Jaime Jaquez Jr. of UCLA captivates fans on both sides of the border with his tenacious action.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. inspired a neighborhood, a team, and two nations as he sprawled across the court, initially diving for the loose ball and then crawling in pursuit.
Lorenzo Mata found himself spellbound by his successor as the new Mexican American sensation from UCLA on the verge of a Final Four while watching on television from a friend’s sports bar in Bell.
“I was thinking, man, that’s a winning player, and that’s infectious to the whole team,” Mata explained.
Earl Watson, whose maternal grandparents emigrated from Guadalajara to Texas long before he starred at point guard for the Bruins two decades ago, was equally riveted two days earlier by Jaquez’s dribble side-step three-pointer in overtime.
“That play right there is like, ‘Oh, no… nice shot,’ ” Watson laughed.
Jaquez’s legion of admirers continues to develop on both sides of this country’s border with Mexico with each unlikely shot he makes, each rebound he rips away from opponents who dwarf him, and each pass he tips toward a teammate during the NCAA tournament.
“Jáquez es héroe,” read the headline in a Guadalajara newspaper following the sophomore guard’s insane three-pointer and 17 points in 45 minutes during the Bruins’ upset of second-seeded Alabama in an East Regional semifinal.
Mata kept his old UCLA jersey aloft and pointed to the Final Four patch on one shoulder as he strided triumphantly between the tables inside Halftime House of Heroes, which his buddy had locked to all but a few friends.
“Hey,” Mata said in a video he shared on Twitter. Another, bro.”
The Bruins would reach that point with the help of their most fiery player’s gritty action. He would power his way past two defenders for a put-back and swap bruises for the ball after diving in pursuit and knocking the ball off a Michigan player to give UCLA possession during the Bruins’ upset of the top-seeded Wolverines.
“He was not going to let that ball go,” Jaime’s mother, Angela Jaquez, proudly claimed inside Lucas Oil Stadium. “I was thinking, ‘That’s my boy.'”
His parents refer to him as “Jaimito,” or Little Jaime, in reference to his father, but no one comes up bigger when it comes to making the sort of plays that galvanize a team. He has grown into such an important part of the Bruins’ run to their first Final Four appearance since 2008 that coach Mick Cronin seldom takes him out of games.
The reward comes in the form of possessions saved, momentum reclaimed, and order restored. UCLA was in a tense first-round matchup against Brigham Young when Jaquez chased down a rebound and grabbed it away from Matt Haarms, the Cougars’ 7-foot-3 center who had a nine-inch advantage over his counterpart.
The Bruins, energised by the showing of resilience, went on to win by double digits.
“One thing about Jaime is that he is fearless,” Cronin said. “He is a real warrior. He’s willing to go 15 rounds toe-to-toe with anyone.”
His fearlessness derives in part from his paternal great-grandparents’ homes in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Durango. They finally crossed the border north to the plains of Oxnard, drawn by a thriving agriculture industry offering employment in packing houses.
Ezequiel, Jaime’s grandfather, was a multisport star in high school and went on to play baseball and basketball at Northern Arizona. Jaime Sr. turned his head skyward as a young pitcher, imitating the delivery of Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodgers legend of Mexican ancestry. Jaime Sr. later played basketball at Concordia University in Irvine, where he met Angela, a two-time All-American in search of a new challenge.
“We’d do scouting reports,” Angela said, “and it was like, I didn’t care who I guarded because they weren’t going to score.”
Both parents coached their son, with Jaime Sr. instilling tenacity and Angela stressing that while bad nights on offense were unavoidable, there was no reason for performing poorly on defense, which was solely dependent on commitment. The young boy’s expression remained constant, even when confronted at an uncomfortably loud volume.
Little Jaime displayed early determination when he demanded to participate in a youth baseball game while on a trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., following a thumb injury. He hit a home run while wearing a small cast.
Jaquez, a Camarillo High School two-sport standout, played club basketball for UCLA alumnus Kris Johnson, a member of the Bruins’ 1995 national championship team. Watson compared his style of play to that of NBA All-Star guard Manu Ginobili due to his unusual moves and ability to finish at the rim.
To Watson, Jaquez’s success transcends basketball, symbolizing the potential that coming to America provides. Additionally, it is part of a remarkable convergence of cultures during a period of social unrest.
“There is no better reflection of all that our country is going through socially than that UCLA team — you’ve got Black, you’ve got brown, you’ve got brown and you’ve got white,” Watson said, referring to a team that also features players of Asian descent. “That roster is genuinely representative of our country’s melting pot, and look at how they’re coming together to win games.”
Citing a poll suggesting that basketball had surpassed soccer as the most popular sport in soccer-crazed Mexico, Mata claimed that he “guaranteed” that Jaquez was gaining momentum south of the border. He’s already made the Mexican national team and played in Pan-American games, while Mata paid visits to the Bruins’ locker room at Pauley Pavilion last season.
Mata is known as “The Matador” owing to his tenacity as a member of three Final Four teams. He’s earned his protégé the moniker “El Chivo,” which translates as “The GOAT.”
Mata has also issued a sort of mandate about the sense of their ancestors’ heritage.
“I told him, ‘Yeah, it’s not just about UCLA or Los Angeles,'” Mata explained. “ ‘You have a whole nation in Mexico cheering for you and watching your back.’ ‘Oh, don’t worry, I got it,’ he said.