A Sun Belt-high 21.2 ppg got Arroyo some NBA workouts and an invite to the Chicago pre-Draft camp, but he hurt his foot days before the camp and had to attend on crutches. “When I got hurt, I started crying, like, My dream is over. But God put me on the right, what do you say? Camino,” says Arroyo, choosing the Spanish word for “road.” “The night of the Draft, I told my wife—she was not yet my wife—that I was going down to the beach by myself and to call me if they called my name. So I was sitting in the fucking sand, in the dark, with the phone. And after a while I called her like, This is horrible. Please? But she said Miami already picked someone, Indiana already picked someone. Those were the teams that had talked to me. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, This is going to be the long road.”
In ’01-02, the road led through Toronto, Spain and then Denver, the two brief NBA stops not teaching him much of anything. “After they let me go from Denver, I was wondering if I was really good enough to be here,” Carlos recalls somberly. “They don’t tell you anything when they cut you. How do they say it? ‘We’re going in another direction.’ That’s it.”
Throughout his professional ups and downs, Arroyo—who became just the fifth Boricua ever to play in the League when he appeared with the Raptors in ’01—was establishing himself as the leader of Puerto Rico’s national team. This was a matter of pride for his country, but the fact is that his play for PR in the 2002 World Championships caught the eye of Jazz VP Kevin O’Connor. Utah signed Arroyo in the ’02 preseason, and as coach Jerry Sloan explains, “We always like having three point guards. We had John [Stockton] and Mark [Jackson], and we felt like if anything happened, Carlos could come in and play for us. He actually deserved a better chance to play that year.”
Of course, minutes wouldn’t be coming at the expense of the top two assist men in NBA history; Arroyo played in only 44 games and averaged just 2.8 ppg. Still, Jackson, now with ESPN as an analyst, says that season was enough to know what Arroyo could do. “I saw Carlos’ potential because I spent so much time playing with him,” Action shares. “Usually it was 2-on-2 after practice or on days off with me, Carlos, DeShawn Stevenson and either Troy [Mark’s brother, aka Escalade] or DeShawn’s uncle. Those were like games to us, our chance to talk trash and to compete and stay sharp, and he took it very seriously. I don’t know what kind of playground ball they have in Puerto Rico, but you could tell that he had watched guys and learned from watching them.”
When Mark moved on and Stock retired, the starting spot was ostensibly Arroyo’s, pending mini-challenges from Raul Lopez and Mo Williams. Carlos seized the moment. “Isn’t that awesome? A guy played here 18 years and I’m the first one after him? It’s awesome, man,” says Carlos, grinning wide.
Handling his new job to the tune of 12.6 points and 5 assists per game last season while making Mixtape-caliber dribble moves and leading the Jazz to about 25 more wins than anyone predicted, the man his friends call ’Los had finally arrived. Keeping with the positive momentum, Arroyo led the Puerto Ricans to a sixth-place finish in the Athens Olympics, impressive for a “country” (technically, PR is a commonwealth of the US) of about four million people. Included in the Olympic run, of course, was the memorable opening-round rout of the United States, in which Arroyo tore up Stephon Marbury and punctuated the win by gesturing excitedly at the “Puerto Rico” across his chest. “I did that because I thought it was the perfect moment to let the world know that we’re here, and we’re good, too,” explains Carlos, who is now approaching the iconic status boxer Tito Trinidad and late baseball star Roberto Clemente have on la isla. “It was no disrespect to the USA or its players at all. The whole arena was going crazy and I just did it out of respect for my country.”
Now it’s a new NBA season and Arroyo is a freshly named co-captain, along with Matt Harpring. And Carlos won’t take any of it for granted. “I’m grateful because Jerry, Kevin O’Connor, and Larry Miller, they don’t know what they’ve done for my life by giving me this opportunity,” says Carlos, his honesty and passion as clear as they were when we started talking six hours ago. “They have helped me achieve a goal I’ve been dreaming of my whole life. I don’t know if they understand that. I know it’s a business and this is my job, but basketball means a lot to me. To have a locker with an NBA team means hard work pays off. All I can do to show them my appreciation is to be better and to work on my game every day. Just because they give you a contract and some money, that’s not when you stop working hard. That should motivate you more.”
Now, people are taking notice of Arroyo’s allure. “I’ll ride or die with Carlos,” says Bell. “I’ve known since the first time I saw him that on any given night he can be the best player on the court. Now everyone has that confidence in him.”