Andre Curbelo looked at Alfonso Plummer at the State Farm Center on Saturday morning and instructed him to do something in Spanish. Plummer was quick to respond, running around an RJ Melendez screen and catching Curbelo’s pass before quickly turning and burying a threesome in Illinois open practice.
That short Saturday morning game was no accidental occurrence between three Puerto Rican basketball players on the Illinois roster. Rather, it’s a microcosm of what could be a huge benefit for the Fighting Illinois this season – three players who all call Puerto Rico home and regularly speak their native language on and off the basketball court.
Illinois Fighting Illinois’ Andre Curbelo # 5 puts the ball on during the game against the Northwestern Wildcats at the State Farm Center on February 16, 2021 in Champaign, Illinois (Photo by Michael Hickey / Getty Images).
Curbelo (sophomore), Plummer (senior), and Melendez (freshman) are all different ages and from different hometowns in Puerto Rico, but their connection on the court – and in their personal lives – is undeniable and they have adapted to it play easier for Illinois.
“We’re seeing Andre Curbelo who was on our system and maybe there is slang or terminology they don’t understand,” said Brad Underwood, Illinois head coach. “He did an incredible job communicating and talking to these guys. Not just on the pitch, but I think there is some consolation. ”
Curbelo’s freshman in Illinois in 2020-21 was anything but normal. He did not attend a course in person as the university tried to contain the spread of Covid-19. Instead, he and the rest of the Illinois student body took almost all of their classes virtually.
In a way, this is Curbelo’s freshman college graduate. Sure, he’s attended college classes and played a full season for the Illinois, where they got 24-7 and earned number 1 in the NCAA tournament. But socially he is experiencing the campus for the first time – and with two teammates with whom he can communicate easily.
“I think it’s great,” said Curbelo. “You get the feeling that here in Champaign you are part of the island.”
The three of them don’t shy away from a lack of Puerto Rican culture in Urbana-Champaign. They still need to find a Puerto Rican restaurant on or off campus and their busy schedules make it difficult for them to get involved in Puerto Rican clubs or groups on campus. But they have each other, and that is almost as important to the Illinois point guard.
“Being on the basketball teams makes it difficult to connect with others in the community who are Puerto Ricans because we are so busy and all,” said Curbelo. “But having them both on and off the pitch literally around the clock is great.”
Plummer comes to Illinois after starting his college career with two years at Arizona Western College and two seasons in Utah. The 6-foot-1 guard has a three-point rate of 39.9 percent in his career and averaged 13.6 points per game for the Utes last season.
“He’s one of the best shooters I’ve trained, period,” said Underwood. “He is gifted. He’s an amazing worker, he’s a young man who’s always in the gym, always working on his game, I love that about him. It fit exactly into our culture. He can take a shot with his hands in front of his face, he can do it off the barrel. There aren’t many college players these days who can run away from the basket, spin it and catch it and shoot it, and do it from the range it can do. ”
The four years he spent in Arizona Western and Utah taught Plummer that playing basketball in the United States is not always the most welcome experience for someone who was not born in America.
“Sometimes you go to other programs and you’re the only Spaniard or guy who speaks a different language,” said Plummer. “You kind of feel out of the zone, afraid, sometimes lost and you don’t know what to do and no one can help you because the language is harsh. When you have people who can help you in your language, it will be easier for you and it will feel like it will help my confidence. ”
Plummer probably wouldn’t be in Illinois if Adam Miller hadn’t made a surprise move to LSU that off-season. But when Plummer became available, his connection with Curbelo helped bring him to Illinois for his final season.
“He said he knows I want to be a pro, he said he knows I want to be a better teammate, person and player and he said he will be by my side,” said Plummer. “Everything I want and need, he will help me. He also said that he will give me a lot of touch because he said that he has confidence in me and that I can help the team offensively. ”
Meanwhile, Melendez isn’t as likely to have seismic impact on Illinois this season as Curbelo and possibly Plummer. He was the No. 117 Rivals player in the 2021 Recruiting Class. He’s still developing his wiry 6-foot-7, 205-pound frame and learning the college lifestyle and game. Curbelo and Plummer were of great help here.
“To know that I have Belo and Plummer by my side in Illinois, communicating with them and spending time with them is great because it would be very different if I didn’t have them here,” said Melendez. “It makes me much more comfortable being around her and it’s just amazing how we can communicate with each other.”
Communication outside of the court has given the trio a group that understands the struggles, difficulties, and challenges college poses to an overseas student. But the basketball court is almost a second home for the three of them. They call out games and direct each other to different spots on either side of the pitch, and that leaves their teammates, and ultimately opponents, confused.
“We can say quite a bit in Spanish and no one will know what we’re going to do,” said Plummer. “Scouting report, it doesn’t matter because they don’t know what we’re going to do, because they don’t know what we’re talking about. That is an advantage for us. ”
Curbelo added, “That’s the beauty of basketball. As you can see, it’s going to be very international in the NBA. Although we are part of the states, we come from elsewhere. We come from an island. It is definitely an advantage to be able to say ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this’ in Spanish because then the other person will not be expecting it. “
Even some teammates tried to speak Spanish. Da’Monte Williams, Jacob Grandison, and Kofi Cockburn were all mentioned by Curbelo for trying to speak the language. But Curbelo also mentioned that until now they mostly only know the bad words. But that didn’t stop Underwood from embracing the advantage of bilingual players.
“I think it’s huge,” he said. “We all try to camouflage ourselves, we all have terminology, and we all try to be as mysterious as possible, but obviously speaking another language is the ultimate. I think that could have something to do with the outcome of a game at some point. ”
As great as the connection on the pitch is for the three of them, communication and activities outside the pitch are just as important. Since they haven’t found a Puerto Rican restaurant in Urbana-Champaign, the trio went to Chicago a few weeks ago to satisfy their cravings with food from their home island.
“The ride was insane,” said Curbelo. “It was two and a half hours just walking around for a few pictures and something to eat. But it was worth it. We went to the Ponce restaurant. Ponce is Italian Puerto Rico; we felt the taste of home there. It was authentic, real food. It was definitely a great time; Maybe I’ll go again someday. ”
Spontaneous trips to Chicago to eat won’t be so easy for the Puerto Rican trio of the Illinois now that training is underway and the games are fast approaching. But they are already making plans for the nights at home with Puerto Rican food.
“I want to do a little something sometime,” said Curbelo. “Not only for the food, but also for the connecting part and being together. I think it’s great.”
In the end, the three of them are all just happy to have others who understand them. You brought a “great spirit, great energy,” as Underwood said of Illinois Basketball. For Plummer, the trio gave him more than just a touch of home.
“It’s a Puerto Rican party,” he said. … It’s like a family atmosphere. They always bring love. ”