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As big as his heart is, it is not, alas, always in the game. So Brown has contrived ways to get it pumped up. In the dressing room before a December practice, he posted a list of Street & Smiths preseason All-Americas, and added this note: "206 players are listed, and we have no one listed. Let's see who is left in April—especially on April 4! [The date of the NCAA final.]"
"You can't let people categorize you, Jose," Brown told him.
Vargas nodded. "What do I tell you, Coach Brown? Paper All-Americas. It list individuals. But we do not play as individuals. We play as team."
"I read that, I get so angry," Vargas said later. "If I am white, it turn me red as a tomato."
But, like Brown, Vargas appreciates psychology: "Ask me about a player, any player," says Vargas, "and I will say he is a great player. It is war principles. When you are the underdog, you have the first step when the race starts."
Vargas knows about being the underdog. His father died before he was born, and his mother, Ana—"I call her my Mapa," Jose says, "because she is both parents for me"—raised him until he was 13. Ana left their home in La Romana to take a job as a domestic in Puerto Rico and sent money back to her son and Fiol, Jose's younger half sister. "Jose's not one for sob stories," says Brown, who can't make the same claim. "You have to have seen where he grew up to really understand it. It was this tiny room that couldn't have been more than three feet by six feet, with gunny-sacks of flour, beans and cocoa on the concrete floor and a 60-watt bulb and tin roof overhead."
A man in La Romana named Ed Gomez, who worked as an athletic director for Gulf and Western operations in the Dominican Republic, introduced Vargas to basketball, supplying him with sneakers and persuading him not to sign a baseball contract, despite the interest of major league scouts who liked the 16-year-old Vargas's 86-mph fastball. Gomez had a notion that Vargas, who was already 6'4" when a private high school in Santo Domingo offered him a scholarship, would keep growing.
In the Dominican summer league in 1983, Vargas met Greg Cook, the center on LSU's 1981 Final Four team. When Cook told Brown of this raw kid who matched him elbow for elbow, Brown listened. "I knew he had to be good," he says, "because Greg doesn't have much respect for anyone."
But before Vargas could enroll at LSU or any other American university, he had to learn to speak English, something he had long wanted to do. "I hated to go to movies and have to read the little Spanish stripe at the bottom," he says. "I hated!" So when he was 17, he bought a secondhand Spanish-English dictionary, reinforced the binding with adhesive tape and toted it everywhere he went.
Even with that self-education, when he arrived at LSU, Vargas needed five hours to complete assignments that took most students only two, but he adapted splendidly. "Jose took a class in U.S. history his sophomore year and got an A," says Brown. "I've had native English speakers who failed that course."