Before his first basketball game, Andre Curbelo took a marker to his school-issued Nike Dunks and carefully scripted a message.

“Para mi familia.”

As a 13-year-old who trekked 1,600 miles from his family in Puerto Rico to lonely, unfamiliar New York in pursuit of his basketball dreams, the message was as much written on his shoes as it was imprinted on his soul. The Illinois freshman point guard’s journey is especially poignant this week as he prepares for Friday’s NCAA Tournament first-round game in Indianapolis.

“I do it for my family,” Curbelo told the Chicago Tribune. “They were the ones who allowed me to go. They’re the ones who are there if I fall or if I make it. I want to make it far, to say, ‘Here Mom, this is for you,’ get everybody in my family together and take care of everybody.”

Only six years ago, Curbelo was a skinny kid with a handle and promise, having freshly arrived in Long Island. He didn’t speak English, felt culturally isolated and questioned whether his voyage was worth it. As always, his family’s persistent love was like a pair of binoculars, convincing Curbelo to see beyond the immediate struggle to a prosperous future.

He’s there now.

Or at least well on his way.

When Curbelo steps on the court, it’s like watching the uncorking of a Champagne bottle. He adds equal doses of pizazz and poise that have helped make the No. 1-seeded Illini a popular contender for the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois (23-6), the Big Ten Tournament victors, broke a seven-year tournament drought and boast the most potential since 2005. They take on No. 16 Drexel in the first round.

And Curbelo, the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year, has only improved this season, taking another leap in starting the last seven games when Ayo Dosunmu was out three games with a concussion. Since a Feb. 23 loss to Michigan State, Curbelo has averaged 13.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and shot 53.8%.

“He’s a really talented kid,” coach Brad Underwood said. “He has got scary talent. For a lack of a better term, he’s an alpha. He (had) always been the best player. He wants to be that guy. He’s capable of that, he knows that. He’s matured and really grown. Now we have a group of guards who I think are as good as anybody in America.”

A pinball of action, zigging and zagging, bouncing and spinning down the court, Curbelo’s ability to shift speeds, fake opponents and create plays stun his teammates. His passes sometimes look like magic tricks, defying logic to successfully get from A to B.

“It’s an unbelievable self-confidence in his ability to get where he wants to,” said Illinois assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who recruited Curbelo from Long Island Lutheran. “His hand-eye coordination is special. His dexterity, his ability for his body to be connected with his mind. He can see a crease, knows to shift and just when think you have him, he’s gone. He can see a play two, three steps ahead. When he’s on the court, he’s in his gift.”

Curbelo said he plays with a chip on his shoulder, keeping in mind slights of low rankings and doubts from his high school days.

“What I’ve been through plays a big part of it,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot, many things. I had to leave my family as a kid. I wanted to quit at points. I thought I wasn’t good enough. I had people tell me I need to go home. But I’m always up for the challenge. It makes this even more fun.”

There is delight in getting the last laugh, of course.

After a victory, he leapt into Underwood’s arms. He salsa danced on the sideline as Illinois beat Michigan. And his pregame warmup is a circus act, perfecting his ball handling skills with crossovers using tennis balls that he sometimes juggles.

Puerto Rico

Joann Rodriguez laughed recalling how active Curbelo was when she was pregnant with him, a sign this child would be an undrainable battery.

“Always running, moving and jumping,” she said in Spanish, using her mother, Gladys Nater, as a translator.

Andre and his brother Joel — who is four years older — competed on a hoop in their tiny backyard in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, about 26 miles west of San Juan.

At 3, he was a first baseman doling out instructions to baseball teammates. He’d tag along to his brother’s basketball practices, swiping the ball from unsuspecting big kids and heaving it at the hoop. By 5, he was on a basketball team.

Athletics are in the family blood. His father, Joel, who is divorced from his mom, played professional basketball for 18 years and was on the 1996 Puerto Rico Olympic team. He is now a referee for Puerto Rico’s pro and minor leagues.

Joann, a physical education teacher, played handball for the national team. Curbelo’s aunt played basketball for Puerto Rico’s national team, and his brother, cousins and uncle also played the sport.

“Any sport they’d invite him to play, he’d be right there,” Rodriguez said of Curbelo.

Of course there were comparisons to his father, but Curbelo said his dad was cautious about giving advice. They talked about the game, not necessarily Curbelo’s game.

Curbelo excelled, impressing during travel tournaments on the mainland and destroying the competition. But he knew he was coasting — and it soon became obvious to everyone.

“My brother wanted to accomplish so many things with basketball. He’d say, ‘Let’s work out. Let’s get better,’ ” Curbelo said. “I was just comfortable where I was.”

Some U.S. teams made appeals to Curbelo’s family, “but there wasn’t really a plan,” he said. “It was just, ‘Send us your kid and we’ll take care of him.’ My parents weren’t going to let me do that.”

Edgar Padilla, who played on the Puerto Rico national team with Joel, was blunt with Curbelo’s family after a game. He saw a talented player in automatic mode because he was unchallenged.

“It’s time to go,” he told them. “You’re not getting better. He’s got to get out of here.”

Padilla, who played in the 1996 Final Four at Massachusetts under John Calipari, suggested Long Island Lutheran, where his friend Jay David was an assistant and director of the New York Jayhawks AAU.

(Padilla’s son Edgar played on the same AAU team and is also a freshman at Illinois.)

While Curbelo’s parents asked about safety, accommodations, academics and athletics, Curbelo had one question.

“‘What am I supposed to do with English? I don’t know how to speak it,’ ” he said. “(Padilla) sat back and said, ‘Figure it out.’ I accepted the challenge.”

New York

Rodriguez dropped her son off at the airport, tearful but resolute.

“It was rough to let my baby go,” she said. “I cried. But I knew he had an opportunity he wouldn’t have otherwise. It was not easy. I had to let him go even though it hurt a lot.”

Curbelo wept on the plane as doubts raced through his mind.

“Am I really doing this?” he said. “Can I do this? I don’t know if I can. But I didn’t back up. I stayed on the plane. I was only 13. I had to leave my mom. But if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have gotten on the plane. My mom would say, ‘The train doesn’t come twice.’ ”

His father told him he was ill at the hospital and couldn’t see him off — but he had flown ahead to New York to surprise him when David, the basketball coach, picked him up.

Joel helped with the transition before returning home. Then school started and Curbelo felt lost.

He relied on his phone’s Google translate app to communicate. He lived in a dorm with mostly international students who didn’t speak Spanish. The sun didn’t seem as warm in New York.

He missed his abuela’s food. (Something she worried about too — “Who is going to give my grandson his rice and beans and pork chops?” Nater wondered.)

In the classroom, teachers’ instructions sounded like gibberish. He’d stare into space until the bell rang, gather his books and go to the next class to sit in another 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 player on the court anymore. He called home in tears.

“Take the whole year,” Rodriguez told him. “Not one month, not two months. The whole year. Then if you feel like you have problems, OK, you will return. But give yourself time. I missed him but I knew his future was over there.”

Gradually, improvements came.

He sat alone at a lunch table for a month. One day, a girl at school asked him if he played basketball. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Yo, go away. I don’t know how to speak to you.’ ” But the next day, a boy sat down and began chatting, and more students gathered around.

He was tutored after school. Basketball unlocked more connections. He wrote down words he heard at practices and connected those to phrases used in classes.

His mom and grandma were stunned when they heard him in a television interview only months after arriving in New York. “Were you fooling around when you said you didn’t know English?” his mom asked. Curbelo is fluent now, sometimes verbose even.

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, his family was safe but without electricity for five months. He wondered about their hardships while he was in New York.

“A week after someone had a phone and we talked with him,” Rodriguez said. “He felt calm when he knew we were OK.”

He still missed the comforts of home.

When Curbelo visited his high school friend Emma Barrios’ home, her parents, Javier and Diane, noticed his hesitancy to return to the dorm. He had spent Easter with them as a junior and relished being among a large Colombian family, eating rice, pork chops, chicharrón and empanadas.

“He loved it so much,” Diane said. “We dropped him off at the dorms. He said, ‘I really don’t want to go back there.’ It broke my heart. Our family talked about it and decided, yes, we can do this for him.”

With the blessing of his parents and coach, Curbelo moved in for his senior year. They had a fuller house than expected as an older son and college-age daughter also returned home during the pandemic.

The Barrios consider him one of their own.

“I wanted that family environment,” Curbelo said. “They really played a big role in my life. I started becoming better in basketball. A lot of credit goes to them, they provided that family I needed.”

His evolution on the court ran parallel to his comforts off the court.

After playing sparingly as a high school freshman, working to improve his grades, he learned the value of being a distributor on a team with loads of scorers.

As a junior, he led LuHi to a New York State title.

He averaged 16.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 8.1 assists, and 3.6 steals per game before his senior season was cut short by COVID-19. He gained acclaim, outshining Bronny James, LeBron James’ son, with 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a win over Sierra Canyon School in California.

“He loves the big stage,” Javier Barrios said.

In the summers, Curbelo represented Puerto Rico. He was named to an All-Star team after wining a bronze medal in the 2018 FIBA under-17 World Cup and starred in the 2019 FIBA under-19 World Cup.

“No doubt in mind he could play with anyone anywhere,” David said. “What he has is not something you can learn.”


Through the years, Antigua checked in with his former teammate Joel Curbelo. As teens, they played together in Puerto Rico.

When Joel mentioned his son was playing in New York, Antigua said he’d check him out sometime. He observed Andre Curbelo’s raw ability.

“The way the basketball gods work and how small the world is,” Antigua said, “you just never know.”

Curbelo felt validated as Illinois’ recruiting interest increased. As a senior, he chose the Illini over Miami and offers from Kansas, Connecticut, Florida and Texas A&M among others.

“When I visited Illinois, I felt very connected,” he said.

And while they seem synced now, it took practice for Illini teammates to gel with his style.

“There were a lot of dropped balls and balls going sailing by people’s heads,” Underwood said. “He is very unique in his ability deliver passes and make passes with his body contorted in a lot of different ways. Everybody now (knows), when he’s got the ball, they better be looking.”

Now they seem telekinetically connected. As Kofi Cockburn, a recipient of Curbelo’s whizzing passes into the post, said with a grin, “Nothing Andre does surprises me.”

He has shocked opponents, though.

Against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament, Curbelo grabbed the ball from an opponent’s hands and broke away for a dunk, smiling the whole time. Later he picked the ball away and dived on the floor for it, feeding it to Dosunmu for a dunk.

His zest on the court always has been there. He traces it to his roots.

When he committed to Illinois, he held the Puerto Rican flag as supporters cheered. He mentions the territory often. He grabs island newspaper headlines. His highlights are popular.

“The entire island is going ballistic,” said Giddel Padilla, Edgar Sr.’s brother who has a digital media show.

More than 200 people have asked him how to buy a “Curbelo” No. 5 jersey, he said.

“He definitely is representing a true Puerto Rican,” Padilla said. “This is like when a Puerto Rican woman has won Miss Universe. He’s like our candidate for Mr. Universe.”

Curbelo last hugged his mom at his high school senior night game more than a year ago. During televised Illinois games, Rodriguez takes selfies with the TV when her son shoots free throws.

His family waved wildly in the stands from the Big Ten Tournament, but never got close because of COVID-19 protocols.

“It was an emotion I can’t explain,” Rodriguez said.

Curbelo recalled his mom waking daily at 5 a.m. She drove her boys to school one way and drove another direction for her job before picking them up, taking them to grandma’s and then to basketball practice even farther away. She kept part-time jobs to pay for the boys’ extracurriculars.

“My mom had many challenges,” Curbelo said. “Not to say we were broke, but sometimes there wasn’t enough. But she always made it work so I could take a trip for basketball, so we could eat, have food the next day, have food in the fridge, have our own stuff.”

She’s trying to budget travel to Indianapolis in hopes that Illinois will advance to the Sweet 16 — and beyond. Curbelo told her to pack the Puerto Rican flag for a celebration.

“I do it for my family and for my island,” he said.

A footwear aficionado, Curbelo packed 13 pairs of shoes for the tournament. He writes the same message along the midsole.

“Para mi familia.”

He doesn’t forget from where — or from whom — he comes.

“I’m Big Ten champ,” Curbelo said. “I’m a New York state champ. But the day I accomplish what I want to accomplish, get to the NBA, get big checks — I’m trying to chase the bag. The day I know my family is sleeping good, that they’re never going to be in need or miss anything, it will fill my heart.”


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