In a country where futbol is king, Fabio Blanco found himself drawn more to the basketball court than the soccer pitch.
The 17-year-old grew up playing the beautiful game in his hometown of Bogata, Columbia, but around age eight he began to drift away. Taller than the neighborhood kids, basketball looked a natural fit, despite being a niche sport in Latin America.
Plus, it just felt right, he said sitting at a cafeteria table in the Richard J. Ernst Community Cultural Center at Northern Virginia Community College, where he’s preparing to play for school’s men’s basketball team.
I don’t know, I had an attraction to it, he said, speaking through Antonio Padmore, Panama-native, building engineer and Blanco’s part-time translator.
It’s a passion, Blanco said.
And it’s brought Blanco from Bogata to Virginia. He lives with an uncle in Vienna while taking an intensive English language course at NVCC’s Alexandria campus. He’s a quick learner, but he’s only lived in the states for two months. He speaks his second language slowly, answering when he’s sure of what’s been asked.
At 6 feet 8 inches, Blanco can’t be described simply as lanky: he’s a beanpole. Before practice, he sprawls across several of the gymnasium’s wooden bleacher benches, ear buds plugged in. On the court, he hovers over most of his American counterparts.
But he lacks the muscle mass of his teammates. Adjusting to their speed and aggressive play will be a difficult transition, said coach Mike Fitzmaurice, a longtime Alexandria resident.
To play basketball in the U.S. [Blanco has] got to be bigger and stronger. He’s tall, but he’s got to put on some beef, he said. Some of the guys on the team are very big and very tough and the guys we play are even tougher and bigger. But he’s not fearful. He goes out and plays hard.
When Blanco sent Fitzmaurice an e-mail inquiring about a spot on the basketball team, the first thing that ran through the coach’s head was: ‘Oh jeeze, what are we going to get?’ Fitzmaurice shot an e-mail back, wondering about the South Americans basketball background. When Blanco responded with his height in inches and feet not in metric and cited his experience on Columbia’s junior national team, Fitzmaurice hastily scheduled a meeting.
Blanco is talented, but it’s too soon to know if he’ll take to American basketball, Fitzmaurice said. International play is much more finesse than the aggressive, jam-it-down-the-middle style of play employed in basketball courts and arenas across the country, the coach said. Some international players can do it. A lot can’t.
It’s really a very different game altogether, Fitzmaurice said. Fundamental basketball players can transition very well. They can come into the NBA and do well. But there are some very physically gifted players who can’t make the transition.
Fitzmaurice can’t say whether Blanco eligible in January will play this year. If the Columbian has anything to say about it, he will. Fitzmaurice prefers Blanco focus more on his studies and putting on some muscle.
Despite the short-term questions, Blanco hasn’t let go of aspirations that brought him from his parents and sisters to the United States. He wants to play in the pros, for Miami or Los Angeles if they’ll take him, but step one is in Virginia.
I came here to play for the NBA, he said. I came here in pursuit of my dream.