For Carlos Lemus, the United States was always just a flight away. The high school and AAU basketball scenes, the Division I college programs, the NBA — they were all just a flight away from Caracas, Venezuela.
But “he couldn’t buy a ticket for the flight,” said Tom Femminella, Upper Room Christian School’s boys basketball coach. “He couldn’t even dream about that.”
But Greivis Vasquez could.
Through Fundacion Greivis Vasquez, the veteran of 401 NBA games made it possible for five of his young Venezuelan countrymen to realize their dream of playing basketball and receiving an education in the United States.
Lemus, who was raised in the state of Sucre — a nine-hour drive from Caracas — landed at Upper Room in Dix Hills because Vasquez and Femminella, who played basketball for Catholic University, had mutual friends in the Washington, D.C. area. Upper Room also had a Venezuelan presence with senior standout Osbel Caraballo.
“The most important thing about the foundation is to get the kid educated and obviously have a chance to play basketball at the highest level in college or the NBA,” said Vasquez, who was waived by the Nets after playing the first three games of the current season. “It’s a beautiful, special work and I’m very proud of my team. I’m proud of my country and where I came from.”
Vasquez came to the United States as a teenager, played high school basketball alongside Kevin Durant at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Maryland, and parlayed an outstanding four-year stint at the University of Maryland into an NBA career.
As Vasquez and his foundation conversed with Lemus and his family, Venezuela’s most accomplished NBA player detected familiar qualities in the 17-year-old.
“Because of the situation back home, everybody is asking for free things and a free ticket,” said Vasquez, who grew up in Caracas. “With him and his family, they know they have to earn it. We identify ourselves with that. That’s what happened to me.
“It was hard for me growing up, but I didn’t want anything easy. He’s one of those kids. The kid wants to work hard. He wants to make it, not only to the NBA. I truly believe he wants to get his education just like I did.”
Femminella said Upper Room supplied a portion of Lemus’ scholarship and set him up with housing — he lives with host Dinine Syndor and Caraballo in Bay Shore — but Lemus would not be here without Vasquez’s support.
Vasquez said his foundation’s expenses include tuition, food and clothing.
“I was so happy to get the opportunity for Greivis to help me to come here,” said Lemus, who did not speak or understand English when he arrived on Long Island in October. “It’s a big help for me and my family.”
For Lemus and Fundacion Greivis Vasquez, basketball is a significant piece of the equation. Vasquez received a free college education through basketball. Lemus hopes to do the same.
Vasquez said he thinks Lemus has the tools to play at the Division I level. The explosive 6-2 guard with a high motor has excelled, helping Upper Room to a 10-2 record with averages of 11.9 points, 7.1 assists and 4.8 rebounds.
A handful of mid-major college coaches already have expressed interest, and Femminella said he thinks Lemus will garner significant attention this summer on the AAU circuit.
“I already have every AAU coach in the world calling to have him be part of their program,” Femminella said. “It’s just going to get more and more.”
Vasquez will continue to mentor Lemus throughout the process. They speak about once per week, covering topics from school to basketball. Femminella uses the video service Krossover to send game footage to Vasquez so Lemus can receive concrete technical advice from an NBA veteran.
“He helps me,” Lemus said. “He talks to me, tells me what I’ve got to do, get better in this, practice your moves.”
And as Lemus improves his English and basketball skills, he can be a beacon of hope to other Venezuelan teenagers.
“Carlos Lemus is one of the first guys that we’re building credibility [with],” Vasquez said. “He’ll be one of our first guys we’ll be able to show parents back home and say this is what we’re doing with the foundation. This is where we want your kids to go.”
The greater potential impact isn’t lost on Femminella.
“Them being able to have a scholarship gives them the opportunity to get an education and a job and move their family over here,” he said. “Now you’re basically having a positive impact on generations of people.”