Looks aren't everything

Defeating the Lakers and making the NBA Finals is a huge accomplishment. But dating former Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera shows J.J. Barea is excelling in the game of life as well. Getty Images

MIAMI -- Rip the posters off your wall. Get the tattoo rubbed out. Whoever was your hero before, forget him. I've got your new lifetime role model.

J.J. Barea.


A. He's only 5-foot-9, yet he plays for the Dallas Mavericks, who are in the NBA Finals.

B. He is about to become a very rich man.

C. He dates Miss Universe.

Any other questions?

"People come up to me all the time and say, 'Can I stand next to you, just to see?'" he says. "I guess I look so small in the lane against all those big guys, they can't really believe I do what I do."

What he's done lately is drive the rest of the league sanitarium-crazy and help propel Dallas within four wins of an NBA title.

"He's fearless," says Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who admits he has to "game plan" in these Finals for a guy who looks like his grocery sacker. "One-on-three, one-on-two. He'll find a way to get in those gaps."

Spoelstra, in fact, is talking about putting 6-8, 250-pound LeBron James Himself on Barea at times.

So, J.J., you looking forward to being guarded by The Chosen One? The guy who made Derrick Rose shoot 6 percent against him?

"No question!" Barea says. "I'll try to go by anybody."

Barea is a monster in elevator shoes. He's Dorothy in the Haunted Forest, only he's got an axe. I've got 2 inches and 20 pounds on Barea and he goes places I wouldn't dream of. Against the Los Angeles Lakers' giant frontcourt, he spent more time in the paint than the sweat-mop guys. "Barea kicked our ass," Kobe Bryant said after the Mavs swept them. "… I know what he's capable of -- despite how he looks."

Hey, what's that mean?

Two games running, the Lakers got so sick of Barea infiltrating their air space -- sinking rainbows, twisting side spinners and long looping floaters, or finding open teammates for dunks -- that they shot him down. Ron Artest clubbed him across the face one night, then Andrew Bynum threw an elbow into his ribs the next when Barea was about 4 feet off the ground and defenseless. It was the Wal-Mart Super-Center of cheap shots."You know when they're arguing with each other about you, you've got them," Barea says. "Bynum and [Pau] Gasol were yelling at the point guards, 'Fight through the screens harder!' And the point guards were yelling at Bynum and Gasol, "You gotta pick him up earlier!'"

Next thing he knew, Bynum was trying to open a hole in Barea's rib cage and Barea was falling farther than he ever had in his career. His girlfriend was in the stands, terrified.

"Why does he do this to you, baby?" asked Zuleyka Rivera, who is Miss Universe 2006.

"This is basketball," he told her. "It's going to happen once in a while if you drive on the big guys enough."

Barea and his girl are both from Puerto Rico. They grew up an hour and a half apart. Rivera is hotter than the sun, but what she knew about basketball when they started dating last year (he introduced himself via text) you could fit in a small taquito. One night, she was watching him play when the game went into overtime. "What do they do now?" she asked her friend.

"I think she thought it was like soccer," Barea says. "Like we were going to go into a three-point shootout or something."

Rivera acts in those telenovelas on Telemundo. She thought she was famous until she met Barea. Together, they can't go anywhere in Puerto Rico without it becoming All Saints Day.

"Put it this way, we get really good service," he says.

Does she ever wear the Miss Universe crown for him?

"Nope, never seen it."

If Jose Juan Barea can keep blowing up defenses like he has been -- he's had two 20-point playoff games already off the bench -- he'll have a ring he can wear for her.

After that, Barea becomes a very coveted free agent, a nice bit of timing since the last two months is the finest he's ever played.

Where would he and his gluey handle (he's had his dribble picked only twice this entire season) like to go?

"I'd love to stay in Dallas, if possible," he says. "Especially if we win it all."

Of course, since Jason Kidd won't retire until 2050, he'd be stuck on the bench. He'd start nearly everywhere else, like, for instance, on the team he single-handedly ruined -- the Lakers.

"I've heard rumors," he says with a grin.

There's also talk about him going to the Knicks, which he loves, since "there are lots of Puerto Ricans there."

And what about this same Heat team he's trying to bust now? They need a penetrating guard (who doesn't?) and, after all, his girlfriend lives in Miami.

"Great city!" he says with that same grin.

So, wrapping up here, Miss Universe loves the little guy and so, very soon, will just about every other team in the NBA.

Despite how he looks.

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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.

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