In the barrios of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital where Maryland senior Greivis Vasquez was raised, young boys will huddle around televisions so small that they can barely make him out. His relatives and others he grew up with in the neighborhood known as El Coche will watch the NCAA tournament too—including the malandros, the drug dealers he feared as a child.
A 6'6" point guard, Vasquez is the first player in the 57-year history of the ACC to have more than 2,000 points, 750 assists and 600 rebounds, and he was named the conference player of the year after leading the Terrapins to a share of the regular-season title. While Maryland fans are counting on him to lead the Terps deep into March, to Venezuela Vasquez represents something more substantial: a nation's pride. If he performs well in the NCAA tournament, beginning with No. 4 seed Maryland's game against No. 13 seed Houston on Friday in Spokane, all of Venezuela rejoices. "For me to do well, to play well in the tournament, and then, later, if I can make it to the NBA—it would make a huge impact," Vasquez says. "Our society, the young kids, they need hope. There are no words to explain what it would mean to them."
In the barrios Vazquez is known as Callejero, or Street-baller, for his flashy dribbling and passing. He starred for the national development program, then moved to the U.S. at 16. After attending Montrose Christian Academy in Rockville, Md., a prep school powerhouse, he came to College Park. Says Wake Forest guard L.D. Williams, "He makes tough shots, he makes big plays, and he's in your ear the whole time."
An emotional player, Vasquez has often clashed with his equally fiery coach, Gary Williams—and even with his own fans. During a game against Georgia Tech last season, they booed Vasquez for forcing shots and committing turnovers, shortcomings that he struggled with until this year. He reacted by putting his finger to his lips and yelling, "Shut the f--- up!" Following Maryland's come-from-behind victory he told reporters, "If the fans don't believe in us, they can get the hell out."
This season, in addition to averaging 19.6 points, 6.2 assists and 4.5 rebounds, Vasquez has emerged as the Terrapins' undisputed leader. "It's been a great story to see him progress to what he's done this year," Williams says. "Greivis is really showing his maturity, allowing the game to come to him."
"Everybody understands their role now," Vasquez says, "including me."
In Venezuela, baseball and soccer are more popular than basketball, but Vasquez's rise has fueled a national discussion over whether he could become the country's first professional hoops standout, surpassing the achievements of NBA journeymen Carl Herrera and Oscar Torres. As if that burden wasn't heavy enough, there's another concern: A successful run in the NCAA tournament might draw the attention of kidnappers back home. Relatives of Venezuelan major leaguers such as Yorvit Torrealba, Ugueth Urbina and Victor Zambrano have been abducted over the last six years, and it's possible that someone from Vasquez's family could become a target. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't worry me, that I didn't think about it," he says. "It is just another pressure I have to face."
Vasquez is quick to add, "But I am proud of where I came from. I just want to do well for [my country]. To do so would be more than cool. It would be a blessing."