ORLANDO – For weeks, upstart Orlando Magic rookie Braian Angola-Rodas – the NBA’s first Colombian-born player – has felt as if he has been living out a childhood fairytale while playing on basketball’s grandest stage. Then, a couple of occurrences this week reminded him that his improbable climb to the NBA and this living dream doesn’t belong solely to him.
No, this hoops dream of Angola-Rodas’ is being shared by millions back in his South American homeland and they remind him of that almost daily.
``A lot of kids (message) me on my Instagram and on my Facebook and tell me how much they love me and how much they want to be like me someday,’’ an amazed and flattered Angola-Rodas said. ``(On Tuesday), when we were at the (Magic) Open Practice, this little kid came up to me and she was like, `Hi Braian! My birthday present is to be here with you in this Open Practice.’ She had flown in from Colombia (on Monday) and she is flying back (on Thursday). It’s something that I’m really proud of and I hope people can read my story and see how I am very grateful.’’
Angola-Rodas’ measurables include his 6-foot-6 height, his 6-foot, 8-inch wingspan and an athletic, but rail-thin frame that is just 185 pounds. What can’t be measured, however, is the fight and grit that he’s needed to get this far and his strong, undying belief that he could someday blaze a trail to the NBA for Colombians. He didn’t learn how to play basketball until he was 12 years old, moved three hours away from home (Villanueva) to a much larger city (Villavicencio) at 14 and eventually came to the United States at 17 even though he didn’t speak a word of English at the time – all in the name of progressing as a basketball player.
After stops in Los Angeles (for the Adidas Nation basketball showcase), Henderson, Nevada (Findlay Prep High School), Couer d’Alene, Idaho (North Idaho Junior College) and Tallahassee, Fla. (Florida State), Angola-Rodas is in Orlando with the Magic and poised to see his first NBA action on Friday night. Maybe it’s only fitting that Angola-Rodas’ debut will feature the Magic playing a Flamengo team from Brazil – a fellow South American country that borders Colombia on its southeastern-most side.
``I think about (being in the NBA) every day and now (hearing) it, it just gives me chills,’’ said Angola-Rodas, who averaged 5.4 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists in five games of the NBA Summer League last July in Las Vegas. ``Where I’m coming from and being the first Colombian to make it to the NBA, it’s a great experience for me. That’s made me proud of myself and I’m so happy being here. … On Friday, I’ll just wait for my moment and when they call my name I’ll be out there.’’
Angola-Rodas will be out there, he will tell you proudly, with the support of some of the nearly 49 million Colombians who know of his story. Also, he’ll take the court in honor of his late father, Hugo Angola, who first introduced his son to basketball and was one his most staunch supporters in making it to the NBA. Just when it looked like Angola-Rodas’ dream of playing basketball professionally had ended – some four years ago following his father’s death – social media was there to show him a memory that reignited his passion for sports.
``I got a scholarship for a Junior College in Idaho, but my dad had passed away and I decided that I’m not going back to the United States and I’d stay back with my family and help my mom,’’ he recalled. ``Then, on my Facebook, while I was writing something, I saw a picture of my dad and we were in the airport and it said: `In the airport saying bye to a future NBA star. I love you, Braian!’ And the picture was a year before (his father) passed away. Then, I was like, `Mom, I want to go back (to the U.S. and basketball) and give me two more years to try and do something.’’
Do something certainly he did. Angola-Rodas lead Findlay Prep to a 35-1 high school record as a senior, he became a JUCO first-team All-American while at Northern Idaho College, he averaged 12.7 points a game in the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup and in two seasons at FSU he evolved into one of the Seminoles’ most beloved and consistent players.
``In college you develop a real brotherhood because you are living with dudes and see each other every single day and me and Braian are like brothers,’’ said Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, who played with Angola-Rodas in the 2016-17 season at FSU. ``I know all about his story and it’s profound and it’s amazing.’’
It’s somewhat amazing that Angola-Rodas ever matriculated to basketball considering how soccer-obsessed most sports fans are in Colombia. Lucky for him was the fact that his father, Hugo Angola, and his mother, Ofelia Rodas, played the sport and introduced it to their son when he was 12 years old. There was, of course, quite the learning curve for someone who had never before even seen basketball played.
``Growing up I was always playing soccer, but when I was 12 years old my mom and dad gave me a (basketball) and said, `Let’s go practice,’’’ he remembered. ``I went to practice and started running around (with the ball in hand) and they said, `travel!’ So, I said that’s enough for me. I went home, and I came back and went again, and I scored a few baskets and I had to run and I loved it.’’
Two years later, Angola-Rodas made the bold decision to leave his family home and move to Villavicencio, a land-locked city of some 500,000 people that’s 70 miles south of Bogota so he could improve his basketball skills. There were, however, challenges that tested his love for the game. ``Nobody knew me, but it was just basketball,’’ he said. ``Sometimes I had to walk five miles to get to practice or to work out every day,’’ he noted.
A big break came when he was invited to the 2015 Adidas Nation basketball showcase in Los Angeles where he faced the likes of Jaylen Brown (Celtics), Jahlil Okafor (Pelicans), D’Angelo Russell (Nets), Myles Turner (Pacers) and Josh Jackson (Suns). Playing well there for his Latin American squad landed Angola-Rodas a scholarship to a Nevada high school even though he didn’t know English. Communicating proved to be a bigger barrier than his limited knowledge of basketball.
``My coach would come up to me like, `What’s up?’ and I didn’t know what he said,’’ he said with a chuckle. ``They showed me an i-pad with a burger and ask if I wanted to eat. That first year was just tough because my English wasn’t right, and I didn’t play much.
``It’s funny because at school I’d be in the corner with my i-pad and if we had homework I’d do it in Spanish and translate it to English,’’ he added. ``It took me about a year to learn English, but I was still scared to talk to people because I feel like they wouldn’t understand me when I talk. So, I was just quiet.’’
He was anything but quiet on the court, using his smothering length and explosive athleticism to average 13.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists for North Idaho’s 31-2 squad. That play landed him offers to several Division I schools and he ultimately chose to play at Florida State. Still, Angola-Rodas was homesick and feeling at times as if he abandoned his family in a time of need following his father’s death. He said he wouldn’t be where he is today without his family and a father who always believed he’d do great things.
``When I was in Idaho, it was tough because I had to take care of my family back home. My mom kind of had depression because of my dad, so I would send $200 a month back so they can eat, and I would keep $50 so I can eat. But I just focused on basketball,’’ he said. ``Every day I just look up and thank God and thank my dad for giving me the opportunity to get up and do what I love.’’
Ofelia Rodas saw her son play basketball live for the first time last season when she attended a game at Duke and she sent shockwaves through Braian’s body back in March when she showed up unannounced at FSU for Senior Night. Everything Angola-Rodas does now, he does for his mother, sisters Karol and Michel and brothers Jhon and Fredy – who were able to live-stream some of their pride and joy’s FSU basketball games from the internet last year.
``I’m still on a G League contract, but I’m just happy that I could buy my mom some stuff for her birthday,’’ said Angola-Rodas, who was signed by the Magic as an Exhibit 10 player, meaning he’ll likely spend much of this season in the G League with the Lakeland Magic. ``My sisters are going to school and I have to be looking out for them and my brother and half-brother. Every time they need something, I just send them some money, so they can live good.
``I just hope they can come here and go to Disney,’’ he said wistfully.
When the Magic faced the 76ers in Philadelphia on Monday, Angola-Rodas didn’t play, but he was still in awe of his surroundings. (It was the second NBA game he had ever seen live after attending a Spurs-Jazz game once during his college days in Utah.) He’ll likely spend most of the upcoming season in the G League with Lakeland while working on his jump shot and playing defense.
Still, the dream to play full-time in the NBA persists, and he wants to make that dream a reality for all of those back in Colombia who send messages daily saying things such as, `You are my idol’ and `I want to be like you when I grow up.’ One thing is for sure, he said, and that’s that he will never take playing on basketball’s grandest stage for example. He knows all the work, sacrifice and risk that it’s taken to get this far and overcome the odds, and he wants to savor every step of this improbable, almost unthinkable journey.
``Every time I come (to the Magic’s practice gym) I’m always happy and always smiling,’’ he said while flashing a big grin. ``Even if I’m on the sideline, I’m happy to be here and whatever my teammates need, I’m going to be there for them. I know a lot of people in the whole world would die for the opportunity that I have and I’m just going to be grateful.’’
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