HOLYOKE, MA – Jaime Barea sat quietly on the second row at Holyoke (MA) High School on Friday morning, smiling ever so gleefully as one dignitary after another in this small western Massachusetts town showered his son, J. J. Barea, with praise.
One dignitary lauded the efforts of J. J. Barea, who was very instrumental in helping people in Puerto Rico get back on their feet after Hurricane Maria trampled the island approximately a year ago. Another dignitary declared Friday as J. J. Barea Day in the city of Holyoke, to which Barea received a thunderous ovation from the students, staff and parents on hand for this one-hour event.
But beyond the awards, the commemorative T-shirts and other adulations J. J. Barea received, Jaime Barea was most proud of his son for stepping up and doing what’s right when the situation called for it. And the proof was squarely on the smiling faces of all those students – many of them Puerto Ricans – who came to just thank J. J. Barea for having their backs during one of the most miserable times of their life.
“It’s great to see him cheering with his Puerto Rican community in the states,” Jaime Barea said. “He is very proud of being Puerto Rican, he played for the national team in Puerto Rico and he helps Puerto Ricans everywhere he goes.
“I’m proud of his activities helping people, serving others. He may be a basketball player, but I’m proud of him as a person, so it’s a great opportunity to share with all these families here and Puerto Ricans here in the states.”
After taking numerous pictures, J. J. Barea spoke to the students and told them about the importance of staying in school and getting their education and how that degree can change their life for the better. It was vintage Barea, who was born in Puerto Rico and attended college less than two hours away from Holyoke at Northeastern University.
“He’s somebody who is an icon in this community,” said Dr. Stephen Zrike, the superintendent of Holyoke Public Schools. “This community loves basketball, 80 percent of our student body is Puerto Rican, and he’s a legend.
“He was captain of the national team and obviously an NBA star and NBA champion. Even though we’re (Boston) Celtics country here, there’s a special place for J. J. and what he’s meant to the Puerto Rican community, and then of course all the work he’s done assisting in the hurricane relief, so we’re thrilled to welcome him to Holyoke.”
Some 15 families who were displaced by Hurricane Maria attended Friday’s event. Pedro Martinez, a senior of Holyoke High School, left Puerto Rico nine months ago with his family after their home was devastated by the hurricane.
Martinez was happy to see a fellow Puerto Rican like Barea taking the time to visit his school and tell his life story.
“I feel very thankful that he’s here first of all because I like basketball myself,” Martinez said. “And also because he’s here to help students to motivate them to succeed in life.”
Barea received the Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award at an event Thursday night in Springfield, MA. That came because of all the relief effort he helped facilitate – including using proprietor Mark Cuban’s airplane several times to fly to Puerto Rico to take food, clothing and medical supplies to help needy families.
On Friday, with his mom, dad and wife in attendance – as well as Mavs coach Rick Carlisle – Barea reveled at having the chance to make a difference during a career that has been stamped by his tireless charity work in the community.
“I went to school close to here in Boston at Northeastern, so I know how the community is of Puerto Ricans here,” Barea said. “Even more had families and kids who had to come from Puerto Rico, so for me– with the NBA, coach is here – to be able to just come out and say hi, they look happy.
“You can see that their spirits are up, they’re having a good time. It’s a bunch of good kids, so it’s just great to be here.”
Carlisle said it can’t be understated now important Barea is to the people of Puerto Rican decent. Without a doubt, Barea is their superhero.
“This is an amazing day,” Carlisle said. “Fifteen displaced families are here this morning, and the joy and appreciation they feel towards J. J. Barea is awesome.
“Last night was a great celebration of the work that J. J.’s put into relief efforts in Puerto Rico. This is an honor to be here.”
Sherlyan Vega, a sophomore at Holyoke High School who is from Puerto Rico, also was honored to be in the same building with Barea on Friday.
“I think it’s a good experience for him to be here for students to be able to meet him so that he can help them with their academics and sports as well,” Vega said. “It was a good decision that he made to go over to Puerto Rico to help his people because he’s from over there and he’s very proud of being able to do that for them.”
Barea wouldn’t have it any other way. Reaching out to lend a helping hand is part of his DNA, especially in a crisis situation.
“The opportunity for the kids to leave Puerto Rico and have a place where they can go and keep going to school and make it their home when things happen I think it’s super important,” Barea said. “I think the community here is so big that they feel a little bit more comfortable.
“The people here accepted them and they helped them. They’ve got a nice group of people that’s been here for years, so they know what to do and how to help.”
Of Holyoke, Zrike said: “This is the city with the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans per capital outside of the island of Puerto Rico in the entire country. This city is 50 percent Puerto Rican, so it’s pretty special to welcome J. J. here to Holyoke where there’s a huge Puerto Rico identity here.”
Zrike then spoke about the Mavs reaching out and helping his school district.
“We’re really appreciative of the Mavericks to think of us and we’re really thankful to J. J.,” Zrike said. “I know Mark Cuban was involved in helping him to send planes to Puerto Rico to serve our families.
“These were the families we were appointed (to Holyoke) and obviously the Mavericks have made a commitment to those families as well.”
But it all started with Barea, who jumped in during a critical time of need to help those in Puerto Rico.
“He has such a caring interest in his country,” Carlisle said. “When something like (Hurricane Maria) happens and you see how it affects the spirit of your people, it really inspired him to do great work and as you can see the efforts are on-going.
“It’s really great that as part of this (Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame) weekend that we were so close to a Puerto Rican area like this where J. J. could come and spread some more love and support.”
And make his dad a proud papa.