It’s difficult to distinguish junior point guard Alex Abreu from his colleague, freshman point guard Carmelo Betancourt. Both have muscular, compact bodies.
But differences do exist.
While both are from Puerto Rico, they played at rival high schools and only had limited contact with each other.
They also came to the University of Akron with different expectations, coach Keith Dambrot said. Both stood out on their high school teams and played for Puerto Rico’s U19 National Team, but many expected Betancourt to be the next Carlos Arroyo, who played in the NBA for eight seasons. Abreu “came out of nowhere,” Dambrot said.
It was Betancourt who walked away with a final four victory for Colegio Adianez over Abreu’s Bayamon Military Academy in one of their games.
That game serves as the only example of rivalry between the two. With 13 seconds left, Abreu drove to the basket and gave the ball to his big man, who missed a potential game-winning layup.
“Our schools were rivals, big-time rivals,” Betancourt said. “Every time we played against one another, I used to not like him, until I came here and met him.”
Abreu confesses to being a little bit angry after that loss. It’s to their credit, however, that when borders disappear, so do boundaries to friendship.
Any semblance of opposition on the court now boils down to playful competition at practice. The rivalry is replaced by camaraderie and the fact that these players, who are now friends, complement one another with respect to what Dambrot’s Zips need this season.
“Melo is better defensively,” Dambrot said after Thursday morning’s practice. “Alex is better scoring around the rim, probably a little better outside shooter at this point of his career, obviously better understanding of our system.”
The personalities are distinct, as well. Both show intensity on the court in practices and game situations, but the differences eventually show.
“Alex is the freest of all spirits and Melo is a business-like guy,” Dambrot said. “Both great in their own way personality wise, but totally different.”
Those character traits manifest themselves in different ways.
Abreu not only possesses a free spirit, but is poised as well. That has helped develop a bond between the two. It’s not uncommon to see Abreu walk up to Betancourt in practice, put a hand on his shoulder and go over a play that’s just been run, presumably offering advice.
“Alex is supremely confident, so I think Alex helps him with that, too,” Dambrot said. “I kid them because they guard each other every day and I ask them if they have deals to let each other score or what.”
Abreu knows exactly what he’s doing when it comes to Betancourt. To Abreu it makes sense for Betancourt to know and understand as much as possible should an injury thrust him into the lineup.
“I try to help by sitting him down and telling him how the system goes and how [assignments] go, just showing him the ways around here and the way I do it,” he said.
Betancourt’s discipline has certainly helped as Abreu has battled to take some weight off in recent weeks. To aid the cause, they shopped, cooked, worked out and took treatment together.
“We try to maintain eating healthy because he was a couple of pounds overweight,” Betancourt said. “It really benefits me when he’s in good shape because I need to learn from somebody, so I really need him to be ready. So I was helping him out.”
Through that symbiotic relationship, a friendship has taken root and it continues to grow because of a shared culture.
“I love the fact that he is here,” Abreu said. “ It’s comfortable. We go home, we cook our Spanish food, play our music. I get a chance to talk in Spanish and express myself. I have no problem talking in English, but it’s not the same thing we grew up on.”
For Betancourt, who also played ball at a Maryland prep school for two years, the familiarity helps as well.
“I think it’s great because you always need somebody to relate to, somebody who comes from the same place you come from. So it’s great to have him here,” he said.