April 4, 2009

Robert Palacios featured in 2009 Final Four program

2009 FINAL FOUR FEATURED STUDENT ATHLETE: "Coming to America"

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story on Northern Colorado senior Robert Palacios was the featured article in this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four program. It's reprinted below (and above) with permission from IMG College.

By TONY PHIFER

Basketball has always been the easy part for Robert Palacios.

Blessed with athleticism and driven by an inner fire that simply will not allow him to cut corners, Palacios has played the game as long as he can remember. He loves the competition, the sweat and the passion that define the game, and he utilized those skills to escape the sometimes-bloody streets of his neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, and earn a chance to make something -- something special -- of himself.

"Robert's one of the most amazing kids I've ever been around," University of Northern Colorado basketball coach Tad Boyle said of his senior guard. "With most kids today there is a sense of entitlement, like the world owes them something for playing basketball. But Robert has the attitude every day that he's just happy to have a place to go to school, and coaches and teammates that love and appreciate him. His attitude is incredibly refreshing."

This May, Palacios will cross the stage at a graduation ceremony in Greeley, Colo., to receive his diploma. That walk will complete a journey that has been nothing short of remarkable -- a four-year excursion into the unknown that tested him more than he ever imagined.

"It has been very difficult for me," Palacios said. "I didn't know how to speak English when I got here, and classes have been very hard. Sometimes people laughed at me because I didn't know what I was doing. But every day has been a learning experience for me, and every day I learned a little bit more about myself."

This story began in Caracas, where his mother, Norka Saavedra, and father, Ampuro Palacios, blended their existing children, had three more of their own and created a family of 16. After his parents divorced when he was 7, Robert Palacios remained close with many of his siblings -- particularly Jorge Saavedra, who was talented enough to play on the Venezuelan Junior National Team. Palacios idolized Jorge, modeling his game after his brother's relentless style.

"He was a great player -- I never saw anyone better than him," Palacios said.

Caracas, the capitol city and home to more than 4 million residents, can be an unforgiving place. When Palacios was 11, Jorge Saavedra found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot by unknown assailants, who then stripped him of his clothes and shoes. He was 18.

"I didn't play basketball for a year because I was so sad," Palacios said. "But I also knew that I had to grow up quick. I knew I had to stay in school and get good grades if I was ever going to have success and help my family."

Five years later, a second brother, 32-year-old Randy Saavedra, suffered the same fate as Jorge: killed for his clothes and shoes.

Devastated, Palacios turned to the game he loved for solace. He drove himself relentlessly on the court, overcoming his average offensive skills with nonstop intensity on both ends of the court. That drive eventually earned him a spot on the Junior National Team and led to a scholarship offer at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. Suddenly, all of his dreams -- playing basketball and earning a college education -- were within reach.

Trouble is, when Palacios arrived at Indian Hills, his command of the English language was limited to three words: "thank you" and "hungry."

"When you bring foreign kids to America to play, you know it's going to be tough. Some guys, you wonder if they are going to survive," said Northern Colorado associate head coach B.J. Hill, who was an assistant at Indian Hills during Palacios' freshman year. "Robert spoke almost no English, but right away I could tell there was something special about him. He was never afraid to take on an extra class or an extra challenge that would make him better, either on the court or in the classroom. He just had this drive to succeed like no one I had ever seen."

Still, motivation was just part of the equation. Imagine, if you will, arriving in a foreign country with almost no knowledge of the native language and then being asked to take college-level classes.

Palacios often considered packing his bags and heading home.

"I had never been to a place like Iowa. The weather was very different; it seemed like it was cold every day," he said. "I was very homesick, and everything was really hard for me the first six months. But I came to America to get an education, and the only way to do that was to talk to people. I started asking a lot of questions, and people were always willing to help me.

"I've been very lucky. God put the right people in my life all along the way."

While the language barrier was a huge burden in the classroom, Palacios thrived on the court, helping Indian Hills compile a two-year record of 58-9. His individual numbers, however, didn't exactly excite recruiters. After all, not many coaches are looking for help from guards who averaged six points and five rebounds per game in junior college.

Fortunately for Palacios, Hill had left after Palacios' freshman season to take a position on Boyle's staff at Northern Colorado. And Hill was in hot pursuit of Indian Hills star Jabril Banks, a Colorado native Boyle believed would give the Bears instant credibility in the rugged Big Sky Conference. But the Bears also needed a guard, and Hill assured Boyle that Palacios was worth signing, despite his modest offensive statistics.

"We needed someone who would change the culture of the program because we didn't have a lot of guys who knew the level of intensity you need every day if you're going to win games at this level," Hill said. "I knew Robert would come in here and outwork everyone from Day One. His motor is second to none, and once he arrived, the other guys had to step it up just to keep up with him."

Banks, now a roommate of Palacios at Northern Colorado, had witnessed Palacios' ability to change a team's approach to practice and games while the two were at Indian Hills. So he just smiled when he saw Palacios create a buzz on the first day of practice in Greeley.

"The guy never takes a day off," said Banks, one of the top forwards in the Big Sky. "He just works and works, and he has that mindset that he's going to not only make himself better but everyone around him, too."

Palacios started every game his junior season for the Bears, helping them to a 13-16 record -- a nine-win improvement over the year before. And despite suffering a severe ankle sprain that hampered him through much of this season, Palacios still played a significant role once again, boosting the Bears to their first Big Sky Conference tournament berth in just their second year of postseason eligibility.

"What Robert has brought to the program, you can't measure in stats," Boyle said. "It's his work ethic -- his daily commitment to get better -- that sets him apart. Most foreign kids who come to American bring a skill level -- they are great ball handlers or great shooters. Robert's contribution has been in work ethic. He's brought much more to our program than he's taken away, and I'll always be thankful for that. He's helped lay the foundation for what we're trying to build here."

While his contributions on the court are impressive, Palacios' performance in the classroom is what truly defines him.. First, he graduated in two years from Indian Hills, which allowed him to immediately continue his career at Northern Colorado. Second, when he completes work on his degree in Criminal Justice, he will graduate in four years -- a feat only a small percentage of Division I athletes can claim. And most of those didn't start college with the language challenges facing Palacios.

Long papers are his chief nemesis -- it can take him two to three weeks to complete a seven-page report. And he starts studying at least a month prior to every scheduled test to make sure he is as prepared as possible. He usually spends four to six hours daily studying, and even then the hard work doesn't always pay off. He admits to getting frustrated when, after spending weeks preparing for a test, he sometimes gets a "C" when some classmates who studied for just a few hours walk away with an "A".

"School is still very hard for me," he said. "I still have to look up a lot of words in the dictionary every time I read. I just can't study as fast as most people because I still struggle with English. But I'm getting better all the time."

Mary West-Smith, an associate professor at Northern Colorado, has worked with several student-athletes during her teaching career. She knew Palacios was having a difficult time keeping up in her Criminal Justice classes but instantly was drawn to him because of his outgoing nature and eagerness to learn.

"When he first came here, he was just lost and drowning," she said. "He came to me and explained what was going on, and asked how he could study more effectively. We figured out some ways to help him, and the athletic department has really helped him along by providing tutors. But it's still really tough for him."

At one point, West-Smith approached Palacios and asked him to consider switching his major to Spanish so he would have a better chance to succeed.

Palacios politely declined.

"He was absolutely adamant that he didn't come to America to learn Spanish, that he was here to get a degree in Criminal Justice," she said. "Spanish would have been a piece of cake for him, but that's not him. I was absolutely astonished that he would choose such a difficult path for himself, but that's just who he is. If it wasn't for the language barrier, Robert would be a fabulous student in our program. As it is, he's going to get his degree in four years and go on to be a success. He's an amazing story."

Boyle selfishly admits that he hopes Palacios sticks around after graduation and takes a job in law enforcement in the Greeley area. His can-do attitude and drive to succeed would make him a superb role model for all kids, particularly minorities, Boyle said.

Palacios, though, said he will go home to his family and resume his life in Caracas. He hopes to play basketball professionally, and eventually become a coach. He also plans to enter law school and use his skills to help people in his neighborhood lead better lives.

When he does depart, he'll leave behind a community and a school he has come to love. What he didn't plan on, though, was how Greeley has come to love him.

"Robert is the kind of story you live for as a teacher," West-Smith said. "When you have a student who has so many things stacked against him and he still manages to succeed, that's as good as it gets when you're an educator."

Banks, who has a had a front-row seat to observe Palacios' four-year transformation from overwhelmed foreigner to full-fledged success, both on and off the court, still can't believe his good friend has made it this far.

"He's a great story because of what he has overcome," Banks said. "He has earned everything he has. When you see a guy who works hard every day to achieve his goals, it just makes you feel glad to know him. He may be from Venezuela, but he's living the true American dream."