By Brian Paglia
It was Wednesday, five days before Jonesboro would fly from Georgia to Washington D.C. to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Rasham Suarez couldn't wait.
At the mere mention of the Cardinals' trip, his eyes lit up, and he began pouring out advice.
"You won't need to pack anything warmer than shorts and T-shirts," Suarez told a teammate.
Then he added: "You might want to bring a pair of jeans."
Then he thought of how many family members might attend the Cardinals' games. Maybe 100, he guessed, already awaiting his arrival.
"I've got a lot of family," Suarez said.
On Monday, Suarez will bring his newest family to where his basketball odyssey began. Jonesboro's boys basketball team will play in the 2010 Puerto Rico Hoops Championship at the Mario Morales Coliseum in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, just a few minutes away from where the senior guard grew up, a fitting marker along Suarez's journey through three states and two countries to fulfill his basketball dreams.
Suarez has gone from the Midwest to the West Coast to the Deep South. He's gone from rural basketball at West High School in Iowa City, Iowa; to high-profile basketball at Findlay College Prep in Las Vegas; to typical public school basketball at Jonesboro.
Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman first met Suarez the summer before his junior year. The Cardinals were working out when Suarez and his father walked in.
"He and his dad had come in and said he was going to be coming to Jonesboro," Maehlman said. "Of course I let him come in and play that summer, and he was really good."
Suarez instantly emerged as one of the top players in the Southern Crescent, averaging over 19 points per game and being named region player of the year.
On the court, Suarez displayed an impressive array of skills. The 6-foot-1 point guard whipped passes through traffic and launched crisp three-pointers, skills Saurez said he developed out of necessity.
"It's a different style (in Puerto Rico)," he said. "We don't have a lot of big men. We've got a lot of point guards. ... We like 3s and lay-ups."
Suarez left Puerto Rico for Iowa to make sure his skills got noticed. The son of a point guard, Suarez left Iowa for Findlay College Prep as a sophomore to gain exposure. Instead, he played only sparingly off the bench behind elite prospects that won a mythical national championship.
So Suarez left Findlay College Prep in search of a place where he could play a more significant role, a place where he could flourish and attract the attention of college coaches.
"I wanted to be looked at more," Suarez said. "(Findlay College Prep) had a lot of national players, ranked players, and I was just one of them. I didn't want to be a back-up to nobody. I wanted to put my game out there."
Jonesboro needed some help. The Cardinals were coming off an impressive 19-11 season in which they won a region championship and made the state tournament, but their entire starting lineup graduated.
"Every year we've been kind of blessed to have some pretty decent kids to replace kids that have left in the past," Maehlman said. "He was one of those kids that really helped us after 2008-09. It was huge."
But Suarez's transition on the team was anything but smooth. His Findlay College Prep national championship backpack drew a lot of attention from classmates, but after games he left alone.
"The first part of the season I didn't fit in," Suarez said. "They knew each other for months. They probably looked at me like, 'What are you doing? You're not part of the team.'"
"When he came in here last year we had a couple of seniors that didn't really accept him very well," Maehlman said. "That was kind of the conflict with us all year."
There's little reason for conflict this season. Jonesboro is 8-1 and ranked No. 10 in Class AAAA, with its only loss coming at No. 2-ranked Lovejoy. Suarez signed with Georgia Southern in the early signing period in November where he'll have a chance to play as a freshman.
"He could play anywhere in the country on any level and any league," Georgia Southern head coach Charlton Young said. "He is what you can call a true point guard with a high basketball IQ. It is tough to find that true point guard. He truly makes everyone around him better."
And there is more talent around Suarez this season, from Arkansas-Little Rock signee James White to a promising group of sophomores. After missing the state tournament last season, the Cardinals appear poised to return and contend.
The next step toward that goal starts Monday a few minutes away from where Suarez used to call home, where he used to play at a local YMCA, where he won a gold medal with the Puerto Rico under-18 national team and where he began his basketball adventure.
Suarez plans to show his teammates the banners he won at that YMCA and the country where he honed his skills.
And Suarez will show his country just how far he has come.