- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

TAMPA, Fla. — When Greivis Vasquez was only 12, he would catch a bus in Caracas, Venezuela, on his own to practice at a place near his grandmother’s home.

The area was known for murders, robberies and heaven knows what else. But it was a place to play, a place to hone a craft, a place for Vasquez to feel at home.

“I remember when I walked the streets I used to look behind me,” Vasquez says. “Every time I was scared somebody was going to steal my shoes. It never happened. But it was tough.”

It is no surprise the Maryland guard both survived and is proud of his hardscrabble roots. His rugged, feisty, outgoing play — some might call it showboating — is a change of pace for a team notably devoid of characters over the last few seasons. Vasquez likely is the most emotional and engaging Terrapins player since forward Byron Mouton five years ago.

“He’s one of those people that when he walks between the lines, he gets tough,” coach Gary Williams says. “He’s the nicest guy you want to meet, but when it comes time for competition, that’s where he really shows. I don’t think he fears anything on the basketball court.”

Vasquez isn’t afraid to scowl at a crowd or yowl at a teammate or even himself. He thrives in the most hostile arenas, immersing himself in the competitive atmosphere. He’s well on his way to becoming the latest love-him-or-hate-him player in a conference with a long tradition of polarizing performers.

And after an impressive freshman season as the starting point guard for the fifth-seeded Terps (24-7, 10-6 ACC), who meet 12th-seeded Miami today at St. Pete Times Forum in the first round of the conference tournament, there are results to back up his demonstrative nature.

“He has a such a cocky attitude that he’s going to go out there and play against whoever,” guard D.J. Strawberry says. “The point guards in this league are so young this year, and with him coming in, too, he’s standing out. People really don’t notice him that much or give him much credit because we have a lot of players around him. He’s a great player, and he’s going to be a great player here for a long time.”

A style of his own

In an increasingly homogenous game littered with guards dying to prove they can hit 25-footers and big men determined to develop the skills of a 6-foot-3 player, Vasquez stands out. There are no obvious comparisons, no analogies for a man whose aggressive and creative approach frequently borders on recklessness.

There is no way to teach his style; rather, it must be created over time, through endless work and hours on the court.

And so it was for Vasquez.

While growing up, he would play a game with his father, Gregorio, watching him the entire time. The pair would leave for home, talking about the performance the entire time, before Greivis would plead to go to a court and keep playing. And he would, often until 1 a.m.

“I started creating a base of my game,” Vasquez says. “When I look back on all that, I’m playing by myself with all that crazy stuff and doing it for fun. … When you really love the game, you start thinking about situations when you’re by yourself. You’re thinking about different situations — how I’m going to pass the ball, how I’m going to shoot. I still do that even when I’m at this age.”

As he grew older, Vasquez picked out his own heroes — notably guard Diego Guevara, who played for Charlotte from 1997 to 2001 — and began drawing attention for his own exploits. He participated in a Basketball Without Borders camp in Brazil and soon had offers to play professionally in Spain or in his own country.

Though Vasquez had a middle-class upbringing, the money of a professional contract would have helped his family. But his mother urged him to do what was best for him, even if that was earning an education in the United States and deferring financial gain.

It led him to Rockville’s Monroe Christian for two seasons and a new culture. Then it was on to Maryland, where the absence of a natural point guard ensured an opportunity to play early in his career and a chance to play for an equally emotional coach.

“He’s probably still thinking over here in Spanish, and I’m yelling at him in English. It’s a battle up here going on,” Williams says as he points at his head. “He’s done a great job of just taking the challenge. This is what he wants to do. I’m sure his goals are to be an NBA player eventually. He knows this was the route he had to go.”

Vasquez initially came off the bench, with Williams dubbing him “our John Havlicek” after a breakout night against Illinois. But a dozen games into the season, Vasquez gained a starting spot and since has resumed the Havlicek role only so the Terps could start five seniors in their final home game.

“That was one of the best things in my life, being the starting point guard for Maryland,” Vasquez says. “As long as I’m playing basketball, I haven’t wanted to be rich. I’ll probably be rich, but I don’t care about money. I just play basketball and [enjoy] being in those kind of situations.”

Spurring a turnaround

Whenever Maryland finds itself in a particularly rowdy environment, it can count on Vasquez to deliver one of his best games.

His 17-point outburst in November at Illinois — which snapped the Illini’s 51-game nonconference home winning streak — was only a start. He dropped 17 at Virginia to keep the Terps relatively close in a loss and had 15 points and 11 assists in front of a restless group of hecklers at Clemson.

But the night that best defines Vasquez’s nascent career is only eight days old. He scored 13 points and added 12 assists and nine rebounds — nearly the first triple-double by an ACC freshman since Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson in 1989 — and stared down Duke’s notorious Cameron Crazies in an 85-77 victory Feb. 28.

“I just love competition,” Vasquez says. “I love someone to get on me and try to compete against me. I love that. When I went to Illinois, it was fun to play against all those guys and all those fans. Duke, Virginia, all those teams. I’m not satisfied.”

His first season has at least been fulfilling. He’s averaging 10 points and 4.6 assists, though Williams was rankled by Vasquez’s omission from the ACC’s all-rookie team released this week. His father visited him in America for the first time, staying six weeks before returning home a few days ago.

Vasquez was especially productive during the Terps’ seven-game winning streak to end the regular season, putting up 12.1 points, 7.0 assists and 3.9 rebounds.

In the locker room after Saturday’s victory over N.C. State, he clutched a set of wood pieces signed by teammates that he was sending with his father back to Venezuela.

That was where Vasquez’s journey started. His final destination looks even brighter as he and the Terps prepare for the postseason.

“A lot of people were questioning me, if I was going to be good, if I was going to be a good ACC player or not,” Vasquez says. “I guess I’m doing all right. I’m doing my best.”


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