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February 12, 2009

From Puerto Rico to Prominence

By: Jimmy Robertson

A.D. Vassallo’s decision to come to the United States has resulted in him becoming an ACC star

Like most young kids growing up in Puerto Rico, he came home from school, went into his house, probably tossed his book bag on the couch and grabbed a snack, and then returned outdoors.

Under the warm evening sun, and with the breezes lazily blowing off the Caribbean, he and a few of the neighborhood kids did what a lot of youngsters do on islands in the Caribbean – they played baseball in the streets.

That’s a rather awkward sight for Virginia Tech fans to envision. After all, the A.D. Vassallo they know is a basketball standout in one of the best conferences in the nation and the son of a former professional basketball player. Vassallo now has a solid 6-foot-6 frame, an immaculate shooting form and a 14-karat stroke.

So it’s rather hard to comprehend him playing baseball, throwing and hitting the tiny white pill and running bases in the streets.
But it’s true.

“I really started playing baseball first,” Vassallo said. “I started baseball when I was 5. I didn’t start playing basketball until I was, like, 7. That [baseball] was my dad’s sport. He loves baseball. He put me into baseball first, and I like baseball as much as I do basketball.

“In high school, I played both. It was more of a hobby because I knew I wasn’t going to college to play baseball. I still loved playing it. I was better at baseball than I was at basketball in high school. Obviously, I wouldn’t say that now.”

Nor would anyone else in this hemisphere, not after watching him launch his beautiful jump shots toward an iron rim time and time again the past four years. Vassallo burst on the Tech scene four years ago when an emaciated squad needed a young freshman not only to play, but also to produce, in a game at Wake Forest. Undeterred, he serenely dropped 29 on the Deacs, a barrage that ultimately catapulted him into a rather prodigious career in Blacksburg.

Now the sun is setting on his collegiate days. He’s not sure where he’s going to wind up, but it may very well be back where it all started.

Utter the name “Daniel Vassallo” on the island and everyone knows to whom you’re referring. He possesses legendary status there, a former professional player who filled it up back in the day. For comparison’s sake, he’s like the Michael Jordan of the Puerto Rican professional league.

Though he retired more than a dozen years ago, he still plays, participating in the 45-50 age group of a seniors league. Father Time has robbed him of half a step and it takes a little longer for the joints to get lubed up. But the vision remains 20-20, the handle still clean and the jumper still pure.

A.D., which stands for Angel Daniel, certainly remembers the games. He sat behind the bench in an airy gym for every game, but he wasn’t eagerly anticipating the on-court action. No, instead, he couldn’t wait for halftime. He and his buddies provided the entertainment.

“During halftime, I’d go out on the court and shoot with the other kids while waiting for the teams to come back out,” he said. “They didn’t really have halftime shows. The court would be clear and kids would go out and shoot until the teams came back out.”

A.D. grew to realize his father’s game wouldn’t quite fit into his own version. After all, Daniel Vassallo was quicksilver with the ball in his hands. A.D. is not a plodder, but he more likes finding his spot, being fed the ball and lofting jumpers.

“He was impressive,” A.D. said of his father. “He was different than me. He was more of a driver. He could still shoot the ball, but he was more of a driver, and he could jump higher than me. He had some tremendous dunks. He was quicker than me. He could handle the ball. He was a good, smart player, but we’re different.”

Daniel Vassallo and his wife always went to great lengths to care for their son. Daniel grew up in Santurce, a barrio of decay in northern San Juan that borders the Atlantic. He ended up buying a house in Toa Baja, roughly 15 minutes west of San Juan, to move his family into a better environment.

He also wanted to make sure A.D. got a good college education, so together, they hatched a plan, one that would send A.D. to the United States.

“When I was around 14 or 15, my dad and I had a plan to try and get a scholarship,” A.D. said. “I’d move to the United States to try it, and then when the opportunity came, I took it. That’s why I moved when I was in the 10th grade.”

A family friend helped arrange for A.D. to get to the States. The family researched several different schools in various parts of the country, mainly in Miami and Philadelphia, but A.D. – by his own choice – decided to disembark at tiny Faith Christian Academy in south-central Virginia.

“I didn’t know much about the school,” A.D. said. “I just told them to send me there.

“Part of the reasoning was that Miami has a lot of Hispanics and Puerto Ricans and all that, and I really wanted to make sure I learned English. I knew that was going to be important for getting into a college. I didn’t want to speak Spanish all the time. And I know in Philadelphia, there was a large concentration of Hispanic people, too.

“In Virginia, I was going to be by myself. At those other schools, I had friends from Puerto Rico who were going there. But I wanted to go by myself and get away from everyone. That was a factor in the situation, too.”

A vivid description of A.D. Vassallo reveals all sorts of details about his basketball exploits, but what often gets left out is his fierce willingness to compete. Even at the ripe young age of 15, he practically salivated at the challenge of coming to a new country, not knowing a soul, and trying to carve out a basketball future for himself.

Hurt, Va., the town that houses Faith Christian Academy, presented the ultimate challenge. After all, the town consists of all of about 1,300 people – less than 1 percent of whom are Hispanic – and the local weather and mountains mark a stark contrast to Puerto Rico’s coastal paradise.

“It was not that bad,” Vassallo said. “It was different. Weather-wise, it was different, and getting from one place to another. In Puerto Rico, you can go anywhere in a matter of minutes. Everything is packed in. Here, there is so much space. The food is the same, but it’s cooked differently here.

“But it wasn’t that bad. I was so focused on making it for myself. I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m the type who enjoys challenges and I like going different places and exploring.”

Vassallo spent three years at Faith Christian, living with a local host family his first year. After his sophomore season there, he moved in with another host family, the Carwile family. At the time, Gene Carwile served as the athletics director at Faith, while his wife, Becky, worked as an associate dean at Liberty University.

Vassallo has been known as a bit of a loner during his days at Tech, a young man who enjoys spending time by himself – “I was used to coming home and being by myself,” he said. “That sounds bad, but my dad was usually at practice and my mom was working. At the same time, I learned how to take care of myself and that helped me.” – but he became quite attached to the Carwile family while attending Faith. Gene and Becky treated him as one of their own four children, fostering a relationship with a young man not used to getting close with those outside of his family.

“The kids adopted him and we treated him like one of our own,” Gene Carwile said. “There were some times when he missed home, but he knew if he was going to make it [to college], then he was going to have to stay in the States and prove it against good competition.”

Vassallo graduated from Faith and committed to the University of Richmond, but wound up at Hargrave on the advice of the Richmond coaching staff after the school denied him admission – even though he had met NCAA requirements. While there, Becky Carwile prodded him to remain focused on his academics and Vassallo took the advice, fully expecting to head to Richmond after the stint at Hargrave.

It never happened. Richmond denied him admission for a second time, and then Jerry Wainwright, the head coach, bolted for the head job at DePaul. Seth Greenberg, seeing an opportunity to land a premier shooter, made a call, and Vassallo ultimately choose Tech over N.C. State and West Virginia.

“Here, I knew Carlos Dixon had graduated and I knew I could get some minutes at the 3,” he said. “So that, and that Tech was close to home, were the reasons why.”

Excited about getting a scholarship and coming to an ACC school, Vassallo arrived in Blacksburg eager to get started.

Freshman years tend to spin out of control at times for even the most grounded of students, and Vassallo found himself on a college flight path filled with turbulence.

It started with his second collegiate game, a game at Cassell Coliseum against Bowling Green. He actually got the start in that game, and the game was close at the end.

In the waning moments, while going up to rebound a Bowling Green brick, Vassallo jumped a little too soon and wasn’t able to secure the ball with both hands. It actually deflected off one of his hands and into the basket – which turned out to be the winning points for Bowling Green.

Greenberg and his teammates downplayed the incident. And after being in the doldrums, Vassallo accepted the play for what it was – a random, fluke incident and one that certainly wouldn’t detract from his budding career. It just wasn’t quite the take-off he wanted.

The real tragedy, though, occurred a couple of months later when Vassallo received notice that Becky Carwile has passed away after a yearlong bout with breast cancer. The news served as a sharp elbow to the face.

“It was a difficult time,” Vassallo said. “She helped me out a lot. She was a good lady. She cared a lot for people. She tried to do a lot for everybody. When that hit, it was kind of a surprise. So that was harder than normal.”

“He and Becky butted heads occasionally, but she kept pushing him academically,” Gene Carwile said. “He was a part of our family and she wanted him to succeed. At the funeral, we all gathered at the gravesite as a family to say a prayer and A.D. was there, too.”

Fighting with basketball struggles, academic struggles and personal struggles his first year, Vassallo desperately needed something to go right for him. It finally happened on Jan. 28, 2005, in Winston-Salem, N.C., of all places.

With the team in dire straits – Tech was 0-6 in the ACC at the time – Vassallo notched his first double-double, scoring 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, as the Hokies shocked Wake Forest. The 29 points were the most by a Tech freshman since Dec. 16, 1978, when Dale Solomon scored 33 points at Old Dominion.

The game sparked something within Vassallo.
“In that game, I got to play a lot and I was able to do some of the things I had done in high school,” he said. “I just played and didn’t worry about what was going on. Once I did that, I knew I was able to do it. I knew I was capable of doing anything I wanted to do. It worked out after that.”

Vassallo’s career rocketed from that point forward. He averaged 11.1 points per game as a sophomore, helping the Hokies to the NCAA Tournament. Last season, he averaged almost 17 points per game and led the team to the NIT, and a few months after the season, he earned a spot on Puerto Rico’s national team and spent part of this past summer playing on that team. This year, he’s averaging almost 18 points per game and making a rather hearty case for first-team All-ACC nods.

He does some of his best work in the big games. He scored 17 points in Tech’s upset of No. 1 North Carolina in 2007. He added 19 points and 10 boards in the Hokies’ huge road win at Georgia Tech that same year. He dropped 30 on Wisconsin this season in a losing effort, but his 16 points fueled another Hokie upset of a No. 1-ranked team, as Tech beat Wake Forest on Jan. 21 of this year.

He ranks 14th on Tech’s scoring list, with more than 1,500 points, and has a chance of getting into the top 10. He also has more than 500 career rebounds.

“The coaches have done a good job and I’ve accepted my roles along the way,” Vassallo said. “And I kept working. I had a chance to play with the national team, so that gave me more experience. I just became more confident each and every year and started playing better and better. Last year, I had the chance to start and have a bigger role and I took advantage of it. I’ve always tried to work on my game every year and I think I’ve gotten better over the years.”

His career is certainly coming full circle. It started when his dad taught him the game as a 7-year-old boy in Puerto Rico. Daniel Vassallo moved to Blacksburg a couple of months ago to live with his son, taking time off that he had saved from his job managing a gym in Puerto Rico and savoring his son’s waning days as a collegian.

“Just having him around is nice,” Vassallo said. “It’s like recovering a couple of those years. I haven’t seen him as much in eight years. Having him around has allowed us to catch up a little bit on that time.”

Vassallo wastes little time these days thinking about his future. He knows one thing – it will include a pursuit of basketball, now his dream. He just doesn’t know the league or the country, nor does it matter. He plays for the love it; the money would be a secondary reason.

He very well may go back to Puerto Rico, his home. Back to warm weather and back to the streets where he grew up playing baseball.

Back to a time when he had a kid’s heart – only this time, back to pursue a man’s dream.