SI Vault
November 21, 2011
J.J. Barea, the breakout star of the NBA Finals, wants to get back to work. Until he does, he'll be hanging out with his girlfriend— a former Miss Universe—on the tropical island where he's a hero
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November 21, 2011

How I Spent My Lockout

J.J. Barea, the breakout star of the NBA Finals, wants to get back to work. Until he does, he'll be hanging out with his girlfriend— a former Miss Universe—on the tropical island where he's a hero

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José Juan (J.J.) Barea waves you into the shotgun seat, then nudges his Jeep Wrangler onto one of the clogged highways that welter out from central San Juan. He's expected at a photo shoot with his girlfriend, Zuleyka Rivera, a former Miss Universe; at a sponsor's press luncheon; at practice with the Puerto Rican national team. But it won't be a straight shot to any of these appointments, which is appropriate, for Barea's story is best told in traffic, in the style he plays, with quick cuts and sudden changes of direction ... con interrupciones, as if the current NBA lockout weren't enough of one. Stop and go, brake to gas, that's the way of a scoring point guard, and in the case of Barea—the astonishing revelation of the Mavericks' equally surprising march past the Trail Blazers, Lakers, Thunder and Heat to an NBA title last spring—a certain amount of herk and jerk is his lot off the court too.

Four months earlier, in a homecoming jubilee broadcast live on every Puerto Rican TV channel, Barea crawled along these same roads for two hours on the top of a pickup truck. The island had thrown a similar parade for his girlfriend after she won her own crown in 2006. Barea's first stop is the Caribe Hilton, where Caras, a celebrity lifestyle magazine, has booked a shoot with the couple, who are expecting a son in early March.

"Be playful!" a stylist orders as the photographer snaps away. The two stroke each other's cheeks. Rivera, wearing a half-buttoned white blouse over black-lace bra and panties, rests her head in his lap, her face lit with dimples that would show up on a topographical map.

Back in traffic, from the Wrangler you can see Barea's life writ large on billboards. Rivera graces the one—for Kress, a clothing line—that brought her to J.J.'s attention. When he found out she was not only single but also that she was one of his Twitter followers, he sent her a direct message. Soon they had arranged a rendezvous in Miami, where she shot telenovelas until she became pregnant. After Dallas so frustrated the Lakers that 7-footer Andrew Bynum cheap-shotted Barea with a forearm blow to the body on a drive in the waning moments of their playoff series, Sprite put up a billboard of its own: A MI ME DUELEN LAS COSTILLAS, PERO A KOBE EL EGO. [My ribs hurt, but with Kobe it's his ego.]

If you're trying to move product in Puerto Rico, you do what the Lakers and the Heat couldn't: lock up Barea. Oreo, Gillette and Converse have done so. So have a dairy, Leche Fresca, and a car dealership, Triangle. At the press lunch his biggest sponsor, T-Mobile, is premiering a new TV spot. In it Barea munches on a taco, then is about to tweet "I love tacos." In Puerto Rican slang, tacos also means "high heels"—so we cut to images of Barea dribbling in red pumps; of Barea using the spike of his heel to disable a defender; of Barea swinging from the rim after a dunk, still wearing those tacos rojos. The spot ends with another tweet, "Barea dominates in tacos," and images gone viral, everyone watching the cross-dressing crossover artist on T-Mobile phones. (Barea need not worry: When Miss Universe is carrying your child, your manhood isn't exactly hanging in the balance.)

The day ends with a national-team practice. Suiting up in September's Americas Olympic qualifying tournament, Barea and los coquis faced heavily favored host Argentina for a spot in the London Games. Barea's off-balance 35-foot heave at the buzzer to win glanced off the backboard and rim, but Puerto Rico will get another opportunity to qualify next spring. More immediately the team is prepping for the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Puerto Rico will win the gold medal with a victory over the hosts in the final on Oct. 30.

As practice starts, Barea stashes you in the stands with his cousin Pedro Barea, whom he has jawboned into quitting his job to serve as a sorely needed fixer and guy Friday. Pedro arranged for that homecoming parade and had the Jeep's windows tinted, which became necessary as soon as J.J. returned to the island. "Glad that three against Argentina didn't go in," Pedro told him, "or I'd have had to arrange another parade."

Pedro sounds like an impresario who's booked every gig there is. "I tell José, 'Man, what else can you do? You've won an NBA title. You're having a kid. You're dating Miss Universe. You should retire, man!'"

After practice Barea takes you back to your hotel. You are dismissed. He's expected home for dinner, and Zuleyka is cooking.

It would be easy to collect these images over a caption reading, "Lock me out and throw away the key." Yet no NBA player stands to lose more from the current work stoppage than Barea. He's a free agent on the brink of a bonanza, having delivered during the playoffs a mixtape's worth of drives, threes and dishes in perfect sync with the end of his option year. (It was Barea who occasioned the most memorable exchange of the labor negotiations thus far: When players' association representatives pointed out that the breakout star of the playoffs had made only $1.8 million last season, NBA commissioner David Stern replied, "I'll see you J.J. Barea and raise you Eddy Curry.")

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