As much love as Carlos Arroyo has gotten as a reliable NBA player in the States over the past decade or so (along with some time spent abroad, in Spain and Israel), it doesn’t compare to the appreciation that he’s received in his home country of Puerto Rico. Back in SLAM 84, Ben Osborne told the 6-2 point guard’s complete story. Happy born day, Carlos! —Ed.
words Ben Osborne / portraits Pier Nicola D’Amico
Ever so slowly, Carlos Arroyo puts on his watch, grabs his belongings, and prepares to leave the Utah Jazz practice facility. On an off day after back-to-back preseason games, Arroyo has been here more than six hours. And he’s still not in a hurry to get out. Why? Because Carlos Arroyo loves this. He loves dribbling and working out with the trainer, he loves the practice facility even when it’s cold and quiet like today. He loves joking with his teammates and assistant coaches as they trickle in and out, loves filming ads and doing interviews. He can’t get enough of this life, which, sadly, is rare among cats in the League. Rare still is the fact that Arroyo will speak with such candor about this very fact.
“I appreciate it all because I know I had to earn it,” says Arroyo, the 25-year-old Jazz point guard of the present and future, ably armed with a four-year contract and a starting job; and as an undrafted baller who grew up on the underrated basketball island of Puerto Rico and attended unheralded Florida International University, it’s accurate to say he wasn’t handed anything. “These dudes that got drafted and now get left behind by their teams and don’t play no more probably relaxed. They say, ‘I’ve got everything.’ But I know how hard I had to work just to be here, so I know that to stay here, I have to work harder. This is a League that is in and out. Not a lot of people understand that. That’s why, when the light hits, they’ll be like, ‘Shit, I’m out of the League already?’ You had your chance, buddy. It is a privilege, not a right, to be here.”
Looking deeper, Carlos acknowledges that not even an unusual upbringing by NBA standards is enough to explain his intense hunger for success, particularly in a League and on a team where more and more guys come from new places, where the template of a rough childhood in an urban center no longer always fits. He may come from a different culture, but he wasn’t poor (Mom was a teacher, Dad was a lawyer), and he was exposed to American culture and the huge place basketball has in it. “I used to watch games on TV all the time growing up,” he says. “Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan.” Really, Carlos can’t explain where the intensity and passion come from—he just knows they’re there. “It’s like I’m weird or something,” he says, “but I just can’t stop wanting to be here and wanting to get better.”
Nonetheless, there are some clues into what has fueled the 6-2, 202-pound Arroyo’s run from complete unknown to potential All-Star. He grew up in Fajardo, PR, a small, middle-class city about 30 miles from the capital of San Juan on the northeast coast. It used to be known as the home of the Cariduros (“like hardheads,” according to Carlos, who speaks perfect Spanish and near-perfect English) de Fajardo, a team in the Puerto Rican professional basketball league (BSN). Conveniently for Carlos, his father was a part owner of the team. “I was bringing guys water and watching them play since I was 6 years old,” recalls Carlos.
A star in PR’s three most popular team sports (baseball, basketball and volleyball), Carlos dropped baseball and then volleyball as he grew into his teens. He’d seen the pro ballers in Puerto Rico up close, and American college and pro stars from a distance, and he decided the latter was more his speed. “I felt that to get to the NBA, I needed to be seen in the States, so I wanted to play high school ball here. And there was this coach that my dad brought to coach his team who had been a college coach in Georgia,” Arroyo remembers. “He became a close friend of my dad’s, and he knew a high school coach in Thomasville, GA. So after, how do you call it, 9th and 10th grade, I moved in with the high school coach and they took me in like family. It was a great experience.”
As a junior at Brookwood High in Thomasville, Arroyo scored nearly 30 points per and started to get what he’d come for—college letters. “Florida, Tennessee, St. John’s,” he lists, “but I didn’t really hear from Florida State, which is where I wanted to go because Thomasville was close to Tallahassee, and they took me a couple times to see the Seminoles play.”
The best-laid plans hit a bump, however, when Carlos was told he needed to take a summer English class at Brookwood if he wanted to return for his senior year. At the same time, Pops was ready to have Carlos suit up for the Cariduros in the BSN, a summertime league that used to allow amateurs to play alongside pros. “So I decided to go back home and play,” he says. “My dad didn’t own the Fajardo team anymore, but that was still my hometown team. I was 16 years old playing against 30-year-old men. My very last game that first season was against [Carmelo] Travieso—you remember him from UMass? That game, I had like 36 points on Travieso and finished the game with a halfcourt shot. And his team had needed to win to get in the playoffs. We were already out of the playoffs, and we kept them out. We fucked them up. They were like, ‘Yo, my bonus!’”
After that, Carlos returned to his local high school, Colegio Santiago Apostol, and saw that initial college interest all but disappear. “FIU kept recruiting me,” Carlos explains of the Sun Belt Conference school. “They came and saw me play and showed a lot of interest. They had a good team, and it was in Miami, which is only two hours by airplane and has a lot of Latin people. They were talking a lot about [then-incoming transfer] Raja Bell and how he was going to make the NBA. So I went there and played some minutes.”
Under the somewhat overmatched Florida International coach, Marcos “Shakey” Rodriguez, Arroyo actually played tons of minutes, jacked up tons of shots and showed amazing potential, but also grated on people with what many took to be an unpleasant arrogance. “We were all young guys, and he was the youngest,” recalls Utah guard Bell, the only other FIU product in the League and once again Carlos’ teammate and close friend. “We were a cool, talented team that liked to shoot, and he was our point guard. He blended in. Basically, he was very good, and he knew it, but other people didn’t know it. So he came off as cocky. But it’s been so cool to see him grow and change and get better.”
Bell graduated after Arroyo’s sophomore year, and as a junior Carlos was briefly suspended for fighting with the team’s student manager. It was one of many mishaps committed by players under Rodriguez’s watch, and after the ’99-00 season, Rodriguez “resigned” from his post. Enter Donnie Marsh, who was hired from Virginia Tech to clean up the FIU program. As Marsh, who calls Carlos “his son” and is now an assistant at Indiana, recalls, “I knew people thought he had a lot of ability, but some people said we wouldn’t hit it off. I liked discipline, and they said Carlos wouldn’t like that. But he came in and sat at my desk and told me, ‘Coach, I just want to win.’ He said there were guys on the team complaining about the types of t-shirts we got, the number of shoes, whatever. He told me, ‘Just give me one pair of shoes, and give me the ball, and I’ll be ready to play.’”
While preparing for his senior season, Arroyo also stayed true to his roots, remaining a standout in the BSN for the larger-market Cangrejeros (Crabbers) de Santurce. “Our owner was Ricky Martin’s [ex-] agent, and he had money and connections,” recalls Carlos of the 2000 BSN campaign. “The league finals went into September, after school started. I’d have classes at FIU at like nine, 10 and 12. After those three classes, I would get a ride to the airport and catch a flight to Puerto Rico to play in a game that night. Then I would stay at the airport hotel and catch a 6 a.m. flight back to Miami and make it to class at nine. There were like three weeks of that.”
As the rare American journalist who saw Arroyo play in Puerto Rico during that time [you can check out SLAM 49 from early ’01 for proof of who knew about Carlos first—Ed.], I can say that his play showed no signs of jet lag or anything like it. Even then, dude was NBA-ready, but he needed exposure. An 8-21 record in his senior season didn’t help, but the complaints about Arroyo’s attitude vanished, and Marsh says he started receiving “some calls from NBA people, although they were skeptical. We only had seven scholarship players that year, and everyone knew he’d be taking shots, but he still got them off.
“One story about Carlos,” Marsh goes on. “We played at North Texas that year, and this guy had been talking in the papers how they were going to shut Carlos down. Well, he had 39 points and fouled out in overtime! We flew back the next day and had to practice that night, because we had another game the very next day. Because of the game he’d had, I told my assistants not to practice him, but every time I looked up he was in there. Why are you letting him on the court?! I asked them. ‘Because he won’t come off the floor,’ they said. Carlos always wanted to keep working.”