The bumpy road Ruben Silvas Jr. took to Fairbanks, Alaska, is a bit like the road to Tohono O’odham Community College, where Silvas started his college basketball career.
Getting to the college means crossing the Sonoran Desert, driving past the cacti and the horses and the cow-crossing signs, past the Border Patrol checkpoints, past the store with a helicopter and race car on its roof, the one that makes TOCC basketball coach Matthew Vargas say, “Only in Three Points, brother.”
The tiny town is about a third of the way from Tucson, where Silvas was raised, to TOCC, where he thrived — and about 3,700 miles south of his future home.
In a few months, he’ll pack up his things and head north, far north, to represent himself, his parents, his school and his teammates, with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks.
The guard will also represent the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, 100 of whose members have gathered at Casino del Sol this spring day for his signing ceremony over mini croissants and cantaloupe. Tribal leaders say Silvas is the first member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe to earn a college basketball scholarship.
“Every day around Ruben was better,” Vargas says through pauses and tears. “We’ve been blessed to have him in this program. He did not come here and have it all figured out … but he stayed the course, worked and worked and worked, and he made a plan to have success.”
The ceremony ends with a standing ovation for Silvas, and Vargas stands nearby, biting his bottom lip.
“Man, he scored 12 points a game,” the coach dead-pans later. “I wasn’t crying because I’ll miss him, I was crying because I need those points back.”
Ruben Silvas Sr. saw greatness in his son way back at Chaparral Middle School on the south side, where Little Ruben “did things no other kids were doing.”
His mother, Alva Chavez, knew even sooner.
“At the T-ball field, he wouldn’t let any of the other kids play,” she remembers. “He’d run from first base to third base to get the ball, because nobody else knew what they were doing. He got mad because we had to tell him, ‘You have to let people play!’ He was 5.”
Big Ruben ran a men’s team at the Pascua Yaqui rec center and Little Ruben banged around with the adults, taking a pounding but always getting up. By his first year at Tucson High School, he was good enough to make the freshman team, but he didn’t get much playing time. He gave up basketball his sophomore year but returned for his junior year. He was also a constant presence at the rec center, where he eventually got a job working with kids.
One day in July 2010, while playing basketball with some friends, Silvas felt a pain in his chest. He gasped for air. His mother rushed him to the hospital, where she was blindsided.
“The doctor was even shocked; ‘You are not going to believe this, but his lung is collapsed,’ ” she remembers. “ ‘What do you mean?’ I say, and the doctor says, ‘I’m just as blown away as you are.’ ”
Tests revealed a genetic condition called Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that most often results in heart and aorta defects. Another hazard: sudden pneumothorax, collapsed lung, after too much air or gas builds up between the lungs and chest wall.
Over the next 18 months, Silvas’ lungs collapsed three more times, requiring three surgeries, the last of them in January 2012. He was laid up for a month, weak and weary, depressed and gray.
He wondered how often this would happen. He asked, “Why me?” His biggest passion, basketball, was slipping away, along with any dreams of furthering his education.
Gradually, his younger brothers and sisters pried him off the couch. One day, he poked Ruben Sr.
“ ‘Hey Dad, let’s go to the gym,’ and it was like, ‘Let’s go!” Ruben Sr. says. “At first, he took it slow. He got his breath, went full speed. Full court. He hit the weights. It was a big relief.”
His body healing and now emboldened with a new outlook, Silvas began to challenge himself. He played more and more basketball, felt his lungs expanding. He took in the air.
By June 2012, he was strong and hungry once more. He was at the gym all the time, but tired of playing rec center ball. From an old high school teammate, he heard about an open gym tryout at TOCC.
“I got a second chance,” he thought at the time. “I want to make the most of it.”
Vargas knew in an instant.
“When you see it, you know it,” he says over double bacon cheeseburgers as he remembers the first time he saw Silvas play. “Someone on his team threw a bad pass, Ruben ran down the floor and the guy who made the steal, very talented, thought he was going to lay it up nice and easy, look cool.
“Here comes this skinny, little guy running down the floor full-blast. Everyone else had given up on the play, and he beat the dude down the floor and stuffed him off the glass. It was like, ‘That’s the kid I want.’ ”
It would have to wait.
Before his freshman season with the Jegos, Silvas broke his shooting wrist and he was sidelined once more. He was scared to tell Vargas of the injury, fearing the coach would cut him from the team. Vargas didn’t, but the two agreed that Silvas would skip the season.
Game 1 of 2012, against Northern Idaho in Yuma. TOCC lost by 36 points. Silvas watched in agony and begged Vargas to play, to burn the redshirt. The wrist felt good enough to play, good enough to not sit idly by and watch the team lose by 36 points.
He walked up to Vargas and simply said, “We can’t have that.” Vargas looked him up and down, told him to get into the car. They drove all around Yuma, looking for a doctor. Finally they found one willing to do an exam.
“Can you clear him?”
“You got $25?”
For the price of two movie tickets, Silvas was cleared. Vargas drove back to the hotel, did the necessary paperwork, and Silvas was set. The next night, in a seven-point loss to Utah State-Eastern, Silvas played nine minutes, scoring three points. Over the next several months, his game improved; he scored double-figures against Little Big Horn College a few weeks later and 19 against Eastern Arizona a week after that.
By the final games of the season, Vargas saw a player good enough to jump to the next level. Against Phoenix College on Feb. 6, 2013, Silvas scored 11 points and helped hold star guard Chris Solomon to just 19 points. A month earlier, Solomon scored 39 against the Jegos in a 34-point win.
One play, Solomon brought the ball up court, talking smack like he had all game, before Silvas abruptly picked his pocket at half court, took off up the right sideline, looked over and saw Solomon coming, “mad like a bull,” Vargas says, “and Ruben rose up and just put it on him.”
Vargas’ jaw dropped at the dunk.
“Everyone on the bench jumped up and went nuts,” Vargas says, “and I was just like … ‘Wow,’ just … ‘Wow. ’ ”
Silvas still wasn’t sold on himself, and his attitude in the classroom reflected it. After scoring nearly 10 points a game as a freshman, with a high of 20 against Central Arizona, he asked Vargas what he’d have to do to draw some of the attention his teammates were getting.
Raise your grades, the coach told him.
“2.5 don’t get it done, homie,” Vargas said.
Silvas boosted his GPA from roughly 2.3 as a freshman to 3.75 as a sophomore. His production increased, too, up to 12 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game.
It was during a trip to Seattle in December that Silvas truly took flight.
On a three-game swing in the Pacific Northwest, he dropped any hesitancy to push himself or to shoot, from inside and out. He caught the eye of Alaska-Fairbanks coach Mick Durham. Durham was there to see other players, but ended up telling Vargas, “Yeah, yeah, what about the Silvas kid?” He got Ruben’s number, and started texting him.
That’s when Silvas knew this was real.
“When the season started, I doubted myself,” Silvas says. “I didn’t think I was good enough. Coach reminded me I could play. Just play. I got tired of not getting looked at. For some reason, I always had doubt in the back of my head, and that would mess up my game. But once I saw myself do that up in Seattle, it started clicking.”
The scrawny kid who came to TOCC at 155 pounds with weak lungs and a weaker wrist, who barely played high school basketball and wasn’t sure if he’d ever go to college, was ready to fulfill a dream.
At his signing ceremony, Silvas is feted by friends, family and tribal members.
One takes the podium to offer an Our Father and Hail Mary in the Yaqui language, another suggests that family send blankets to Silvas up in the tundra.
Silvas made an official visit to Alaska in late March and loved it. He liked the snow, called his coach about the reindeer — “Dude, they’re so big!” — and called his dad to tell him that the sun doesn’t set until 9, 10 p.m.
He likes that he’ll be able to almost roll out of bed and into the gym. That’s a major plus — right now, TOCC practices at Baboquivari High School, 25 miles away in Topawa. The players are rousted at around 5 a.m., shuttled to practice and back to campus before classes start. He’s excited about the food options, as TOCC is not exactly adjacent to a mall food court. There are no major corporations on tribal land; the nearest fast food is miles away.
He’s nervous to leave home but excited for the endeavor. He knows he’s bringing with him the hopes of an entire people.
“We were so blessed when Coach Matthew came over and explained the scholarship,” says tribal chairman Peter Yucupicio, who adds that nearly 700 children in the tribe participate in athletics.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, you have no idea how important this is,’ ” Yucupicio said. “He is the first brick in this house that we’re going to build on athletics.”
When it is finally Silvas’ turn to address the huge crowd, he stands tall and proud in a light blue shirt and tie. He has his hands shoved in his pocket and a shy smile on his face.
The weight of this achievement isn’t lost on Silvas. He knows that as the first person in his family to attend a four-year institution, and as one of the first Pascua Yaqui members to earn a college athletics scholarship, that he will be looked to.
“Everybody keeps telling me I’m the first, but I want to say, I won’t be the last,” he says to applause.
That’s a message that can start a movement, says tribal council member Rosa Alvarez, who has known Little Ruben since he first came from the hospital with such long arms and long legs.
“To know our family member is doing great things and is taking advantage of this opportunity,” Alvarez says, “it gives us … it just gives us hope.”