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Books, not just basketball, at core of former Maryland star Greivis Vásquez's charity work

Greivis Vásquez (21) in the second half of the 2009 NCAA first round against California.
Greivis Vásquez (21) in the second half of the 2009 NCAA first round against California. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland fans remember Greivis Vásquez as a confident, emotional leader and as a talented point guard who nearly carried the Terps to the Sweet 16 as a senior — almost single-handedly. They remember the big shots he hit and the way he shimmied his shoulders after many of them.

Yet, when Vásquez arrived in College Park as a freshman in the fall of 2006, after coming from his native Venezuela two years before to attend Montrose Christian in Rockville, he was still trying to get comfortable with the language and adapt to American culture.

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While fellow freshmen Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne were taking regular college-level classes to gain credit toward a degree, Vásquez was in a program with other international students hoping to gain proficiency in English in order to take those classes.

“It was tough, it was really tough,” Vásquez recalled in a phone interview Friday. “My teammates used to go back and talk about how cool the regular college life was. When you’re taking English as a second language, it’s like you’re at a different school.”

Said Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams, "I always think about the kids who come from a tough situation, and they should just look at Greivis. He came from as tough a situation as anybody else and yet he made it academically, he made it basketball-wise.”

Vásquez grew to where he won Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard as a senior, and left Maryland second only to Juan Dixon in points scored and 3-pointers made, as well as second to Steve Blake in career assists.

Just as important to Vásquez is the fact that he left Maryland with his degree.

“I'm extremely proud, I’m extremely grateful to the University of Maryland for giving me the platform and the support that I had when I was there,” he said. “Right now, the effort, the sacrifice, it paid off. I got my degree. I can do so many different things with my education.”

Still trying to recover from a serious ankle injury that curtailed what had been a promising seven-year NBA career — the 31-year old hasn’t played since being waived by the Brooklyn Nets early last season — Vásquez is trying to help others less fortunate than himself.

Through separate foundations both in his native country and in the U.S., Vásquez has paid for scholarships for the underprivileged and has conducted book drives similar to the one that will be held Sunday at Xfinity Center before Maryland’s home game against Michigan State.

According to a release this week from Maryland, “Fans are encouraged to donate unused notebooks, paper, pencils, pens and other school supplies. Gates A-E will have receptacles available for donations prior to tip [at 1 p.m.]”

“The purpose is to help as many Latinos and other kids here in Venezuela and the U.S. to have the same opportunity that I had one day,” Vásquez said. “I’m trying to combine sports with academics, that to me is the major key to have success when you’re an athlete.

“You’ve got to motivate the kids to understand that. It’s important to play whatever sport you play, but it’s more important to get your degree. … I had a great high school career, a great college career and I made it to the NBA, but it’s more important to have a Plan B and a Plan C.”

The last time Vásquez came to a Maryland game, he was a member of the Milwaukee Bucks and went straight from Verizon Center after playing the Wizards. He walked in during the second half of an early-season home game against Georgetown.

The Terps won.

“I’m excited to go back to school, hang out with the fans,” Vásquez said Friday. "I just love the whole environment, the atmosphere, just being back with my friends, with the coaches, it’s going to be good for me what I’m doing right now going forward.”

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Vásquez has yet to have his jersey number — 21 — raised to the ceiling at Xfinity Center, but given that his accomplishments and career stats equal or exceed nearly all those who have been afforded that honor, it will likely happen in the future.

Pe’Shon Howard wore the number right after Vásquez left, and it’s currently being worn by sophomore forward Justin Jackson, whose season-ending shoulder surgery earlier this month has impacted the team’s recent struggles.

“Whoever wears that number … it’s a heavy number, some big shoes to fill, man,” Vásquez said with a laugh. “You know me. I’m competitive. I like to see whoever’s wearing my number to do well, to represent it, because I played my butt off night in and night out.”

NOTE: Maryland officially announced the incoming transfer of Schnider Herard, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound center who left Mississippi State in December. Herard, a former four-star prospect who grew up in Haiti before moving to Texas, will be eligible after the fall semester in 2018-19.

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