Romero, a Cuban in the NBA Development League

The night of October 31, 2015 was one more Halloween for New York inhabitants. However, the life of Ismael Romero would change in one of the buildings of the city, where the NBA D-League—the development league of the best basketball tournament of the world—draft took place.

Ismael would accomplish his dream of playing a first-level professional game on the court, marking the end of a long trip, one that had begun, like so many other stories of Cuban sportsmen, the early morning of June 19, 2012 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“That first night we went out of the hotel was scary, frightening. We did not know where we were, we did not know what came next in our lives,” confess Romero to OnCuba. He had abandoned the pre-match preparation of the national basketball team while he was playing in the 2012 CentroBasket tournament. He was not alone. Next to him were Juan Pablo Piñeiro, Leonel Batista, Enrique Ramos, and Yudniel Pérez.

The man who picked them up, and whose name the youngster wishes to remain anonymous, installed them in his house and offered them clothing, food, and bed. Thanks to him and to other friends, the group played some beneficial games and made contact with local universities that quickly went after them. Through the Ana G. Méndez University System, the three players (Piñeiro, Ramos, and Ismael), who met the requirements of age to enter, enrolled in different universities. In August 2012, Ismael Romero (25 years old) started at the University of Turabo.

“As it was easy for me to train, I began to practice with the boys. But at that time I was not so linked to the gym, neither to the court,” tells the Cuban center player, in whose voice now a true Puerto Rican cadence may be recognized. “I was a mediocre, because I was not highly motivated.  That came little by little,” he remembers. That season his team did not even classify for the finals.

Ismael—born in Corralillo, north of Villa Clara, nephew of one of the mythical Wolves—back then left for Miami looking forward to accelerating his residence papers. There, he was welcomed by Juan Domingo “The fury” Lara. The Cuban ex-player settled in the State of Florida offered him a job in a gym and he got the most out of it.

Photo by Grand Rapids Drive
Photo by Grand Rapids Drive

“It was there that I began to feel motivated to train and to enhance my physique. I was able to gain almost forty pounds by training really hard in Miami,” comments Romero, who is enlisted in NBA.com with 6 feet 6 in height and 100 kilos in weight.

Then I got my work permit and my social security, great news because I badly needed economic aid.

“For a brief period of time, together with a friend, I painted houses, scraped walls, and did other maintenance works until I was accepted in Foot Locker (a chain of sports footwear). I  stayed there as a salesman for about a year and a half, and that same year I went back to the university and won the championship,” he comments; and that way he simplified what had resulted from long months of work and hard training.

From the very same moment he experienced what he himself calls “a change of mind-set,” his work ethics and his motivation grew gradually until getting results. “I worked and played at the same time, the goal was achieved though: We won the 2014 inter-university Athletic League,” he says proudly.

With that same stimulus and determined to accomplished his dream, he decided to quit his job and focus on training. Back then, Ismael had already got acquainted—a long time ago—with the man who would help him to take the definite leap: José Paris.

“I saw him play for the first time last year. We came to sign a contract in Guaynabo at the division finalists-25 and he was there,” remembers the representative, leader of Paris Global Sports management agency.

“What impressed me the most about him was his athletic skills: very few players have the speed and the jump of Ismael. Another aspect was his commitment: I had in front of me a young man with the ability and the desire to keep improving,” he comments.

“José has helped me a lot, I am very grateful for being a member of the agency, and until now everything goes well with him,” utters Romero, who found in Paris the necessary guidance.

Some months later after meeting each other, the representative received a message from John Nix of the Detroit Pistons in response to some videos that the first had sent to several people, showing the gifts of his client. Ismael would participate in the summer camp of the Grand Rapids Drive, in the NBA Development League.

Again he embarked on a thousand-kilometer trip, now towards Michigan, where he would get to know the snow and the rigors of the professional sport. Still, life put him to the test once more.

During a training session in the first week of preparation, Ismael fell to the ground and felt a strong pain in the leg: his right foot bone broken.

He thought everything was over, but the same qualities that impressed José Paris convinced the staff of the new team. A few days were enough for his recovery.

Ismael-Romero

He was chosen in the fourth round of the draft, that unforgettable night of New York.

“The fact they expected his recovery proves a lot. They deeply trusted him,” assures Paris.

“After two months and a half of recovery I came back, but not one hundred percent confident,” Ismael explains.

“It took several matches for me to recover. Nevertheless, at the end of that month I got more minutes, more chances, and things worked out for me, because I felt that I had trained enough and because I felt physically in good condition.”

On January 28, 2016, Ismael Romero played seven minutes against the Iowa Energy, scored one point and grabbed a bounce, accomplishing his dream of playing in a professional league, the goal he had set the night he left everything behind to start a new life far from home.

According to LatinBasket.com, during the past eight matches in the NBA D-League, he averaged 12.4 points and 8.5 bounces per game. But his minutes on the court better prove his great progress in his game: as an average, he jumped from playing 11.1 minutes in the first nineteen matches to 24.4 in the last eight. In the end, he participated in twenty-seven matches with the Drive.

From then on, everything has been joys for him. Selected in the third position of the Baloncesto Superior Nacional (BSN) draft in Puerto Rico, Ismael came back to finish the rest of the season next to his friend Leonel Batista in the Atléticos de San Germán. He only played seventeen matches, enough to average 13 points, 5.1 bounces, 1.4 assists, and 1.2 thefts per match and to become the Rookie of the Year. Furthermore, the Grand Rapids Drive had already confirmed José Paris they count on the player’s presence next season of the NBA D-League.

What is the next target, the NBA?

“No doubt, both fans and friends believe I have the potential to achieve it and actually I always had it in mind. I only had to convince myself. This is every player’s dream and goal. I think I am in the right path; it would be unique in my life, extraordinary. And I try to work hard every day on that basis.”

* * *

To date, Ismael trains restlessly in the Puerto Rican summer. Races at the beach, shooting sessions, lifting weight… If he were to accomplish the NBA dream, he would become the third Cuban in stepping on the field of the best world league, and the first in almost twenty years.

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