Publish date:

Darth with a Heart

LSU's Jose Vargas may look—and play—like an evil force, but he's really a lovable softie with a style all his own

It is Southeastern Conference media Day—or Days, since a single day isn't enough to permit 10 coaches to be heard if Louisiana State's voluble Dale Brown is one of them. Brown is the preeminent gadfly to the college sports establishment, and on this November afternoon he has brought along Jose Vargas, his center from the Dominican Republic, to add a few words of comment about the NCAA and its rules.

"Say you are my friend," Vargas begins in Spanish-inflected speech as reporters cluster about him in an Atlanta hotel ballroom. "I want to buy you a new suit. I can do that. Say I am hungry, and you want to buy me a hamburger. Can you do that?"

No, someone says, clearly aware of the NCAA prohibitions on booster gift giving of any sort to A scholarship athletes.

"See what I mean?" says Jose.

Nearby, forward Bernard Woodside, who is about to embark on his third season at LSU, gives his head a bemused shake as he watches Vargas perform. "Dale Brown," he says, "with an accent."

During his 3½ years in Baton Rouge, Vargas has taken in lots of crawfish, life and basketball, even if the latter fact isn't readily apparent every time he steps on the court. He's 6'10", 228 pounds. He has shoulders that begin somewhere around his earlobes and mitts that could palm a small Caribbean nation. "When he shakes your hand," says Brown, "he's dang near scratching your elbow."

If Vargas were an automobile, he would sport one of those bumper stickers, so prevalent on the highways of Louisiana, that read s——HAPPENS. With Vargas at center, LSU's fortunes are at the mercy of the officials every time the ball goes into the post. On a typical possession Vargas violates so many rules—take your pick: three seconds, traveling, charging—that it's all the referees can do to sort out the infractions. And by the time they have, Vargas is likely to have either laid a brick or fumbled the ball away, thus rendering all that official consternation moot.

After starting at center early last season, Vargas soon won a spot on the bench by failing to get off a shot in 17 minutes of one game and going 0 for 2 in the next, with both misses coming on attempted dunks. Indeed, in the category of defective dunking, Vargas is without peer. He had one abortive slam last season, a back-of-the-rim number against Oklahoma, that on its rebound traced a 30-foot parabola back toward midcourt and promised to give birth to an exhibition sport in Seoul. His .534 career free throw percentage has contributed to a number of LSU losses, too, although he has now grasped the value of improving on it. "It is something, like, you have a business," Vargas says. "A loophole over here loses $5 a day. That's not much. But you lose $150 a month. And in a year you lose almost 2,000 bucks! It hunts you down."

Yet there must be something talismanic about Vargas and his presence among the Tigers. His exuberance, his all-encompassing hugs of teammates, has played a big part in Louisiana State's unexpected trips to the final eight and Final Four the past two seasons. And on those occasions when the planets are aligned just right, he'll even do such things as score 20 points and get eight rebounds, as he did in that Oklahoma game. And while he still has his moments without control, Vargas has clearly improved. "We used to have little side bets going on press row on how quickly Jose would pick up his third foul," says Bruce Hunter of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate. "But he seems to have gotten over the hump."

At the very least, Vargas, who has a surprisingly effective little jump hook, can always count on playing Florida twice a year. He has his way with the Gators' taller and more highly touted center, Dwayne Schintzius.

Why do you pick on Schintzius? "I cannot tell you the secret," Vargas says.

His coaches aren't sure he knows it.

Despite his dimensions, Vargas can't match smaller and slighter teammate Ricky Blanton in the weight room. This sort of disparity between promise and reality has dogged the relationship between him and Brown. "Jose's come a million miles," says Brown, "and has a light-year to go."

Vargas so frustrated Brown one day in practice last season that Brown flailed his arms in exasperation, inadvertently crushing his watch. Springs, gears and sprockets went flying to the floor of LSU's Assembly Center. "That watch was a present from his wife," Vargas says. "I feel real bad."

Brown felt worse, standing there watching Vargas stoop to pick up the scattered parts. He soon concluded there had to be a better way to reach this gentle man-child. "I'd never coached a Latin American before," Brown says. "To Jose, criticism is emasculating. Now I just gesture, or call him aside."

Vargas appreciates that new approach. "When conflicts come, you have to look at it in a positive way," he says. "You cannot get defensive. One of us is going to get broken. Chances are the one of us is going to be me. I get angry at the coach when I should be angry at the other team. But he changed the pattern, and things started happening."

Things, for better or worse, have always been happening between the two. In Vargas's sophomore season, the Tigers were tied with Georgetown and, during a timeout, were preparing for one last shot. The CBS cameras caught Brown spending less time diagramming a play than telling Vargas, over and over, not to shoot. When play resumed. No Way Jose promptly put up a 15-foot air ball, and LSU lost. Brown so ripped into Vargas in the locker room afterward that the Tigers' Anthony Wilson stepped forward to say, "It's my fault. Coach! I threw him the ball!"

His teammates adore Vargas, even as they refuse to room with him on the road—they can't abide the 80° temperature he sets on the thermostat. Vargas may have thin blood, but it courses through a stout heart. "Physically he's Darth Vader," says Gus Weill, a Baton Rouge playwright and a booster of the Tiger basketball team. "But he's not afraid of showing emotion. Inside this monolithic creature is a decent, sensitive man."

Among the things closest to that heart is Clayton Ferraro, an eight-year-old Baton Rouge boy with a growth disorder in his legs. Since Vargas began showing up at Clay's house to shoot hoops with him. Clay has grown into a healthy kid. Says Brown, "Jose's done things for that boy doctors couldn't do."

Thanks to basketball, Vargas, 24, has been able to do things that most of his countrymen can't do—basketball has already taken him to some 20 different nations. He's on his second Dominican passport, stamps and visas having filled up his first. "Basketball is like a spring," Vargas says. "You put springs in your shoes, it help you jump like a kangaroo." Yet he loves his country and hopes to return to the Dominican Republic as a youth counselor when he graduates from LSU with a degree in speech communications.

As big as his heart is, it is not, alas, always in the game. So Brown has contrived ways to get it pumped up. In the dressing room before a December practice, he posted a list of Street & Smiths preseason All-Americas, and added this note: "206 players are listed, and we have no one listed. Let's see who is left in April—especially on April 4! [The date of the NCAA final.]"

"You can't let people categorize you, Jose," Brown told him.

Vargas nodded. "What do I tell you, Coach Brown? Paper All-Americas. It list individuals. But we do not play as individuals. We play as team."

"I read that, I get so angry," Vargas said later. "If I am white, it turn me red as a tomato."

But, like Brown, Vargas appreciates psychology: "Ask me about a player, any player," says Vargas, "and I will say he is a great player. It is war principles. When you are the underdog, you have the first step when the race starts."

Vargas knows about being the underdog. His father died before he was born, and his mother, Ana—"I call her my Mapa," Jose says, "because she is both parents for me"—raised him until he was 13. Ana left their home in La Romana to take a job as a domestic in Puerto Rico and sent money back to her son and Fiol, Jose's younger half sister. "Jose's not one for sob stories," says Brown, who can't make the same claim. "You have to have seen where he grew up to really understand it. It was this tiny room that couldn't have been more than three feet by six feet, with gunny-sacks of flour, beans and cocoa on the concrete floor and a 60-watt bulb and tin roof overhead."

A man in La Romana named Ed Gomez, who worked as an athletic director for Gulf and Western operations in the Dominican Republic, introduced Vargas to basketball, supplying him with sneakers and persuading him not to sign a baseball contract, despite the interest of major league scouts who liked the 16-year-old Vargas's 86-mph fastball. Gomez had a notion that Vargas, who was already 6'4" when a private high school in Santo Domingo offered him a scholarship, would keep growing.

In the Dominican summer league in 1983, Vargas met Greg Cook, the center on LSU's 1981 Final Four team. When Cook told Brown of this raw kid who matched him elbow for elbow, Brown listened. "I knew he had to be good," he says, "because Greg doesn't have much respect for anyone."

But before Vargas could enroll at LSU or any other American university, he had to learn to speak English, something he had long wanted to do. "I hated to go to movies and have to read the little Spanish stripe at the bottom," he says. "I hated!" So when he was 17, he bought a secondhand Spanish-English dictionary, reinforced the binding with adhesive tape and toted it everywhere he went.

Even with that self-education, when he arrived at LSU, Vargas needed five hours to complete assignments that took most students only two, but he adapted splendidly. "Jose took a class in U.S. history his sophomore year and got an A," says Brown. "I've had native English speakers who failed that course."

Thanks to Brown, to play at LSU is to get a supplemental education of which the normal undergraduate is deprived, or spared, depending on your point of view. Before Vargas's sophomore season Brown took the Tigers to the state penitentiary in Angola. As the team toured Death Row, several players climbed into the electric chair, joking and laughing nervously among themselves. Then Vargas strapped himself in. "Yes, we are all having a good time," he said. "But remember when we all leave here that this can happen to anyone. Last week I almost killed a man...." Vargas began to shake, his lips began to quiver, and he began to cry.

What had happened was this: One evening Vargas had stopped at a Church's Fried Chicken outlet near campus. A group of five teenagers there began taunting him, and one of them took a liking to the chain Vargas wore around his neck. A poke in the chest, a yank on the necklace—on which hung a ring given Vargas by his mother—and Vargas reacted instinctively, tackling the young man and crashing with him through a plate-glass window. The other teenagers fled as Vargas pinned his assailant to the ground, removed his own belt and began choking the fellow with it.

Vargas isn't sure what caused him to stop and let the kid get away, only that he's glad he did. He immediately phoned Brown, who rounded up some players and some baseball bats. "Justice wasn't served," Brown says. "So we formed our own little vigilante group."

But Vargas talked Brown out of it. Says Vargas, "I learn that not all of us are striving to make the best of ourselves every day. Some of us are looking for trouble. I learn, even if we have all the right and none of the wrong, we have to walk away. Those people have little self-esteem and nothing to lose. I know I have ability to kill somebody with my bare hands. That is very frightening."

He's using his strength constructively now. In a players-only preseason meeting, Vargas pledged to deal personally with any Tiger who, through drug use or academic lassitude, spoiled LSU's season, which has begun sputtering with a 4-4 start. "It wasn't a threat, exactly," says Blanton. "More of a forewarning."

A tattered copy of Bridges Not Walls, a book assigned in an interpersonal communications course, has replaced that Spanish-English dictionary as Vargas's basic text. "Communication is the most important thing for me," he says. "Without it, there would be nothing. How many different messages people get because of misunderstanding? Right now somebody come to you and say, I am bad.' You take it literally, it mean 'You are the worst around.' But what they trying to tell you? They feel good about themselves! They good!

"So many people misunderstand Coach Brown. But if 50 percent of the people in the world are as crazy as Coach Brown, we not have the problems we have today. If that is what you want to call crazy, it is the same way you say bad. Crazy is wise."

At the SEC Media Days, the wise Brown stood before the assembled reporters to answer questions. "Coach Brown!" called Vargas from the rear of the room. "Please tell us what can be done about agents!"

"Good question, Jose!" said Brown. "Let me tell you...."

Anyone for a Media Week?



This getup has p.r. value, but Vargas as a villainous Vader is strictly fantasy.



Once a pitcher in the Dominican Republic, Vargas still plays a version of hardball.



Though Vargas is often out of control, he has twice helped LSU soar in the NCAA tourney.



Clayton always has a ball when Vargas comes over to play.



Brown deserves a pat on the back for his new treatment of Vargas.