Temple finds the road to Argentina
With a pep talk from Pepe, Juan Fernandez made his way to North Philadelphia
Matt Langel was sitting on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy Airport when his phone dinged. Not even off the ground for what would be a grueling 14-hour trip from New York through Chile to Argentina, the Temple assistant coach cringed when he read the message.
Seemed Juan Fernandez, the talented point guard Langel was on his way to see, wasn't at home in Rio Tercero. He was in another town with his national team.
When he finally landed in Argentina, Langel went to the taxi stand. Fairly fluent in Spanish, he explained that he needed a ride to the new locale.
"The guy was staring at me like I had three heads," Langel said. "The place I needed to go was between nine and 10 hours away."
With no flights until the next morning, Langel made do with the only remaining option.
"It was Hertz rental all the way," he said. "Me in a compact with a stick shift driving along this bumpy two-lane road in Argentina for almost 10 hours."
There is only one man who could make Langel go on such an extraordinary wild-goose chase (well, two, if you count his boss, head coach Fran Dunphy).
In North Philadelphia, the name Pepe Sanchez still carries significant weight with fans who remember when the Argentinean point guard led John Chaney's sixth-seeded Owls to the 1999 Elite Eight.
In the coaching offices, the name Pepe Sanchez still carries equally significant weight with Langel, who remembers his playing days at Penn, when he went head-to-head with Sanchez in the rivalry-infused Big 5 games.
When the well-respected Sanchez contacted the Temple basketball staff and suggested that there was another player in his home country worth checking out, Langel took a look at the tapes and then hopped a flight.
And so it was: Eight years later, another Argentinean-born point guard donned No. 4 for the Owls.
But as much as Langel's dedication convinced Fernandez and his family that Temple really wanted him, it was Sanchez who ultimately swayed Fernandez to pack his bags for the North Broad Street campus.
"I really wasn't sure what I was going to do. Actually I was more thinking about going to play in Europe," Fernandez said. "And then I got an e-mail from Pepe."
Part of the 2004 Argentina Olympic team that stunned the world by winning the gold medal, Sanchez is as revered as any non-soccer player in that futbol-mad country.
Fernandez, whose father, Gustavo, played professionally in Argentina for 15 years, grew up idolizing the 2004 squad, much as kids in the U.S. adored the 1992 Dream Team.
So Fernandez always knew basketball would be in his future, but unlike many South American players, he was considering the unorthodox route of a four-year detour at an American college.
His friends told him he was crazy. Fernandez easily could have cashed a six-figure check as a teenager with any of the countless European teams that would have been glad to have him. But his mother had attended school in the United States, and she and Gustavo saw a value in a college degree.
Fernandez, too, liked the United States. He'd been to America often as his family sought medical help for his younger brother, Gustavo. As a toddler, Gustavo fell from a chair -- no more than a few feet -- but the tumble rendered him wheelchair-bound for life. So the family -- including big brother Juan -- made frequent trips to Miami for doctor visits. Now that Gustavo is 15 and the No. 3 18-and-under wheelchair tennis player in the world, the family is no stranger to international travel.
Still waffling between the lucrative professional track and the college route, though, Fernandez used the basketball channels his father knew well and reached out to Sanchez for advice.
"I'm not the kind of guy who preaches about what people should do," Sanchez said. "But when kids like Juan ask me, I tell them my two greatest experiences in basketball was playing for my college team and my national team -- the two times that money wasn't involved. It was about the chance to represent your school and your country. More than that, it just opened my mind to so much.
"When I spoke with Juan, it just struck me he was the same and that college was the right situation to him. I told him regardless of what happens in basketball -- whether he plays in the NBA, in Europe, whatever -- going to college would make the biggest difference in his life."
Sanchez's response struck such a chord with Fernandez that the e-mail remains in his "saved" folder.
Langel would make two more visits to Argentina -- both a lot less complicated than the first -- and eventually signed Fernandez to a letter of intent.
"I don't think a lot of people would be comfortable doing this," Fernandez said. "The basketball is the easy part. It's everything else -- the classes, the culture, learning the language. There's a lot to learn besides basketball. It's not easy, but, I don't know, for me, I liked the idea. I also didn't think I was ready to go live by myself somewhere in Europe."
Fernandez arrived at Temple in December and was in the U.S. exactly three days before he played in his first game. Preceded by a reputation that billed him as "Pepe Sanchez with a jump shot," he tried to ignore the comparisons -- but it wasn't easy.
"I'm an Argentinean point guard at Temple, and I chose No. 4," he said. "It was for my dad, not Pepe, but no one here knew that. So it was sort of my own fault."
The adjustment took time.
Fernandez's no-look passes dazzled fans but frequently caught his teammates off guard. He learned quickly that his offensive flair didn't excuse a defensive lapse in the eyes of his head coach. Even the technical aspects of the game -- a 30-second shot clock versus 24, a ball bigger than the one used in the international game -- took some getting used to.
Off the court, he realized speaking English and understanding it were two different things. His classmates would spend an hour writing a paper that would take him three to finish, and even now, he admits, "I speak in English, but I think in Spanish."
Slowly, it came together for Fernandez. By season's end, he had appeared in 23 games, averaged 5.5 points and 2.7 assists, and adjusted well enough in the classroom to earn a 3.0 GPA.
"Now this is home," Fernandez said.
He was sitting in the conference room of the coaches' offices as he spoke, his hair an intentional mess and earphones dangling around his neck. He was carrying a backpack with a tennis racket jammed inside for a gym class, with a pair of gym shorts, a sweatshirt and a T-shirt qualifying as school clothes. It was the very epitome of an American college student.
Content and at ease, Fernandez knows he has one person to thank. He still speaks or exchanges e-mails frequently with Sanchez. The two even had a chance to visit this summer while Fernandez was home playing for the under-19 national team.
In Fernandez's mind, there is only one loose end to tie it all together, to make Langel's hellacious trip and Fernandez's life-altering choice complete.
"I want him to come and see one of my games here before I graduate," Fernandez said.
Message sent and received.
"I know," Sanchez said, laughing. "I really want to get there. I haven't been back to Temple in a while. I'm going to try and get there at the start of this season."
He can always ask Langel for directions.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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