TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico — In the center of Pajaros, the neighborhood where Denis Clemente grew up, there is a baseball field.
It is surrounded by chain-link fence and stadium lights. The field is as green as the tropical forests visible in the distance.
Nearby is a store with the words "farmacias plaza" on its front, a concrete restaurant without doors, and a string of low-income houses that for the most part have bars guarding their doors and windows.
Unlike in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan 20 minutes away, there are no English signs to be found.
Five narrow roads converge on this spot, and traffic swirls in every direction. There is no baseball being played at the moment, but activity abounds all the same.
When Clemente first got into sports at the age of 5, he walked here from his Toa Baja home on a daily basis to play baseball and basketball. Back then, the field had rims and backboards as well as a home plate.
The hoops are gone now, and basketball in Puerto Rico exists almost entirely indoors. He'd have to go several blocks away to find an athletic club with a basketball court today.
He thinks that's a shame. This is where he learned to dribble and shoot. This is where he discovered toughness.
"Every day was a battle," Clemente said. "You went to the field, put your stuff down, and said 'This is my spot.' Then you had to defend it."
If not for his time on this field, he may never have moved to the United States at age of 16 or achieved his dream of playing Division I basketball.
Clemente beat the odds and found
success as a guard at Kansas State. The senior was able to return to his home island this week and play in front of nearly 60 friends and family members, many of whom had never before seen him play.
The Wildcats have defeated Boston University and lost to Mississippi in their first two games of the Puerto Rico Tip-off, and conclude the tournament against Dayton in the third-place game at 4:30 p.m. today.
Whatever happens, Clemente's mother, Raquel Perez, says it has been a fantastic weekend for his family.
"I feel so proud of him," Perez said. "To play here in Puerto Rico, I know he has wanted to play in his home country. We feel so excited to watch him with his university."
* * * oo
Perez describes her neighborhood as "humble, and a quiet place that can sometimes be noisy."
Clemente says Pajaros is one of his favorite places in the world.
"I have some good friends in the neighborhood," Clemente said. "They show me love every time I go there. Things are pretty nice where I'm from, and I like it."
But one of his former neighbors has a different take on the area.
Ask Roberto Arias, who works as a Univision sports reporter in Puerto Rico, about that part of Toa Baja and he will tell you about a massacre that took place in front of Perez's house two months ago.
"Three people were murdered in the street," Arias said. "One was a two-year old child."
Arias' mother lives next door to Clemente's mother; Arias said he'll remember the gory details for the rest of his life.
Arias said kids in that neighborhood are forced to make choices — they face distractions that make it difficult for teenagers to stay focused on school or athletics the way Clemente did.
"It is not uncommon for basketball players in our country to do well in college or professional leagues, but what Denis has done is big," Arias said. "Considering the place he came from has lots of problems, I would say he could have easily chosen that life. But he didn't.
"He stayed focused on basketball and made it to the NCAA."
Arias credits Perez for that.
Arias grew up playing baseball with Clemente's father, Pablo, and believes he was one of the more promising athletes he'd ever been around.
"Had he stuck with it," Arias said, "I have no doubt he would have made it in the major leagues. He was that good."
But unlike Denis Clemente, Pablo gave into the distractions of Toa Baja. He lost focus on baseball.
When Denis Clemente became serious about pursuing a college basketball career, it was up to his mother to help him.
From a young age, she says Clemente has always worked to get better at basketball and grew up as the best player in his neighborhood.
They remember him in Pajaros, and Perez said people have stopped her in stores this week to wish the family good luck with him back.
But he couldn't have reached that status without leaving Puerto Rico during his junior year of high school.
When Clemente first pitched the idea of moving to Miami, his mother had only one question: Are you willing to give up the national sport of baseball?
"I told him he had to decide the sport he wanted to do," she said. "He played both sports at the same time. He chose basketball, and I said 'OK.' "
Clemente said it was an easy choice.
"I grew up watching the NCAA," he said. "That was my goal. That's what I wanted to do."
So together they moved to the United States and she helped get him to all the tournaments he could play in.
K-State basketball coach Frank Martin said some Puerto Rican basketball players are good enough to play in elite high school tournaments, but many of them don't because it can be difficult for them to move to America.
"It can be tough on some of those kids," Martin said. "They have to take the risk of leaving their friends and families behind."
Perez's decision to move with Clemente made the adjustment easier.
"Eighty percent of his success is due to his mom's efforts," Arias said. "She was always taking him everywhere to every tournament. She gave him all the support she could. That is huge for where he comes from."
* * *
Clemente walks off the court at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico and lags behind his teammates. As they run into the locker room and slap hands with K-State fans who made the trip, he is waiting for his family to make its way down from the 17th row of section 103.
When they reach the front row, he is there with arms open. He hugs and kisses his mother, then does the same for his grandmother. He shakes hands with his friends and takes pictures with everyone.
This is a special moment for him.
"I love being around them a lot," he said. "This is the only opportunity I get to talk to them."
His devotion to basketball and his mother's devotion to him earned him this extra trip home. In the future, basketball could lead him here again.
According to his family, he hopes to play in the NBA or Europe after leaving Kansas State. But if neither option works out, his third choice would be to play professionally in Puerto Rico.
Perez hopes Clemente continues to be successful. As long as he sticks with basketball, she believes he will be.
So far, the sport has taken him to another country, given him the chance to receive a college education and helped at least one household in Pajaros forget about baseball.
"He spent a lot of time as a child on the basketball court and he still does today," Perez said. "It is part of him and it is part of our family."