Do you like attention?
I do. I embrace that. You can only live this for what, 10 years?
What’s it like to be a Raptor during the playoffs, with the atmosphere in Toronto?
Like a rock star. Everybody recognizes us. Last year, I never experienced anything like that—people outside at Maple Leaf Square, watching the game, it was freezing cold. The whole vibe inside the ACC, when they sing the national anthems. It’s a dream come true.
What do you love about Toronto?
The fact that it’s pretty diverse, multicultural. If I go to a Venezuelan restaurant, I feel like I’m in Caracas. Si. It’s the closest thing.
What’s your favourite Venezuelan dish?
Something called arepa—that’s the main cuisine. It’s corn bread with cheese and whatever you want. I eat that almost every day. And it’s cool because when I was in the States, they didn’t have Venezuelan restaurants. But here I’ve got three. I can go whenever I want.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
We don’t spend enough time with our families. I see my teammates more than I see my son. We play in the best league, we get paid pretty well…
We’re blessed. But it comes with the job. I’m not diminishing any other jobs, but if you work in the league—I’ve had two surgeries, both ankles. I’m pretty banged up. You earn your cheque. It’s not like, “Oh you’re making a lot of money ’cause you’re cool.” No. You have to work extremely hard.
What was your childhood like in Caracas?
I come from a really humble neighbourhood. It made me be mentally tough. I left my country when I was 17 years old. I couldn’t go back home to visit my family for two years, and they couldn’t afford to buy a ticket to come see me. I’m extremely proud of my family, my whole country. I’m the only Venezuelan in the NBA, so 34 million people are watching.
As a kid, you had to make sacrifices to play basketball, right?
Back home, the highest level is played in tough neighbourhoods with a lot of drug dealers. I used to sneak out of my house and tell my mom I was going [somewhere else] when I was really going to a place where people were holding guns and stuff like that. That’s how much I loved the game.
You lied to your mom. Does she know now?
Yeah, she knows. It paid off pretty good.
I saw a picture of you with your parents. They’re short…
I know. I’m still questioning that, I don’t know. My brother’s pretty tall, too. My grandparents on my mom’s side are tall. It might be that side of the family. Everybody else is too short.
What should Raptors fans know about this team?
We’re a team in progress. You can’t win a championship in two years. It’s gonna hurt a little. When we go through tough times, I think the whole city, we have to be together. Our fans play a huge role and we talk about it in the locker room. They’re probably the best in the NBA, but at the same time, you have to be a little patient. I think we’re headed in the right direction. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next five or six years we win a championship.
I’ll hold you to that. What is it like to hit a three at a big moment?
Just like you’re back in your neighbourhood, on the court by yourself, and you pretend you got the last shot, three seconds left, and it’s 20,000 people watching you. Three… two… one, and you shoot it and you hit it. You start running and celebrating and making funny faces. That’s how I feel.
You have some solid celebration moves.
I keep it consistent. I do my shimmy and all that stuff.
Does the shimmy take practice?
No, it was really natural. If you plan it, it won’t be the same.
Where does your confidence come from?
Within myself. I got my own gas. I learned how to fish a long time ago. I don’t need anybody to fish for me.
You’ve had a lot of different hairstyles. Where do you get it cut?
My barber is a Dominican guy, his name is Alberto, and he’s the only guy who touches my hair.
You’re particular about your hair?
I’m superstitious. Sometimes I let it grow because Alberto is outta town. I don’t let anybody else touch it.
Any plans for playoff hair?
Nothing crazy. I hope I come up with something creative.
Maybe carve a Raptor into your head. Have you had any conversations with the Raptor? I know he doesn’t talk…
I don’t understand his language. [Laughs.] It’s a Raptor thing.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.