Luis Rosario Rivera rolls his left sleeve up to his elbow, revealing a row of roman numerals on the inside of his forearm.
The ninth of August, 2015. That’s the day his life changed forever.
Rosario played just three minutes a game this season for Bristol Community College. He scored a total of 14 points in 60 minutes. He grabbed 16 rebounds and dished out six assists. He couldn’t play much in the team’s run to the New England championship game because of an ACL injury in his knee.
It had all the trappings of a ho-hum season for a random benchwarmer.
Yet it was anything but.
Three years ago, Rosario didn’t speak a lick of English. He didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 15. He was 5-foot-10 and thought he should play in the post. Now, he’s the captain of the second Massachusetts Community College Athletic Conference championship-winning team in coach Rob Delaleu’s 10-year tenure. He is the all-time winningest player in program history with 41 victories over two years.
How he got from A to B is a story worth telling.
“To me, his story is amazing,” Delaleu says. “Everybody looks for stories about that person who is an All-American or a 1,000 point scorer and they build a story. That’s not what ball is about. Ball brings people together and it’s a team. It’s a family.”
Rosario grew up in Orocovis, Puerto Rico, an inland city of about 23,000 known as the music capital of the island.
He started playing baseball at age 4 at the insistence of his father, but he always dreamed of playing basketball. At age 15, he picked up the game and played at Jose Rojas Cortez High School.
“It’s not like here, we don’t go very late in high school,” he says. “I mostly just played with older guys and friends who I could learn something from. I always went by myself to the court and I had that dream of coming here to play.”
The court was a 20-minute walk from his house, but each day the lefty would grab his ball and make the trek. He loved the sport so much that when he had surgery on his left shoulder he just started shooting with his right hand. But by age 23 he’d mostly given up on his basketball dreams.
His cousin lived in New Bedford and Rosario left Puerto Rico and moved into his Mill Street apartment so he could work at Jordan’s Furniture.
“It was over,” he says now. “I didn’t know anybody, so how would I start playing basketball? My friends told me to just work and forget about basketball. I wanted to prove I could play and work.”
One fortuitous day, his cousin suggested they go play some pickup at the Dennison Memorial Center in the South End of New Bedford. Delaleu happened to be suiting up that day, and Rosario’s life was about to change.
“That’s when everything started,” Rosario says.
“When I met coach D, I couldn’t say a word (in English),” Rosario says. “I knew it would be hard to learn English and play. But it was my dream. It’s what I’ve always been dreaming of.”
The first thing his cousin told Delaleu was that Rosario didn’t know the language.
“He didn’t hesitate,” Rosario remembers. “He said, ‘I’m going to help you.’ I love him like a dad, to be honest. He helped me on the court and off the court.”
“I said, ‘Come to school. Come here,’” Delaleu recalls. “If you really want the dream of playing basketball, this is what you have to do.”
It started with one ESL (English as a Second Language) course. Rosario failed the first four tests. Delaleu spoke to the teacher, told her about the unique circumstances. By the end of the semester, Rosario had pulled his grade up to a C.
Still, Delaleu wasn’t happy.
“You had one class and you got a C?” he asked.
“Coach, I don’t know the language.” Rosario pleaded.
The next semester, he logged two A’s and a B. The following fall he was eligible to play basketball after he’d spent the previous season only attending practices. He’d also learned something important. In Puerto Rico, he was one of the taller players, despite standing just 5-foot-10. Here, he would have to guard smaller guys.
“I was trying to get big to play in the post,” he says. “Here, I was so short so I had to be fast. The guys I was defending were like 30 pounds lighter than me.”
There were also a few snags going through practices in English.
“When coach said ‘Run’ I would jump,” Rosario says. “When coach said ‘Jump’ I would run. I just didn’t know.”
Delaleu spent that season focused on increasing Rosario’s confidence. He watched as the language barrier dissipated and his knowledge of the game blossomed.
“Sometimes a guy would raise his hand to say something in film (study) and even though you let them speak, you have no idea where they’re going to go with it,” Delaleu says. “The great thing with him is you know the insight is going to be there. He would pinpoint mistakes guys are making on the court just like a coach would.”
Rosario was also working as many as four jobs, ranging from the library on campus to Gillette Stadium. One day, Delaleu scheduled a team breakfast. Rosario showed up with a pillow. He’d just finished an overnight shift.
“You hear that hard work pays off, but I know it doesn’t always happen for everybody,” Delaleu says. “Some people it aligns for perfectly and he’s proof of what happens if you go out there and bust your tail.”
Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico in September of 2017 and killed a man in Rosario’s hometown. But the true devastation arrived two weeks later when Hurricane Maria brutally battered the American territory. An estimated 11 percent of the island still didn’t have electricity as of March.
For nearly a week, Rosario didn’t know if his family had survived. They had no way to communicate. Finally, his cousin’s wife came into his room and told him she’d heard from his sister.
“I was going crazy,” Rosario says. “I just started crying. It was crazy.”
Rosario’s family — his 7-year-old sister, mother and stepfather — and their home were OK, but both the roads leading to their house were destroyed, making supplies were difficult to come by. Helicopters were needed to drop off food. They asked, could they move to New Bedford?
“I just grabbed my head, closed my eyes and started crying,” Rosario says. “But, I had to start thinking too. There was no time to cry.”
Their apartment on Mill Street wasn’t big enough to house everyone, so Rosario found a larger place in Fall River. He used his savings from those four jobs to pay for plane tickets, then drove up to Boston to meet them as their flight landed at 11 p.m. at Logan Airport.
“I can’t even explain the feeling when I saw them at the airport,” he says. “I was so happy to see them.”
“He’s working nights, playing basketball, going to school, maintaining a good GPA and next thing you know, he brings his family here and he houses them and he gets an apartment and he’s literally taking care of them,” Delaleu says. “Those are the things where you look at the perseverance of an individual.”
As he dealt with family upheaval, Rosario did miss a few games this season, but he played in 20 before his knee gave out. He served as a backup swingman, guarding anything from shooting guards to power forwards and coming up with clutch rebounds in key moments.
“He loves the game,” Delaleu says. “He loves everything he does. He puts the effort in. Sometimes it’s a little much to balance and it weighs on him and you can see it. He sacrifices a lot.”
Rosario is on track to graduate with his associate’s degree in business. He hopes to continue climbing the ladder at one of his current jobs, where he had already been promoted quickly.
“He goes into this one job and within a couple days, because of how good a worker he is and because he’s bilingual, they made him a supervisor,” Delaleu says.
“I was like, ‘Where’s the hidden camera?’” Rosario jokes.
His playing days at BCC are over, but Rosario helped the program reach its greatest heights, including its fourth New England Final Four in six years and its third New England Championship title game appearance, falling 77-74 in overtime to Massasoit, one game short of reaching the first national Elite Eight in program history.
“I think if you run that game back 10 times, we win eight or nine times,” Delaleu says.
Rosario wasn’t able to play in that game. He recently went for an MRI that confirmed his ACL injury. He’s going for a second opinion as he considers surgery.
But no matter his decision about his knee, or if his family moves back to Puerto Rico soon or if those promotions come to be, Delaleu isn’t worried. He has lots of former players he worries about.
Rosario isn’t one of them.
“You see a guy like Luis and no matter what the odds are, he’s going to make it through,” Delaleu says. “The language barrier? New country? Playing ball at a level higher than where you were? That’s tough. Then the hurricane. Then working four jobs. You sit there and wonder, ‘How do you do it?’
“He finds a way.”
Follow Brendan Kurie on Twitter @BrendanKurieSCT