alone. Other countries are seeing a boon in the game, emboldened by improving professional leagues and rising national teams.
The international power base for basketball remains in Europe, but leagues and teams are growing all over. Professional teams have now found homes everywhere from the Dominican to Turks and Caicos to Chile and the Cayman Islands.
But the change is most evident at the national level, where players are returning to play for their native countries. Tavernari played for Brazil this summer, Fernandez for Argentina, Echenique for Venezuela, and Rutgers teammate Mike Rosario for Puerto Rico.
Strengthened by more talent, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Argentina are among the 14 teams to have already qualified for the 2010 World Championships.
"With the growth of the game, you see more and more kids geared up to play basketball," Martin said. "That wasn't the case before. They want to play on a professional team, so the professional teams are getting better and better in places where they weren't so good anymore.
"And they all are very prideful. They're proud of their family's heritage just like I am, and they not only want to play for their national team, it's very important that they do well."
Talented players have thrived in Latin American and South American countries for decades. But for years, those players were hidden gems, discovered often by chance.
Rodriguez remembers a sweltering July a dozen years ago. While the rest of his coaching brethren watched the big tournaments in Las Vegas, he sat in the bleachers in Puerto Rico. Then the head coach at Florida International, he discovered and signed Carlos Arroyo for one simple reason: He was the only one who saw him.
"I kept waiting for everybody else to come along," Rodriguez said. "I knew he was a stud, and I knew as soon as someone like North Carolina saw him, I was out. Eventually they did see him, but they were too late. I was there first because nobody else would even think to recruit in Puerto Rico."
That's changed. Success breeds interest, and with so many players finding opportunity at American colleges, there is now mutual interest from coaches and players. Rodriguez said that in the 1980s, rare was the college coach who found his way to Miami to recruit a basketball player.
Now the city is crawling with coaches.
Even more, U.S. high schools are now stuffed with Latin American players. Puerto Ricans certainly have an advantage. The reciprocal relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico negates the need for passports and visas to come to the States to play.
But athletes from all over are finding their way to U.S. high schools and ultimately on to American college rosters.
"People identify top kids in high school and then find places for them," Rodriguez said. "A coach will call and say, 'I've got an eighth-grader who is going to be pretty good. Can you take him? They're filtering these kids in."
With districting and residence issues, the public schools are at a clear disadvantage. Consequently, it's not surprising that many foreign-born players are ending up on private-school rosters.
Vasquez came from Venezuela to Maryland by way of Montrose Christian in suburban Baltimore. Tavernari and Gutierrez both played high school ball in Nevada, at Bishop Gorman and Findlay Prep, respectively. Echenique's transition to Rutgers was made easy thanks to his stopover at St. Benedict's in New Jersey.
"Would we have gone to Venezuela and found him? Probably not," Rutgers head coach Fred Hill said. "That doesn't mean we'd never go there. If there's a good player in Idaho or Venezuela, we'll go. But we predominantly recruit the Eastern seaboard.
"If anyone has a connection there, that's how we hear about them. Gregory was at St. Benedict's, so that was easy. Now if someone that we trusted called us and told us about him and he was still in Venezuela, would we have gone? Probably."
Temple did things a little differently. They heard about Fernandez through Sanchez and waited until he finished high school in Argentina.
But those two now have started a mini-pipeline to North Philly.
"It's a little easier now because we have a lot of contacts and because people know that players have come to Temple and had success," assistant coach Matt Langel said. "Now that we have it sort of going, we're going to keep looking there for players.
Rodriguez, for one, thinks this is just the beginning of a wave of new players to greet U.S. college rosters.
The developmental leagues and youth-level programs are nowhere near on par with those in the United States, but as the sport and interest grows, those are coming along as well. With better coaching and an earlier introduction to the sport, it's fair to say the well has just been tapped.
"Whatever you see now, multiply it many times over in the future," Rodriguez said. "The coaching is getting better; the players are getting better. Basketball is becoming an obsession. You'll see."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.