Greivis Vasquez Nears End of Long, Bumpy Journey
"I'm a different player than I was as a freshman and sophomore, now that I'm a senior,'' the Maryland guard said. "You have to go through a tough time to understand what it takes to be the best player you can be, the best person you can be.''
It was a perceptive self-assessment by the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, a candidate for first-team All-America honors and finalist for several national player-of-the-year awards, the leader of the surprise regulars season co-champs of the prestigious conference and one of the handful of best players his school has ever produced, as viewed by, among others, Mike Krzyzewski.
It was even more perceptive considering that Vasquez said this before the start of his senior year, back in October at the ACC's preseason media day in Greensboro, N.C.
And, it's worth noting, before the first "Deport Vasquez'' sign was waved at the native Venezuelan at an opposing arena, before the first chant of "U-S-A, U-S-A'' by fans on the road -- and before Maryland fans themselves filled the local radio airwaves and online chat rooms, comment sections and message boards vehemently insisting that Vasquez doesn't belong anywhere near the same neighborhood in which the Duke and Olympic coach placed him. (Two days before Vasquez led Maryland past Duke at Comcast Center in the final week of the regular season, Krzyzewski said that he was completing "one of the best careers anyone has had at that great school.'')
Still, that argument may never be settled -- even though the 6-foot-6 Vasquez leads the 23-8 Terps, seeded fourth in the Midwest Region, into the NCAA tournament as the only player in the ACC's storied history with more than 2,000 points, 700 assists and 600 rebounds, as well as the fifth Maryland player to win the conference's highest individual honor, and its third all-time leading scorer, 20 points behind second-place Len Bias.
The only thing that all can agree upon with Vasquez is that he's the top lightning-rod in school history, one of the biggest ever in the ACC (no small feat, considering this league produced Christian Laettner, J.J. Redick, Rasheed Wallace and Tyler Hansbrough, among other "hated'' stars), and high on the list among current college players. That comes from being among the school's and league's career leaders in chest-thumps, jersey-pops, arm-waves, gestures and contortions, and definitely "shimmies'' after big plays -- not to mention over-eager plays that drive his own supporters to exasperation.
It's also hard to argue that Vasquez put anything less than his entirety of being into his play -- which is why, as his career draws near a close, the praise he gets from his coach, Gary Williams, only grows.
"He was never satisfied with doing an OK job,'' Williams said last week. "He always drove himself to win. People always thought he was strange, but his main objective was to win, and I think that was evident.''
Strange? The phrase Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg used was "a little wacko,'' which explained why for some, it was "easy not to like him.'' Then again, he also said recently on his weekly radio show, "If you put (Duke all-American Jon) Scheyer on Maryland's team, what would Maryland's record be, all right? If you put Vasquez on Duke's team, what would their record be?''
Greenberg pointed this out a few days after Vasquez dragged the Terps to a double-overtime victory in Blacksburg with a career-high 41 points -- with the "U-S-A'' chants from the student section ringing in his ears. The xenophobic nature of the opposing fan abuse dated back at least to the previous season, when N.C. State fans directed a steady stream at him until he exacted his payback with a score-padding 3-pointer just before the buzzer of a blowout Maryland win.
The first "Deport Vasquez'' sign appeared at Florida State in early February, after which Vasquez and his 23 points helped hold the Seminoles off in a critical conference game; that, the "U-S-A'' chant or both were later copied at N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Virginia.
"It gets me angry,'' Vasquez admits, "and it just makes me work harder and play harder and play better.''
As for the more garden-variety catcalls and critiques -- including from his own fans -- over his four years at Maryland, Vasquez does not deny that at least some of it he brought on himself.
"Everything happened for a reason,'' Vasquez said last week, on the day he was named ACC player of the year. "Fans and myself, we all want the best for Maryland basketball. I was a young man, I made mistakes. I always wanted to get better. I know the mistakes I made in the past, and I came back to school wanting to get better, as a player and as a person. It was good that I made some of the mistakes I made.''
Vasquez tested the NBA waters after last season, was told he wasn't likely to go in the first round, and despite his disappointment was largely relieved to return. Not everyone shared that relief, as again Maryland fans spoke up to wish he would go away, weary of what they viewed as unnecessary antics on an underachieving team. This, even after he was the biggest reason Maryland rallied late last season to return to the NCAAs, with his 35-point, triple-double performance in a win over eventual champion North Carolina.
Williams adamantly refused to join the scapegoating of the player he depended on the most. Not only did he spend four years declining to scold Vasquez in public for his frequent lack of restraint -- the adjective he prefers for him is "brash'' -- he praised his passion relentlessly, and this season pointed out that he is one of his favorite players ever and that he likes this team as much as any he's ever coached.
Which has led to the conclusion that Vasquez and Williams, with their attitudes and approaches to the game, are practically separated at birth. Neither denies it. "I see Coach Williams, and I see myself in the mirror,'' Vasquez said. "I see him when we're playing games, and he's on the sidelines and he's going crazy, and I see myself and I play the same way.''
Williams' response: "If we're both alike, it's because we never stop trying; he always strives to be as good as he can be.''
It was no surprise, then, that at the lowest points of their four years in College Park, they stuck up for each other. Much of the local animosity toward Vasquez's flamboyance -- which ran parallel to the worst of Maryland's struggles to make the NCAA tournament regularly after winning the 2002 national title -- came to a head during a game at Comcast Center last season.
Against Georgia Tech, in a game the Terps had to dig out of a hole late to win, Vasquez got into a war of words with some in the student section who were shouting insults at him (reportedly some were ethnic in nature); he cursed at them several times, then ripped them in postgame comments. He apologized a few days later. Williams called him to task for reacting to the fans, but stood by him.
Barely a month later, when Williams was under the worst public fire of his career after a 41-point loss at Duke and a subsequent verbal battle of his own with athletic department officials over the departure of two potential recruits, Vasquez returned the favor. The Terps were in danger of a fourth NIT trip in five years, Vasquez was catching blame more than anyone after Williams -- and the junior stood in the media work room after practice one day and told the reporters surrounding him to lay off his coach, adding, "He has got more money than all you guys put together.''
"He always has my back,'' Vasquez said, looking back at that stretch, "and I always have his back.''
"It's a shame. A player shouldn't have to do that for a coach,'' Williams said. "But that's Greivis. That's something he's not afraid to do.''
This year, he only had to lead them in scoring and assists (at 19.5 and 6.3, both tops in the ACC); he can afford to be fourth in rebounding (at 4.6 a game) because he has better, more mature, more assured players around him. During the seven-game winning streak that ended the regular season and earned them a share of the conference regular-season championship, those averages were 24.7 points, 6.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds.
Vasquez does bear every characteristic of Williams' kind of player: largely unheralded and borderline unheard-of, but with room to improve, the temperament to withstand Williams' harsh style and a general inability to grasp the concept of "slow down,'' much less "stop.'' Both have repeated the story often lately of how Vasquez only came to the United States at 16, after developing in the barrios of Caracas, and how he barely knew English when he arrived. He was a definite second fiddle on his high school team, suburban Maryland power Montrose Christian, to a kid named Kevin Durant (whose recruitment by Texas the year Vasquez came to Maryland was a sore spot among Williams' naysayers ever since).
Vasquez wasn't even the biggest-name Maryland recruit that season; fellow senior guard Eric Hayes was the better-known quantity.
So Vasquez's unorthodox game (he's routinely described as "unathletic,'' meaning he doesn't run fast or jump high) and aggressive approach caught everyone off-guard. Williams never tried to do anything more than convince him to prevent a gratuitous outburst that cost the Terps in a game.
"Just because he reacts differently than I would when he makes a shot,'' the coach said, "that doesn't make him a bad person.''
For what it's worth, Krzyzewski has never chafed at Vasquez's larger histrionics, either. He not only saw Vasquez for four years as an ACC opponent, and one who relished playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but as an opponent in the World Championships in Japan in 2007, when Krzyzewski coached the United States and Vasquez, following his freshman year, played for Venezuela.
"He obviously is so talented and has a tremendous impact on the game,'' the coach said. "As coaches, we talk about kids who have energy, who have a motor. Do you have a motor as well as talent? He has talent and a motor. You have to love that about the kid.''
Rather than hector Vasquez to make his behavior conform, Williams chose to see the similarities between him and one of his absolute favorites, the leader of the teams that went to the Final Four in '01 and won it all the next year. "I thought Juan Dixon had a lot of the same characteristics,'' he said. "He came from a tough situation also ... and something about a player like that, he takes what has happened to him and rather than letting it beat them, he'd rather use that as a motivator.''
Dixon's situation was that he arrived as an undersized player with no defined position and almost no notice even locally -- and that was raised by foster parents in Baltimore when his parents, both drug addicts, died. Another similarity that Williams never anticipated: both Dixon and Vasquez were targets of some of the most vile personal taunts ever heard in ACC arenas during their times, well over the line from the usual attention paid to topics like academic or legal trouble.
Williams has reminded Vasquez often that the taunting is a sign of respect and acknowledgment. Vasquez has taken it as a challenge.
"You know what the best feeling is? When people really put you down and attack you, and then you prove them wrong, and you do it the right way,'' he said. "And they come back and say, 'I apologize, you're really a great guy, a great player, and a great leader.' That's why it doesn't bother me to go on the road.''
It's hard to believe that he actually gets apologies, but ... "I've been getting a lot of people saying that, a lot of adults, lately. That tells you, you can never give up.''
The last similarity is that Dixon and Vasquez had senior seasons that were all but impossible to predict when they were freshmen. For Vasquez, while he yearns for a lot more basketball before his career at Maryland ends, he recognizes that the hope he expressed in October that he could show his improvement as a player and person, has been realized.
"Everywhere I go,'' he said, "people are telling me that they're fans of mine and that they appreciate me. I never thought it would be like that. People want to stop and take my picture ... kids are wearing my jersey. I can't describe what that feels like. I'm so absolutely happy.''