Why do you pick on Schintzius? "I cannot tell you the secret," Vargas says.
His coaches aren't sure he knows it.
Despite his dimensions, Vargas can't match smaller and slighter teammate Ricky Blanton in the weight room. This sort of disparity between promise and reality has dogged the relationship between him and Brown. "Jose's come a million miles," says Brown, "and has a light-year to go."
Vargas so frustrated Brown one day in practice last season that Brown flailed his arms in exasperation, inadvertently crushing his watch. Springs, gears and sprockets went flying to the floor of LSU's Assembly Center. "That watch was a present from his wife," Vargas says. "I feel real bad."
Brown felt worse, standing there watching Vargas stoop to pick up the scattered parts. He soon concluded there had to be a better way to reach this gentle man-child. "I'd never coached a Latin American before," Brown says. "To Jose, criticism is emasculating. Now I just gesture, or call him aside."
Vargas appreciates that new approach. "When conflicts come, you have to look at it in a positive way," he says. "You cannot get defensive. One of us is going to get broken. Chances are the one of us is going to be me. I get angry at the coach when I should be angry at the other team. But he changed the pattern, and things started happening."
Things, for better or worse, have always been happening between the two. In Vargas's sophomore season, the Tigers were tied with Georgetown and, during a timeout, were preparing for one last shot. The CBS cameras caught Brown spending less time diagramming a play than telling Vargas, over and over, not to shoot. When play resumed. No Way Jose promptly put up a 15-foot air ball, and LSU lost. Brown so ripped into Vargas in the locker room afterward that the Tigers' Anthony Wilson stepped forward to say, "It's my fault. Coach! I threw him the ball!"
His teammates adore Vargas, even as they refuse to room with him on the road—they can't abide the 80° temperature he sets on the thermostat. Vargas may have thin blood, but it courses through a stout heart. "Physically he's Darth Vader," says Gus Weill, a Baton Rouge playwright and a booster of the Tiger basketball team. "But he's not afraid of showing emotion. Inside this monolithic creature is a decent, sensitive man."
Among the things closest to that heart is Clayton Ferraro, an eight-year-old Baton Rouge boy with a growth disorder in his legs. Since Vargas began showing up at Clay's house to shoot hoops with him. Clay has grown into a healthy kid. Says Brown, "Jose's done things for that boy doctors couldn't do."
Thanks to basketball, Vargas, 24, has been able to do things that most of his countrymen can't do—basketball has already taken him to some 20 different nations. He's on his second Dominican passport, stamps and visas having filled up his first. "Basketball is like a spring," Vargas says. "You put springs in your shoes, it help you jump like a kangaroo." Yet he loves his country and hopes to return to the Dominican Republic as a youth counselor when he graduates from LSU with a degree in speech communications.