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011708 Iowa Boys: Meet Tijuana’s Titans

COUNCIL BLUFFS — It was a high school basketball coach’s dream.

Carlos Perez and brother Marcos, No. 23, have adjusted well in Council Bluffs after moving from Tijuana, Mexico.

A knock on the classroom door. A father standing with two towering sons, saying they’re interested in joining the team.

“I remember the first day they came,” Council Bluffs Lewis Central coach Dan Miller said. “I was like, ‘Oh my. Wow.'”

But hold on. Marcos and Carlos Perez grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, where there are no organized basketball teams. They came to America with no understanding of English. That first day of practice was an adventure.

They couldn’t run a line drill,” Miller said. “Even down and back was a challenge. In their defense, they had no concept of how to work hard or run a drill. And they’re trying to learn the language and I’m saying, ‘Screen and roll! Cut!'”

A little more than three years later, not only are the Perez brothers fluent in English, they’re smooth on the basketball court. Marcos, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound senior forward with a feathery 3-point stroke, averages 13 points and 6 rebounds while shooting 46 percent from 3-point range, 57 percent from 2-point range and 81 percent from the line. Carlos, a powerful 6-8, 250-pound senior center, pitches in 13 points and 9 rebounds while shooting 55 percent for a Lewis Central team that will take a 10-2 record into tonight’s 7:45 home game with Council Bluffs St. Albert.

Both brothers are receiving college attention from a variety of levels. Currently, they are leaning toward junior college.

“From a basketball standpoint, their best years are undoubtedly ahead of them,” Miller said. “Who knows what level they could end up playing? Can they get to a Division II level? Who knows, could they get to a Division I level? You just never know. If you would have seen them four years ago, you never would have thought that they’d play varsity basketball.”

A long road

So how do you get to Council Bluffs from Tijuana, a city adjacent to San Diego on the U.S.-Mexican border? You get there when two parents, Tiburcio and Imelda Perez, become so tired of worrying about their sons that they decide to do something drastic. The Perezes lived in a gang-infested area of Tijuana. It wasn’t safe to be out late. After school, Carlos and Marcos often went to the school where their mother taught to stay busy. When they went home, it was usually indoor activities with friends.

Carlos was robbed once, when he was 12 or 13.

“I was about to take the bus,” he said. “These guys came up to me and told me to give them some money so they could buy beer. I was like, ‘I don’t have money.’ He pulled a knife on me, and I was like, ‘All right, I guess I do have some money.’ Mom was scared.”

While Imelda Perez pushed to move the family to America, her husband initially resisted. Finally, in October 2004, the decision became final. A relative living in the United States assured Tiburcio there would be a construction job waiting if they moved to Council Bluffs.

Carlos said he and his brother were excited but apprehensive. The weight of the life-altering decision crashed down on the day they loaded up the family vehicle.

“My friends just gathered around the car when we were about to leave, and I just couldn’t stop crying,” Carlos said. “Then we got to the airport, and my dad started crying, too.”

The brothers came to Council Bluffs with their father. Their sister, Tanya, now a sophomore at Lewis Central, joined them five or six months later, and a few months after that, Imelda was the last one to reach Iowa.

Awkwardness reigned upon the boys’ arrival at Lewis Central. There were stares on the first day of school “because we were tall and Mexican,” Marcos said. The language barrier served as a padlock in all social settings.

“Because we were new, people just came up and talked to us,” Carlos said. “We were like, ‘Sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying.'”

Learning the game

They met the same growing pains on the basketball court. In Mexico, their only link to the game came from repeatedly watching the movie “Space Jam” with Michael Jordan. Not exactly Magic Johnson’s “Fundamentals of Basketball.”

They were not prepared for the tempo of a high school practice.

“When they were doing those drills I was like, ‘Man, I can’t do this,'” Carlos said. “I just walked out and changed my (clothes). The team saw me and I was like, “I should hide.'”

In his first year of high school, Carlos lagged behind his brother on the court. Carlos played sparingly on the freshman team and was ridiculed by some students.

“I actually went to my dad and told him I wanted to quit,” he said. “I cried a little bit because I couldn’t take it. That summer I was just like, ‘I’ve got to work on my game.’ I practiced with Marcos every day. I wanted to prove them wrong.”

Carlos went from a JV reserve as a sophomore to a second-team All-Hawkeye Ten Conference performer as a junior. Marcos started on the varsity the last three or four games as a sophomore and was honorable mention all-conference last season.

“Marcos is the best passer I’ve ever had, period, point guard or otherwise,” Miller said. “In my eight years as a head coach, he sees the floor better than anyone I’ve ever had. And I’ve obviously never had anyone with Carlos’ size, period. But his ability to score on the block, as well as step out away from the basket, has been fun to coach.”

The age question

The brothers have had to endure whispers about their eligibility from Day One. That’s because there was so much confusion in determining which credits would transfer and what grade level they would be classified. In their first year of high school, they were taking freshman-level courses, but Marcus was deemed to be a junior and Carlos a sophomore.

In their second year, they were re-evaluated and reclassified as sophomores. Miller understands why people have questioned their status but said the confusion came long before they blossomed into talented basketball players.

There is one aspect of Marcos Perez’s eligibility that could come into play. He is 19, and turns 20 on Tuesday, March 4. Iowa allows no high school student who reaches 20 to be eligible for extracurricular activities. Should Lewis Central reach the state tournament, its first game would be Wednesday, March 5. Therefore, if Marcos leads the Titans to state, he would be ineligible to play in Des Moines.

Carlos is 18, so his eligibility is not in question.

Lewis Central has made an informal appeal to the Iowa High School Athletic Association on Marcos’ behalf. A veteran administrator at the IHSAA said that in his tenure, he’s unaware of a 20-year-old ever being ruled eligible.

Role model

Carlos and Marcos Perez haven’t seen their childhood friends since that emotional day they left Tijuana, although they do still e-mail some of their old buddies. (“I told them I got recruited by the Lakers, and they actually believed me,” Carlos says, grinning.)

Regardless, they’re thrilled to be in Iowa.

“My mom always asks us that question, if she made the right choice, bringing us to the U.S.,” Carlos said. “I say, ‘Yeah, Mom, it’s going to help us in the future.'”

Miller said their story should inspire anyone who thinks a goal is unattainable.

“I think they’re a great example for our other kids of what can happen if you’re willing to show up every day and work,” he said.

Speaking of work, Carlos is employed at a local gas station. He related a story about a recent customer.

“This guy came in and said he has a son in elementary. He told me his son looks up to me. He comes to the games and watches me.”

His reaction?

“Wow,” he says softly, pausing long and hard. “Overwhelmed.”

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