The first week of the NCAA tournament has already given us some fantastic storylines, none more improbable than UMBC’s victory over Virginia, the first time a No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed.
In the frenzied aftermath, many of the headlines went to leading scorer Jairus Lyles, who dropped 28 points on the Cavaliers, or to head coach Ryan Odom, who has reportedly attracted the attention of big-time programs with coaching vacancies. This short piece, though, is dedicated to K.J. Maura, the Retrievers’ 5'8" point guard from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The America East Conference’s shortest-ever Defensive Player of the Year, Maura causes all sorts of mayhem on the court, enough to make Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber explain why he is not looking forward to facing him on Sunday in the second round.
“He’s just a pest,” Weber said on Saturday. “He’s the guy on the playground that you hate to play against because he’s everywhere and makes plays and he’ll steal the ball off you. Maura definitely creates for everybody else and makes them go.”
Maura was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where his father Melvin introduced him to basketball when he was five years old. A big Lakers fan, his dad introduced him to Kobe Bryant, but Maura stuck with his idol Steve Nash as his go-to guy for watching tape. Maura eventually garnered enough attention to earn a scholarship to a private school on the island, which led to an invite to a youth national team camp when he was in high school.
There, however, he found out the coaches wanted the team’s point guards to be at least six feet tall. Maura told the Baltimore Sun he became depressed at the idea that this dreams of playing would soon come to an end. His father reached out to Miami-based coach Art "Pilin" Alvarez, who was also responsible for helping other Boricua players like J.J. Barea.
“[Melvin] called me and said, ‘My son is very good, but they’re not giving him the opportunity here. Is it O.K. if we come to your basketball camp [in Miami]?’” Alvarez told NCAA.com.
Maura’s family took a weekend trip to Miami to visit Alvarez’s camp, hoping his son would get an opportunity—and luckily, their wish came true. After watching Maura play at Miami Christian High School that weekend, Alvarez convinced his parents to stay longer for a tournament the following week in Las Vegas, where K.J. would be seen by at least 100 college basketball coaches from around the country.
Alvarez’s team reached the championship game in that tournament, earning its diminutive point guard all kinds of attention. He ended up relocating to Arlington Country Day school in Jacksonville, where he averaged a double double in points and assists as a junior and won a state championship as a senior. After graduating, he played at Abilene Christian, earned junior college All-America honors at College of Central Florida and eventually landed at UMBC.
Alvarez is so proud of how far Maura has come, and how much his parents have sacrificed for him to get to this point, whether or not the dream continues on Sunday.
“His family is not a wealthy family. Their home was hurt bad by Hurricane Maria down in Puerto Rico,” Alvarez told NCAA.com. “Melvin and Erica [his mother] have given so, so much for K.J. to chase this dream, and he’s made the most of it every day.”