It is a relatively chilly February night in South Florida, but the temperature keeps rising inside the BankUnited Center as the Miami Hurricanes are tied 63-63 with Pittsburgh on national TV and 23-year-old point guard Ángel Rodríguez has the ball in his hands for the 'Canes.
Rodríguez has a critical decision to make with the crowd on its feet. His instinct is to look for an open teammate, as a pass-first creator looking to chalk up his ninth assist of the game for a game winner at the buzzer. He had also made two three-pointers and was Miami’s leading scorer.
“First of all, I passed the ball out to [Sheldon] McClellan," Rodríguez said. "I was sure that he was going to make the shot because he is a great shooter (51 percent overall, 39.6 percent on threes). Usually my responsibility is to get back out to the perimeter, but I knew there were only two or three seconds left.”
McClellan's three-pointer bounced off the rim, but surely one of the Panthers big men would grab the rebound. And then Rodriguez flashed back to those frustrating high school days.
“I decided to linger,” said Rodriguez, who soared straight toward the rim and tipped the ball in at the buzzer to give Miami a dramatic win.
If you think that he may shrink under the spotlight, then consider that Rodríguez escaped a life of crime and drugs in Cupey, Puerto Rico. When he was two years old, his father was killed. And when he was 15 years old, he decided to travel on his own to the mainland United States. By then, he was a basketball prodigy, and he was leaving his mother, grandparents and two brothers behind to pursue his very own American dream.
Rodríguez’s quick transition allowed him to realize his dream after he was highly sought after by basketball powerhouses like Louisville and North Carolina State. But he ended up choosing Kansas State after being recruited by head coach and Miami native Frank Martin.
Rodríguez and Martin had a tumultuous relationship during his first year at the school perhaps due to the coach’s fiery temper. In fact, Martin cursed Rodríguez out in front of a national television during the second overtime of a game against West Virginia in 2011.
Coach Martin would depart Kansas State to coach at South Carolina in 2012, but Rodríguez flourished under new Wildcats coach Bruce Weber averaging 28.2 minutes, 11.4 points and 5.2 assists per game during the 2012-13 season, earning him All-Big 12 Second Team honors, even starting in the starting in the 63-61 loss to 13-seed La Salle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That wasn't how Rodríguez pictured the season ending, since he scored just two points going 0-for-6 from the field.
However, something was missing in his life off the court that couldn’t be measured on it.
The young point guard decided to sit out a year as demanded by NCAA rules in order to transfer to Miami --a school that had recruited him in the first place-- where Jim Larrañaga allowed him to come into his own as a junior and senior.
While Rodríguez is not ranked among Chad Ford’s Top 100 2016 NBA Draft prospects, his professional future may take him to play in Europe. However, before any of that happens, the Hurricanes point guard now has his sights set on the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
Rodríguez recently chatted with One Nación at the University of Miami's Coral Gables campus and offered his reflections on life and basketball, speaking in his native Spanish.
How did the passing of your father shape your childhood in Puerto Rico?
“Mi papá murió, lo mataron, en Puerto Rico cuando yo tenía dos años. En la calle, fue algo planeado... Uso las cosas positivas. Mi mamá y mi familia me decían que él era un gran padre y que yo era su vida. Yo quiero ser ese tipo de papá y dar el ejemplo, quiero hacer el bien apartándome de la calle y las cosas que les han costado la vida a él y a amigos míos”.
My father died, they killed him in Puerto Rico when y was two years. It was a planned attack in the middle of the street... I try to focus on the positive things. My mom and the rest of my family always told me that he was a great father and that I was his whole life. I want to be that kind of dad and be an example by turning away from the streets and the kind of things that cost my dad and friends of mine their lives.
How did you come to the decision to move to the United States?
I told (my mother) I had a unique opportunity that may not ever come again. I knew I was young and that it would not be easy, but I needed my mom to think about my future and my goals. To tell you the truth, she was against it at first. My mom was really scared to see me go to the mainland U.S. because it wasn’t like she could just drive for a bit to visit -- she wouldn’t be in my daily life if I did. However, she talked with my grandparents (Gabriel and Rosa), and they convinced her to let me go. Even though in reality none of them wanted to. They didn’t … they didn’t want to blame themselves for not letting me go to the United States if I failed or made bad decisions just like many friends of mine who ended up dead.
What was the biggest adjustment you had to make on the court once you arrived in Miami?
Everyone is short in Puerto Rico; the tallest guy is 6-foot-2 at most. Then all of a sudden, I am routinely facing opponents who are 6’8’’ or 6’10’’ and they would block my shot all the time. It was very frustrating. I learned to take what the defense gave me. If they didn’t want to let me shoot, I would look for the nearby shooter or the alley-oop.
What do you consider to be your true calling card as a player?
I am a warrior, 100 percent. My energy on the defensive end is contagious for my teammates.
What was it like to play at Kansas State and have your first college experience there?
I had a hard time adapting to the culture and the fact that Kansas was nothing like Puerto Rico or Miami. The snow and the bitter cold wouldn’t allow me to clear my head. Sometimes I thought ‘What am I doing here? Is all of this worth it?' You think about all that when you are alone and being negative, but my family and my girlfriend who came to visit me from Miami always cheered me up.
Then you transferred to Miami and became a starter for a team that evolved constantly. How has Coach Jim Larrañaga influenced your style of play?
(Larrañaga) always opens my mind and reminds me what I’m capable of. When I am playing well, he gives me a hug and congratulates me, and when I am in a slump, he still hugs me and tells me nothing happened. Staying positive is big for him.
What would you say to people who have the same dreams you did?
“Mi mensaje más importante sería, específicamente para los latinos que no nos criamos o no nacimos aquí en los Estados Unidos, que aquí existen oportunidades más grandes. Especialmente en el básquetbol, jugando a nivel colegial. Te diría que independientemente de que llegues a Estados Unidos y tengas la oportunidad que yo tuve o no, que siempre hay una manera de poder lograr las metas de uno”.
My most important message, especially for the Latinos like me that weren’t born or raised here in the United States, is for them to know that bigger and better opportunities do exist. I would say that whether you have an opportunity like mine or not, there is always a way to achieve your goals. It’s easier to give up and get out of the way, I know, but you have to be a warrior and stay strong to achieve your dreams.
Is Miami poised to be a national title contender this year?
We can make the Final Four, no doubt about it. We are a dangerous team nobody wants to face and we know just how much damage we can do (in the tournament).
Martin Bater is ESPNDeportes.com associate editor. Read the Spanish-language version here.