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Before his aboriginal basketball game, Andre Curbelo took a brand to his school-issued Nike Dunks and anxiously scripted a message.
“Para mi familia.”
As a 13-year-old who trekked 1,600 afar from his ancestors in Puerto Rico to lonely, alien New York in following of his basketball dreams, the bulletin was as abundant accounting on his shoes as it was imprinted on his soul. The Illinois apprentice point guard’s adventure is abnormally agitating this anniversary as he prepares for Friday’s NCAA Clash first-round bold in Indianapolis.
“I do it for my family,” Curbelo told the Chicago Tribune. “They were the ones who accustomed me to go. They’re the ones who are there if I abatement or if I achieve it. I appetite to achieve it far, to say, ‘Here Mom, this is for you,’ get everybody in my ancestors calm and booty affliction of everybody.”
Only six years ago, Curbelo was a angular kid with a handle and promise, accepting afresh accustomed in Long Island. He didn’t allege English, acquainted culturally abandoned and questioned whether his boating was account it. As always, his family’s assiduous adulation was like a brace of binoculars, acceptable Curbelo to see above the actual attempt to a affluent future.
He’s there now.
Or at atomic able-bodied on his way.
When Curbelo achieve on the court, it’s like watching the uncorking of a Champagne bottle. He adds according doses of pizazz and address that accept helped achieve the No. 1-seeded Illini a accustomed adversary for the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois (23-6), the Big Ten Clash victors, bankrupt a seven-year clash aridity and avowal the best abeyant aback 2005. They booty on No. 16 Drexel in the aboriginal round.
And Curbelo, the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year, has abandoned bigger this season, demography addition bound in starting the aftermost seven amateur aback Ayo Dosunmu was out three amateur with a concussion. Aback a Feb. 23 accident to Michigan State, Curbelo has averaged 13.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and attempt 53.8%.
“He’s a absolutely accomplished kid,” drillmaster Brad Underwood said. “He has got alarming talent. For a abridgement of a bigger term, he’s an alpha. He (had) consistently been the best player. He wants to be that guy. He’s able of that, he knows that. He’s accomplished and absolutely grown. Now we accept a accumulation of guards who I anticipate are as acceptable as anybody in America.”
A pinball of action, zigging and zagging, bouncing and spinning bottomward the court, Curbelo’s adeptness to about-face speeds, affected opponents and actualize plays amaze his teammates. His passes sometimes attending like abracadabra tricks, defying argumentation to auspiciously get from A to B.
“It’s an astonishing aplomb in his adeptness to get area he wants to,” said Illinois abettor drillmaster Orlando Antigua, who recruited Curbelo from Long Island Lutheran. “His hand-eye allocation is special. His dexterity, his adeptness for his anatomy to be affiliated with his mind. He can see a crease, knows to about-face and aloof aback anticipate you accept him, he’s gone. He can see a comedy two, three achieve ahead. Aback he’s on the court, he’s in his gift.”
Curbelo said he plays with a dent on his shoulder, befitting in apperception slights of low rankings and doubts from his aerial academy days.
“What I’ve been through plays a big allotment of it,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot, abounding things. I had to leave my ancestors as a kid. I capital to abdicate at points. I anticipation I wasn’t acceptable enough. I had bodies acquaint me I charge to go home. But I’m consistently up for the challenge. It makes this alike added fun.”
There is contentment in accepting the aftermost laugh, of course.
After a victory, he leapt into Underwood’s arms. He salsa danced on the amusement as Illinois exhausted Michigan. And his pregame warmup is a bazaar act, perfecting his brawl administration abilities with crossovers application tennis assurance that he sometimes juggles.
Joann Rodriguez laughed abandoning how alive Curbelo was aback she was abundant with him, a assurance this adolescent would be an undrainable battery.
“Always running, affective and jumping,” she said in Spanish, application her mother, Gladys Nater, as a translator.
Andre and his brother Joel — who is four years earlier — competed on a bandage in their tiny backyard in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, about 26 afar west of San Juan.
At 3, he was a aboriginal baseman doling out instructions to baseball teammates. He’d tag forth to his brother’s basketball practices, annexation the brawl from biting big kids and bouncing it at the hoop. By 5, he was on a basketball team.
Athletics are in the ancestors blood. His father, Joel, who is afar from his mom, played able basketball for 18 years and was on the 1996 Puerto Rico Olympic team. He is now a adjudicator for Puerto Rico’s pro and accessory leagues.
Joann, a concrete apprenticeship teacher, played handball for the civic team. Curbelo’s aunt played basketball for Puerto Rico’s civic team, and his brother, cousins and uncle additionally played the sport.
“Any action they’d allure him to play, he’d be appropriate there,” Rodriguez said of Curbelo.
Of beforehand there were comparisons to his father, but Curbelo said his dad was alert about giving advice. They talked about the game, not necessarily Curbelo’s game.
Curbelo excelled, impressing during biking tournaments on the acreage and antibacterial the competition. But he knew he was benumbed — and it anon became accessible to everyone.
“My brother capital to achieve so abounding things with basketball. He’d say, ‘Let’s assignment out. Let’s get better,’ ” Curbelo said. “I was aloof adequate area I was.”
Some U.S. teams fabricated appeals to Curbelo’s family, “but there wasn’t absolutely a plan,” he said. “It was just, ‘Send us your kid and we’ll booty affliction of him.’ My parents weren’t activity to let me do that.”
Edgar Padilla, who played on the Puerto Rico civic aggregation with Joel, was edgeless with Curbelo’s ancestors afterwards a game. He saw a accomplished amateur in automated approach because he was unchallenged.
“It’s time to go,” he told them. “You’re not accepting better. He’s got to get out of here.”
Padilla, who played in the 1996 Final Four at Massachusetts beneath John Calipari, appropriate Long Island Lutheran, area his acquaintance Jay David was an abettor and administrator of the New York Jayhawks AAU.
(Padilla’s son Edgar played on the aforementioned AAU aggregation and is additionally a apprentice at Illinois.)
While Curbelo’s parents asked about safety, accommodations, academics and athletics, Curbelo had one question.
“‘What am I declared to do with English? I don’t apperceive how to allege it,’ ” he said. “(Padilla) sat aback and said, ‘Figure it out.’ I accustomed the challenge.”
Rodriguez abandoned her son off at the airport, bawling but resolute.
“It was asperous to let my babyish go,” she said. “I cried. But I knew he had an befalling he wouldn’t accept otherwise. It was not easy. I had to let him go alike admitting it aching a lot.”
Curbelo wept on the alike as doubts raced through his mind.
“Am I absolutely accomplishing this?” he said. “Can I do this? I don’t apperceive if I can. But I didn’t aback up. I backward on the plane. I was abandoned 13. I had to leave my mom. But if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t accept gotten on the plane. My mom would say, ‘The alternation doesn’t appear twice.’ ”
His ancestor told him he was ill at the hospital and couldn’t see him off — but he had aureate advanced to New York to abruptness him aback David, the basketball coach, best him up.
Joel helped with the alteration afore abiding home. Again academy started and Curbelo acquainted lost.
He relied on his phone’s Google construe app to communicate. He lived in a abode with mostly all-embracing acceptance who didn’t allege Spanish. The sun didn’t assume as balmy in New York.
He absent his abuela’s food. (Something she afraid about too — “Who is activity to accord my grandson his rice and beans and pork chops?” Nater wondered.)
In the classroom, teachers’ instructions articulate like gibberish. He’d beam into amplitude until the alarm rang, accumulate his books and go to the abutting chic to sit in addition daze.
“I knew, ‘Hi, how are you?,’ ” Curbelo said of his lexicon. “ ‘Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonald’s. I’m hungry.’ ”
His grades plummeted. He wasn’t the best amateur on the cloister anymore. He alleged home in tears.
“Take the accomplished year,” Rodriguez told him. “Not one month, not two months. The accomplished year. Again if you feel like you accept problems, OK, you will return. But accord yourself time. I absent him but I knew his approaching was over there.”
Gradually, improvements came.
He sat abandoned at a cafeteria table for a month. One day, a babe at academy asked him if he played basketball. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Yo, go away. I don’t apperceive how to allege to you.’ ” But the abutting day, a boy sat bottomward and began chatting, and added acceptance aggregate around.
He was accomplished afterwards school. Basketball apart added connections. He wrote bottomward words he heard at practices and affiliated those to phrases acclimated in classes.
His mom and grandma were abashed aback they heard him in a television account abandoned months afterwards accession in New York. “Were you bluffing about aback you said you didn’t apperceive English?” his mom asked. Curbelo is chatty now, sometimes bombastic even.
After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, his ancestors was safe but afterwards electricity for bristles months. He wondered about their hardships while he was in New York.
“A anniversary afterwards addition had a buzz and we talked with him,” Rodriguez said. “He acquainted calm aback he knew we were OK.”
He still absent the comforts of home.
When Curbelo visited his aerial academy acquaintance Emma Barrios’ home, her parents, Javier and Diane, noticed his agnosticism to acknowledgment to the dorm. He had spent Easter with them as a inferior and relished actuality amid a ample Colombian family, bistro rice, pork chops, chicharrón and empanadas.
“He admired it so much,” Diane said. “We abandoned him off at the dorms. He said, ‘I absolutely don’t appetite to go aback there.’ It bankrupt my heart. Our ancestors talked about it and decided, yes, we can do this for him.”
With the absolution of his parents and coach, Curbelo confused in for his chief year. They had a fuller abode than accepted as an earlier son and college-age babe additionally alternate home during the pandemic.
The Barrios accede him one of their own.
“I capital that ancestors environment,” Curbelo said. “They absolutely played a big role in my life. I started acceptable bigger in basketball. A lot of acclamation goes to them, they provided that ancestors I needed.”
His change on the cloister ran alongside to his comforts off the court.
After arena sparingly as a aerial academy freshman, alive to beforehand his grades, he abstruse the amount of actuality a benefactor on a aggregation with endless of scorers.
As a junior, he led LuHi to a New York Accompaniment title.
He averaged 16.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 8.1 assists, and 3.6 steals per bold afore his chief division was cut abbreviate by COVID-19. He acquired acclaim, outshining Bronny James, LeBron James’ son, with 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a win over Sierra Canyon Academy in California.
“He loves the big stage,” Javier Barrios said.
In the summers, Curbelo represented Puerto Rico. He was called to an All-Star aggregation afterwards wining a brownish badge in the 2018 FIBA under-17 Apple Cup and starred in the 2019 FIBA under-19 Apple Cup.
“No agnosticism in apperception he could comedy with anyone anywhere,” David said. “What he has is not article you can learn.”
Through the years, Antigua arrested in with his above assistant Joel Curbelo. As teens, they played calm in Puerto Rico.
When Joel mentioned his son was arena in New York, Antigua said he’d analysis him out sometime. He empiric Andre Curbelo’s raw ability.
“The way the basketball gods assignment and how baby the apple is,” Antigua said, “you aloof never know.”
Curbelo acquainted accurate as Illinois’ recruiting absorption increased. As a senior, he chose the Illini over Miami and offers from Kansas, Connecticut, Florida and Texas A&M amid others.
“When I visited Illinois, I acquainted actual connected,” he said.
And while they assume synced now, it took convenance for Illini teammates to gel with his style.
“There were a lot of abandoned assurance and assurance activity sailing by people’s heads,” Underwood said. “He is actual altered in his adeptness bear passes and achieve passes with his anatomy angled in a lot of altered ways. Everybody now (knows), aback he’s got the ball, they bigger be looking.”
Now they assume telekinetically connected. As Kofi Cockburn, a almsman of Curbelo’s whizzing passes into the post, said with a grin, “Nothing Andre does surprises me.”
He has abashed opponents, though.
Against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament, Curbelo affective the brawl from an opponent’s easily and bankrupt abroad for a dunk, animated the accomplished time. Later he best the brawl abroad and dived on the attic for it, agriculture it to Dosunmu for a dunk.
His bite on the cloister consistently has been there. He traces it to his roots.
When he committed to Illinois, he captivated the Puerto Rican banderole as supporters cheered. He mentions the area often. He grabs island bi-weekly headlines. His highlights are popular.
“The absolute island is activity ballistic,” said Giddel Padilla, Edgar Sr.’s brother who has a agenda media show.
More than 200 bodies accept asked him how to buy a “Curbelo” No. 5 jersey, he said.
“He absolutely is apery a accurate Puerto Rican,” Padilla said. “This is like aback a Puerto Rican woman has won Absence Universe. He’s like our applicant for Mr. Universe.”
Curbelo aftermost hugged his mom at his aerial academy chief night bold added than a year ago. During televised Illinois games, Rodriguez takes selfies with the TV aback her son shoots chargeless throws.
His ancestors coiled berserk in the stands from the Big Ten Tournament, but never got abutting because of COVID-19 protocols.
“It was an affect I can’t explain,” Rodriguez said.
Curbelo recalled his mom alive circadian at 5 a.m. She collection her boys to academy one way and collection addition administration for her job afore acrimonious them up, demography them to grandma’s and again to basketball convenance alike further away. She kept part-time jobs to pay for the boys’ extracurriculars.
“My mom had abounding challenges,” Curbelo said. “Not to say we were broke, but sometimes there wasn’t enough. But she consistently fabricated it assignment so I could booty a cruise for basketball, so we could eat, accept aliment the abutting day, accept aliment in the fridge, accept our own stuff.”
She’s aggravating to account biking to Indianapolis in hopes that Illinois will beforehand to the Sweet 16 — and beyond. Curbelo told her to backpack the Puerto Rican banderole for a celebration.
“I do it for my ancestors and for my island,” he said.
A cossack aficionado, Curbelo arranged 13 pairs of shoes for the tournament. He writes the aforementioned bulletin forth the midsole.
“Para mi familia.”
He doesn’t balloon from area — or from whom — he comes.
“I’m Big Ten champ,” Curbelo said. “I’m a New York accompaniment champ. But the day I achieve what I appetite to accomplish, get to the NBA, get big checks — I’m aggravating to hunt the bag. The day I apperceive my ancestors is sleeping good, that they’re never activity to be in charge or absence anything, it will ample my heart.”
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