CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- It has been two weeks since Miami basketball fans began mourning the highly publicized decision by superstar free agent LeBron James to leave Miami and return to northeast Ohio to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last May, a similar homecoming occurred in Coral Gables. It lacked the same media attention as Lebron’s, but it brought an impact basketball player back to his Miami roots.
Angel Rodriguez, a Puerto Rico native who moved to Miami as a teenager to pursue his dream of playing college basketball in the United States, returned to finish his collegiate career with the Miami Hurricanes. As a child, Rodriguez always imagined playing college basketball. But as he grew up and developed as a basketball player, his goals faded and the vast ocean that separated him from his dream seemingly grew larger.
In order for Puerto Rican basketball players to garner the attention of Division I coaching staffs, it is a necessary part of recruitment for the player to attend some high school in the United States. Rodriguez said the most important step of that process is having a connection and fortunately for him, he had one.
“If you don’t have connections, you won’t get [to the United States],” Rodriguez explained. “I was fortunate enough that I had my cousin [Javi Gonzalez] who actually played for NC State. He went to high school in Miami and in the off season he went to see me play and he liked how I played and asked me if I wanted to go to the U.S.”
After receiving his mother’s blessing, Rodriguez moved to Miami and enrolled at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School. He was just 15 years old and in a completely new city, but he did not have anything on his mind “other than basketball.” Transitioning to the fast-paced life in Miami was a challenge. It was different than what Rodriguez was accustomed to in San Juan and his new basketball competition was unlike anything he had played against.
“Basketball here was a lot different,” he said. “But, it was what I expected. I expected to play against much bigger people, more athletic. That actually gave me a lot of trouble when I got here, but I got used to it and it was normal.”
The improved competition forced Rodriguez to elevate his game. As a sophomore Rodriguez started at guard on the varsity team, leading the squad in scoring and assists. He guided the team to a district title and was named first team All-Dade County by the Miami Herald. Rodriguez’s sophomore campaign was the first of three that ended in all-county honors.
Following his junior season, Rodriguez was tabbed the Miami-Dade County Player of the Year. By the time he was a senior, Rodriguez was the No. 4 rated player in the state of Florida. The talented guard was averaging 23 points per game along with six assists and was garnering recruiting interest from the likes of Rick Pitino at Louisville and Billy Donovan at Florida.
Rodriguez was attracted to the program Cuban-American and Miami native Frank Martin was building at Kansas State. Martin is highly regarded in Miami basketball circles, where he began his career locally at Miami Senior High, coaching high-caliber players such as the Miami Heat’s Udonis Haslem. “My high school coach had a good relationship with Frank and he always showed loved from the beginning and I built a good relationship with him,” Rodriguez said, reminiscing on his recruiting trip. “I felt like I was at home. Frank is Cuban and back then I didn’t know much English and it was comfortable for me to have a good relationship with my coach going that far away from home.”
Rodriguez was also intrigued by the success transfer Denis Clemente had at K-State after playing at the University of Miami. Clemente was a Puerto Rican guard from Miami and the system the Wildcats played was something Rodriguez looked forward to becoming a part of.
As a freshman, Rodriguez made an immediate impact in Manhattan, starting in 17 games including the team’s two NCAA tournament contests. As quickly as Rodriguez defined his role at K-State, he was not sure if he was to remain a Wildcat for the remainder of his college career. At the end of the season, Frank Martin stepped down and accepted the head coaching position at South Carolina. “I was lost when Frank said he was leaving,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Bruce Weber was named Martin’s successor at Kansas State, and after speaking with his AAU coach and mentor Marcos “Shakey” Rodriguez, Angel decided to stay in Manhattan and play for Weber.
“Shakey told me to relax,” Rodriguez said. “They signed coach Weber and I figured I might as well stay. He had a good reputation with guards and we figured we should stay because regardless if I transferred, I still had to sit one year and try a new coach. It was the smartest decision to stay.”
Rodriguez was in a new system under Weber, but he was still the same dynamic player. As a sophomore, he started all 33 games for Weber, leading the Wildcats in 3-points field goals (55), assists (173) and steals (50) and earning spots on the Big 12 All-Defensive team and All-Big 12 second team.
Despite two winning seasons at K-State and surviving a coaching change, Rodriguez believed it was time to move on from Manhattan.
“When I made that decision, I really wanted to come and get close to my family,” Rodriguez said.
Kansas State granted Rodriguez his release and schools immediately began calling the highly-coveted point guard, including Jim Larrañaga’s Miami staff. Rodriguez’s first and only recruiting trip as a transfer was to Coral Gables, but this time he did not arrive in South Florida alone as he did as a 15-year-old.
Angel’s mother joined him on his visit and he will always remember how Coach L and his staff embraced her.
His visit to Miami assured Rodriguez that the Canes were the program for him.
“I couldn’t ask for anything better once I said I was going to transfer,” Rodriguez said. “That’s why I didn’t even waste my time visiting other schools.”
Rodriguez was unable to play, sitting out 2013-14 due to transfer rules. While he could not make an impact in games, he was an active member of the Hurricanes in practice. But his biggest impact may have been drawing the attention of another talented Big 12 player looking for a new opportunity.
“Shortly after Angel made a decision to come to the University of Miami, Sheldon McClellan announced that he going to be transferring and Miami was going to be one of the schools he was going to consider,” Larrañaga explained. “Angel was instrumental in helping us recruit Sheldon.”
Confined to bench, the highly competitive Rodriguez watched helplessly as his team lost close game after close game, seven of which were decided by five points or fewer. Rather than sulk with his teammates in defeat, Rodriguez provided support by motivating them and ramping up his efforts in practice. As the point guard, Rodriguez was the quarterback for the scout team and simulated the opponents’ game plans. Larrañaga ensured that his tenacity in the gym “made every scrimmage situation very competitive because he was trying so hard to win.” In practice, Rodriguez would become angry and frustrated if his team would not win.
With the 2014-15 campaign only months away, Rodriguez has begun to cement his role as a leader, using his experience and work ethic as cornerstones. “I’m definitely a bigger leader because I have a lot of experience and I know what it takes to get where we want to go,” he said. “I can lead the guys based on my work ethic and how hard I practice and I can lead them to the right path.”
Rodriguez has become a court commander, being more vocal in practice. No longer simply leading by physical example, Rodriguez now has the confidence to call out directions and plays like the team leader that he is. Coach L has witnessed his tenacity translate into a relentless style of defense from the point guard.
“Angel is a bulldog on defense, he’s one of those guys that clenches his teeth, sinks his teeth into you and doesn’t let you go,” Larrañaga described. “You’ve got to try and shake free from him. It’s a great characteristic for a point guard and a great way for a coach to build the team defense.”
Rodriguez’s homecoming has brought him back to the city that provided him the possibility to chase his dream of playing college basketball. While some would feel pressure playing in their home city, the Puerto Rican is finally comfortable in his adopted hometown and is eager for the chance to play in front of family and friends.
“I never feel pressure,” Rodriguez said. “I am excited. I’m looking forward to having a great year so the BUC will be packed every game. You attract fans by winning and that’s what we’re trying to do.”