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The Salt Lake Tribune

Arroyo Mania

By Phil Miller

August 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- On billboards, he's hawking Finlandia malt beverages. On television, he's enthusing about sandwiches made from Holsum bread. Newspapers run his photo almost daily lately, including a full-page shot of an up-and-under reverse layup on the back page of a San Juan tabloid last week.

And every time Carlos Arroyo ventures out in public in his homeland, crowds of raucous fans shout his name, snap photos and ask for autographs.

In Utah, the Jazz's buried-on-the-bench third-string point guard is virtually anonymous out of uniform. But here in his hometown, like virtually everywhere on this basketball-mad island of 3 million people, Arroyo's fame rivals anything his former teammates John Stockton and Karl Malone encounter on the mainland.

"Yeah, but John and Karl are known all over the world," Arroyo says. "This is my home."

It's a home that has sent only six players to the NBA, none with much success so far. It's a home that, virtually alone among Caribbean locales, prefers basketball above soccer, baseball or any other sport. And because of that history, it is a home that has tracked the point guard's college and professional progress in the United States in remarkable detail -- "even when I'm not playing," Arroyo says with a laugh.

"He is an icon here," says Leo Arill, a San Juan journalist and acquaintance of Arroyo's.

"Just the fact that he is there, in the NBA, makes him popular. People are proud when a Puerto Rican is part of sports on the [U.S.] mainland, and he was one of the most popular players already. Everywhere now, it's 'Carlos, Carlos, Carlos.' "

Arroyo has turned that renown into an impressive array of endorsements on the island, including Finlandia, Holsum and most recently Mazda of Puerto Rico auto dealers. His face isn't just on commercials, either; he will appear on the cover of Escape magazine, a Spanish-language magazine targeted at single young men (similar to Maxim in the U.S.), later this fall, with a profile and clothes- modeling spread inside.

"I've been doing a million photo shoots this summer," Arroyo says. "San Juan City magazine, Escape, some others -- it's been really busy. But it's great, because it shows I am earning respect."

He's earned it from his coach, too. "Carlos was always skilled, but he has learned to harness his game and make his teammates better," says national-team coach Julio Toro. "And during his time in the NBA, he has been a student. He has learned much, and he has gained confidence."

Stature, too. Puerto Rico's biggest sports hero is Felix Trinidad, the world welterweight boxing champion, who is revered on the island in a way that only Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods could appreciate. Longtime baseball stars Juan Gonzalez and Pudge Rodriguez have been popular for a decade, though their careers are on the decline.

And in basketball, only former Jazz forward Jose Ortiz, now the 40-year-old elder statesman of the national team, receives as much adulation as Arroyo. "He's everyone's favorite now," gushes Jolisco Aberto, a Rio Piedras native who wore a Puerto Rican jersey with Arroyo's name on the back to the Tournament of the Americas last week. "He is as smart as he is talented, and that's why he will be extremely good [in the U.S.] -- he wins championships."

Arroyo has won five of them with a San Juan team in the Puerto Rican professional league, which is where his popularity started. But "the day he signed [his first NBA contract] with Toronto, it was the biggest [sports] news of the year," Arill said. "That day, he became a star in Puerto Rico."

It hasn't changed, even though Arroyo has averaged only eight minutes a game in the NBA, including just 287 minutes all season with Utah last year. Indeed, many Puerto Ricans seem to regard Arroyo's lack of playing time with the Jazz as a mandatory apprenticeship -- but only a temporary one. Said Humbert Cruz, manning a local rental-car counter, "Carlos will be known throughout the United States very soon. With Stockton gone, his time is near."

Arroyo, who signed a second one-year contract with Utah last month, understands how much his countrymen expect from him, and what a positive effect a successful NBA career would have for Puerto Ricans. "I take that as a motivation, to work hard for them," he says. "I like people to respect me, and for me to have more of that, I have to get better. For me to win respect, it starts in Utah. I have to play well there, and then everything else will come from that."

He knows that thousands of Puerto Ricans dream of the chance he's been given. Several small basketball "arenas," with lights and bleachers, have been built alongside the main road between San Juan and this industrial fishing port on the east coast where he grew up. Night and day, they are filled with dreamers pretending to lead a fast break like their homegrown star.

Which makes him appreciate it all the more. "This is what I've always dreamed about. Signing autographs, about people knowing me, making people proud of me. It's a blessing that I'm living this life, I know that," Arroyo says, while pausing to pose for photos with his fans. "I know I have to work hard to keep it. It means I have to get up early to shoot, that I have to spend extra time lifting weights. I have to dedicate myself to this sport because this sport has been great to me."

What if?

Jazz point guard Carlos Arroyo averaged only 6.5 minutes in 44 games last season, mostly when games were already decided. But since that's the only available gauge of his ability, here's a look at how Arroyo's 48-minute projections compare with John Stockton's.




48 MINUTESPointsAssistsSteals

Stockton 18.713.32.9


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