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U.S. colleges don't recruit Puerto Rican high schools, so young boricuas who want a shot at a Division I scholarship must decamp to the States to showcase themselves. "I go to meet him at the airport and see this kid, small, not strong, a little bowlegged," says Alvarez, who put up Barea in his home for the year. "He didn't look like a player at all." To allay suspicions that he had been scammed, Alvarez immediately took Barea to an outdoor court. "The shots were a little awkward," he says, "but they went in."
In his first high school game Barea lit up a Class 6-A school for 39 points and eight assists. Miami Christian went on to win a state-record 38 games that season and a 1-A title as Barea, despite having lost 20 pounds from mononucleosis, averaged a double double for the eight games of the playoffs. (He took part in the state tournament only after persuading his parents to sign a waiver, because a blow to his spleen would have endangered his life.) With most colleges scared off by his lack of size, he fell to Northeastern. "The basketball culture in Puerto Rico doesn't place much emphasis on practicing hard every day," says Everhart, who's now at Duquesne. "But the minute we did something competitive, [Barea] brought it like nobody's business. He was the great student who gets bored in class."
Barea had arrived in Boston weighing 150 pounds. By his senior season, when he was named Colonial Athletic Association player of the year, he was up to 180. His headlong-but-sideways-to-the-hoop style led referees to confess to Everhart that they couldn't tell who initiated contact on fouls—Barea or a defender. "People always said they knew I could play and loved the way I played," Barea says, "but they didn't know if I could make it at the next level. My dribble is low and under control, and that gives me confidence in my first step. I really like getting into the lane. The big question mark was, In the lane in the NBA, what was I going to do?"
Clues could be found in his performances for Puerto Rico in college-age international competitions, in which he matched the likes of Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul. After the 2004 FIBA Americas Under-20 Championship, Everhart recalls, Paul called Barea "the best player I've ever had to guard." Barea forced powers such as Australia and Lithuania to throw box-and-ones at him. Then, at the Portsmouth Invitational, that last-chance saloon for overlooked and underestimated NBA aspirants, Barea dished out 41 assists over three games to set a tournament record. Detroit G.M. Joe Dumars promised that the Pistons would take him with the last pick of the draft, No. 60, if he were still available. When they didn't, the life drained out of the friends and relatives gathered on draft day at the Barea home. It made clear the difficulty such a nontraditional-looking guard was going to have making it to the NBA. Says Jaime, "José had three strikes against him. He's 5'10", he's white, and he's Puerto Rican."
United States soldiers introduced basketball to Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War, using the hoops of barrels for goals. The game boomed during the 1930s, and Barea's influences include some of the more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans who immigrated to New York City during the '50s and raised kids who learned the game in the parks. During the '70s and '80s this second generation returned home, inflecting the island's pro league, the BSN, with a schoolyard backcourt style. From Angelo (Munch) Cruz, the Latino Nate Archibald, to mambo artist Georgie (El Chulo) Torres, "Nuyoricans turned the league upside down," says Bobbito García, the former BSN player who edits Bounce magazine. "But by the mid-2000s native islanders were good enough that there was less need for imports."
By the time Tim Hardaway and Iverson brought the ankle-breaking crossover to the NBA, the move was already an island staple. It had spawned a rich expression: Leave a guy with a move and you could crow !Lo dejó pegao!—or "left him stuck," like rice encrusted on the bottom of a pot. As a teenager playing in the BSN, Barea heard that phrase in practice from 35-year-old teammate and Queens product James (El Presidente) Carter.
Teams representing "the Sixth Borough" became known for the Gothamite fearlessness of their backcourts. At the 1976 Olympics former Marquette star Butch Lee took Puerto Rico to within a point (and a dubious charging call) of defeating the U.S. Carter engineered defeats of los yanquis at the 1989 Tournament of the Americas and the 1991 Pan American Games. Carlos Arroyo led Puerto Rico to a 19-point drubbing of the U.S. in Athens in 2004—the first time U.S. pros had ever lost at an Olympics.
That game made Arroyo a hero to four million Puerto Ricans, including the undrafted Barea, who could regard an intrepid tenacity as his birthright. He accepted Golden State's invitation to play for its team in the Las Vegas Summer League, only to watch the Warriors pick up Baron Davis for their backcourt. So he joined Dallas's entry in Salt Lake City's Rocky Mountain Revue and landed an invitation to the Mavs' training camp, where he won over coach Avery Johnson and made the team. It was Johnson, who, looking around for José Juan in practice one day, bellowed "J.J.!" The nickname stuck. "I loved Avery, except in practice," Barea says. "Oh, I hated him in practice. I wanted to punch him out."
Midway through that first season, unable to get Barea off the bench, the Mavs sent him to their D-League affiliate, the Fort Worth Flyers. When he was summoned back to the Mavs two weeks later, the Flyers had won six of seven, with Barea springing for 40-plus points in back-to-back games. "You can't go back there," teammate Jason Terry declared. "We're gonna retire your number." Sure enough, for the Dallas Mavericks Foundation's annual gala later that season, Terry sent for Barea's Flyers number 11 jersey and presided over a mock ceremony that was the hit of the evening and marked Barea's investiture as a Mav.
By 2008, Carlisle, who took over from Johnson, had folded Barea into a three-guard rotation. "Rick gave me more freedom," Barea says. "More opportunity too. Maybe because I was older, you know?" But nothing boosted Barea's confidence more than the return to Dallas of Jason Kidd. Barea had worn Kidd's jersey as a child and now dressed in the locker next to his. "I'd ask myself why J. Kidd was always passing me the ball," Barea says. "I figured I must be doing something good."