How UMBC's K.J. Maura went from an afterthought in Puerto Rico to an NCAA history-maker
K.J. Maura’s second act began with a round-trip plane ticket and five days in Miami.
Maura was halfway through high school living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the summer of 2012. He stood 5-foot-5, if he really stretched himself.
A Steve Nash afficionado, Maura loved basketball and the point guard position, but he’d reached the point in his basketball life where his height became a problem: coaches at Puerto Rico youth national team camps played taller kids and didn’t give Maura the playing time to prove he belonged.
He couldn’t will himself to grow, so Maura’s father Melvin called a man in Miami named Art Alvarez. Alvarez had coached J.J. Barea, another Puerto Rican point guard doubted because of his height, at Miami Christian High School, and then founded and coached a travel team called the Miami Tropics. Alvarez had a reputation for helping kids get exposure and find college programs that fit, so Maura asked for one shot.
“[Melvin] called me and said, ‘My son is very good, but they’re not giving him the opportunity here. Is it okay if we come to your basketball camp?’” Alvarez told NCAA.com in the hours after Maura and UMBC shocked No. 1-seed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Alvarez told Melvin he couldn’t promise K.J. anything other than a chance for the week.
“Melvin told me, “‘That’s all I need. I’m going to buy the tickets and we’ll be there.’”
Maura, Melvin, and Maura’s mother Erica Colón bought a round-trip flight from San Juan to Miami, a Sunday night trip out and a Friday evening return. They would never use their return tickets.
When Maura walked into the Miami Christian HS gym, where the camp was being held for the week, Alvarez took one look at the kid and said there was no way.
Then he watched him play.
“We start scrimmaging, he’s out there with something like 100 kids," Alvarez said. "You watched him play — he’s so pesky, and he’s so small but you can’t steal the ball away from him — and I just went, ‘Wow.’ We have guys who are 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, 6-foot-8, the whole bit. But that whole week, he was the one who continued to impress me.”
Alvarez went to Melvin and Eric and told them, as plain as he could manage: you can’t go back to San Juan on Friday. K.J. is too good.
There was a tournament the following week in Las Vegas, and the Tropics were going to attend, as were over 100 college basketball coaches, and two other Tropics guards — Gian Clavell, who would go on to play at Colorado State, and Miguel Cartagena, who would go on to play at George Washington — competing for the spotlight. But the chance was there, and Alvarez wanted Maura (and his family) to take the leap. Alvarez’s reputation, Barea’s name recognition, and their son’s undeniable talent convinced them: the family cancelled their return flight to San Juan, and traveled all the way out across time zones, over a land Maura had never before set foot in, to Nevada.
The Tropics reached the championship game of their bracket in the tournament, and soon Alvarez had coaches he’d known for years asking where in the world he’d found this tiny point guard who had seemingly come out of nowhere. That fall Maura began the first of two seasons of high school ball with Rex Morgan, one of Alvarez’s dearest friends from the early 2000s, at a boarding school called Arlington Country Day. Then he played a year at Abilene Christian, and then a year at College of Central Florida, and then he landed, improbably, at UMBC.
Alvarez chuckled when he recalled those two first whirlwind weeks of Maura’s journey, as he said he does often when he reminisces with K.J. and Melvin.
“Melvin brings up that flight all the time,” Alvarez said. “He’ll go, ‘Maybe I get on a plane, we go back to Puerto Rico, and there’s nothing there for him, and then who knows if he ever gets this shot?’”
After Maura and UMBC shocked the world and beat No. 1 Virginia on Friday evening, Alvarez couldn’t sleep. He shuffled through old photographs and watched and re-watched highlights and reactions on television and Facebook.
At 3:00 AM, his phone buzzed. On the other end, K.J. and Melvin told him they couldn’t sleep either. They regaled him with stories from the night.
“His heart and his pride,” Alvarez said of Maura, a grin audible in his voice, “is above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen.
“His family is not a wealthy family. Their home was hurt bad by Hurricane Maria down in Puerto Rico. Melvin and Erica have given so, so much for K.J. to chase this dream, and he’s made the most of it every day.”
Before the phone call ended, K.J. thanked him again, profusely, for the two hot, sweaty, world-changing weeks in Miami and Las Vegas that pushed Maura out of San Juan and into the rest of his life.