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.
This is an article from the Nov. 21, 2011 issue
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.")
With his bantam chest, Barea looks like the yell leader who bazookas T-shirts into the mezzanine during timeouts, not someone who played his way into the Mavs' starting lineup during the Finals. Yet after winning the confidence of coach Rick Carlisle, he supplied 32 points, 10 assists, five three-pointers and two steals during Dallas's final two victories over of the Heat. This after leaving the Lakers so bamboozled that Bynum wasn't even the first one to be suspended for taking a shot at Barea; Ron Artest had that honor in Game 2.
The sheer unlikelihood of Barea's surge during the postseason unraveled the psyches of the Mavericks' opponents and turned Barea into the muse of a thousand bloggers. He was a "Steve Nash B-side" (Grantland) who "made the pick-and-roll look like a series of unanswerable questions from a quantum theory exam" (Both Teams Played Hard). "Like water on pavement and money in elections," Barea found "every crack and crevice" of defenses (Ball Don't Lie). As if to underscore the everyman fantasy that Barea seemed to be living, Busted Coverage worked backward from Rivera's due date to determine that the couple had gotten busy at precisely the time Barea was emerging as the playoffs' unlikeliest alpha male.
Barea sometimes plays the point like an option quarterback, moving east-west if that's what it takes to get north-south. At other times he's like a shortstop who scampers deep into the hole to make a play even when none seems to be there. In Barea you can see Nash's court vision, Allen Iverson's tropism for the rim and Jason Kidd's command of play, as well as flashes of Derrick Rose: teardrop floaters, strength with the ball and a rapidly developing knack for using the glass. "He's not one of those guys who dribbles 18 times in a four-by-four space to beat you," says Ron Everhart, Barea's college coach at Northeastern. "He's intent on getting somewhere with his foot speed."
There's something else, however—something unquantifiable that, since Barea left college in 2006, has mooted his undrafted status and his 5'10" height (that official listing of 6-feet is a fraud). "His heart doesn't fit in his chest," says Art Alvarez, who coached Barea for his lone high school season Stateside, at Miami (Fla.) Christian. "See what he did the possession right after Bynum gave him that shot to the ribs? He went right into the lane."
Indeed, Barea's relationship with Rivera went public last February after she tweeted to him, "I just Need You NoW!!!!!" Barea told her he was going to retweet it. She dared him to. Which of course ensured that he did.
Tempted as Barea might be to send a message to the NBA—"I just Need You NoW!!!!!"—you'd hardly know it. "I'll definitely play somewhere this season," he says. "I've got to play. If not in the NBA, probably in Spain. If I get in one year there, I can get a passport"—his father's grandfather emigrated from Spain—"and then I could play anywhere in Europe.
"You just have to be patient."
Barea has had to wait since the day he was born. One of his lungs was full of amniotic fluid, and he spent the first 10 days of his life in intensive care. "He's a fighter," the obstetrician said upon handing José Juan over to his parents—Jaime Barea, an engineer with General Electric, and Marta Mora, a volleyball and tennis coach at the University of Puerto Rico in the western city of Mayag√ºez. The youngest of three boys, José would sample baseball, tennis and volleyball, but he took up organized basketball at age five. "He never liked cartoons or playing with toys," his mother says. "He wanted balls."
When José was seven, he and his youth team won the island championship by dealing a power from San Juan its first loss in seven years. José scored 36 of his team's 48 points. "After a game my dad was always, Good job this, good job that," Barea says. "My mom was, Shoulda done this, shoulda done that."
If he had a Great Santini moment, it was finally beating his mother in tennis. "The patience is from my side," Jaime says, "the intensity from his mother."
U.S. colleges don't recruit Puerto Rican high schools, so young boricuas who want a shot at a Division I scholarship must decamp to the States to showcase themselves. "I go to meet him at the airport and see this kid, small, not strong, a little bowlegged," says Alvarez, who put up Barea in his home for the year. "He didn't look like a player at all." To allay suspicions that he had been scammed, Alvarez immediately took Barea to an outdoor court. "The shots were a little awkward," he says, "but they went in."
In his first high school game Barea lit up a Class 6-A school for 39 points and eight assists. Miami Christian went on to win a state-record 38 games that season and a 1-A title as Barea, despite having lost 20 pounds from mononucleosis, averaged a double double for the eight games of the playoffs. (He took part in the state tournament only after persuading his parents to sign a waiver, because a blow to his spleen would have endangered his life.) With most colleges scared off by his lack of size, he fell to Northeastern. "The basketball culture in Puerto Rico doesn't place much emphasis on practicing hard every day," says Everhart, who's now at Duquesne. "But the minute we did something competitive, [Barea] brought it like nobody's business. He was the great student who gets bored in class."
Barea had arrived in Boston weighing 150 pounds. By his senior season, when he was named Colonial Athletic Association player of the year, he was up to 180. His headlong-but-sideways-to-the-hoop style led referees to confess to Everhart that they couldn't tell who initiated contact on fouls—Barea or a defender. "People always said they knew I could play and loved the way I played," Barea says, "but they didn't know if I could make it at the next level. My dribble is low and under control, and that gives me confidence in my first step. I really like getting into the lane. The big question mark was, In the lane in the NBA, what was I going to do?"
Clues could be found in his performances for Puerto Rico in college-age international competitions, in which he matched the likes of Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul. After the 2004 FIBA Americas Under-20 Championship, Everhart recalls, Paul called Barea "the best player I've ever had to guard." Barea forced powers such as Australia and Lithuania to throw box-and-ones at him. Then, at the Portsmouth Invitational, that last-chance saloon for overlooked and underestimated NBA aspirants, Barea dished out 41 assists over three games to set a tournament record. Detroit G.M. Joe Dumars promised that the Pistons would take him with the last pick of the draft, No. 60, if he were still available. When they didn't, the life drained out of the friends and relatives gathered on draft day at the Barea home. It made clear the difficulty such a nontraditional-looking guard was going to have making it to the NBA. Says Jaime, "José had three strikes against him. He's 5'10", he's white, and he's Puerto Rican."
United States soldiers introduced basketball to Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War, using the hoops of barrels for goals. The game boomed during the 1930s, and Barea's influences include some of the more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans who immigrated to New York City during the '50s and raised kids who learned the game in the parks. During the '70s and '80s this second generation returned home, inflecting the island's pro league, the BSN, with a schoolyard backcourt style. From Angelo (Munch) Cruz, the Latino Nate Archibald, to mambo artist Georgie (El Chulo) Torres, "Nuyoricans turned the league upside down," says Bobbito García, the former BSN player who edits Bounce magazine. "But by the mid-2000s native islanders were good enough that there was less need for imports."
By the time Tim Hardaway and Iverson brought the ankle-breaking crossover to the NBA, the move was already an island staple. It had spawned a rich expression: Leave a guy with a move and you could crow !Lo dejó pegao!—or "left him stuck," like rice encrusted on the bottom of a pot. As a teenager playing in the BSN, Barea heard that phrase in practice from 35-year-old teammate and Queens product James (El Presidente) Carter.
Teams representing "the Sixth Borough" became known for the Gothamite fearlessness of their backcourts. At the 1976 Olympics former Marquette star Butch Lee took Puerto Rico to within a point (and a dubious charging call) of defeating the U.S. Carter engineered defeats of los yanquis at the 1989 Tournament of the Americas and the 1991 Pan American Games. Carlos Arroyo led Puerto Rico to a 19-point drubbing of the U.S. in Athens in 2004—the first time U.S. pros had ever lost at an Olympics.
That game made Arroyo a hero to four million Puerto Ricans, including the undrafted Barea, who could regard an intrepid tenacity as his birthright. He accepted Golden State's invitation to play for its team in the Las Vegas Summer League, only to watch the Warriors pick up Baron Davis for their backcourt. So he joined Dallas's entry in Salt Lake City's Rocky Mountain Revue and landed an invitation to the Mavs' training camp, where he won over coach Avery Johnson and made the team. It was Johnson, who, looking around for José Juan in practice one day, bellowed "J.J.!" The nickname stuck. "I loved Avery, except in practice," Barea says. "Oh, I hated him in practice. I wanted to punch him out."
Midway through that first season, unable to get Barea off the bench, the Mavs sent him to their D-League affiliate, the Fort Worth Flyers. When he was summoned back to the Mavs two weeks later, the Flyers had won six of seven, with Barea springing for 40-plus points in back-to-back games. "You can't go back there," teammate Jason Terry declared. "We're gonna retire your number." Sure enough, for the Dallas Mavericks Foundation's annual gala later that season, Terry sent for Barea's Flyers number 11 jersey and presided over a mock ceremony that was the hit of the evening and marked Barea's investiture as a Mav.
By 2008, Carlisle, who took over from Johnson, had folded Barea into a three-guard rotation. "Rick gave me more freedom," Barea says. "More opportunity too. Maybe because I was older, you know?" But nothing boosted Barea's confidence more than the return to Dallas of Jason Kidd. Barea had worn Kidd's jersey as a child and now dressed in the locker next to his. "I'd ask myself why J. Kidd was always passing me the ball," Barea says. "I figured I must be doing something good."
After the Mavericks' title, everyone had something to say. In the locker room celebration Terry bellowed, "J.J.! Tell me how much money you want!" A week later President Obama, making the first presidential visit to Puerto Rico in 50 years, included a shout-out to Barea—"That guy can play!"—in his official remarks. And when that obstetrician from 27 years ago ran into Jaime and Marta Barea around town, he couldn't help himself: "I told you he was a fighter!"
At Miami Christian and Northeastern and Portsmouth, in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City and Fort Worth—whenever Barea had to take a detour, he remained committed to his goal. "This was to be his year," says Alvarez. "We're all concerned for him that he's not playing." But the family long ago adopted a formulation of José's brother Jaime Javier: "José has a simple mind and just won't put concerns into it."
As soon as the lockout ends, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is expected to open his checkbook to keep Barea. Or to do so to the extent that a new CBA allows.
For now Barea is being conditioned by San Juan's traffic. For now he'll simply wait.