September 17, 1999

Sonics hope talented Cuban defector can help at forward

By Glenn Nelson, Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle Times, September 17, 1999

All the supposed sacrifices professional basketball players have made for the sake of the game seem like inconveniences compared to the one made by Lazaro Borrell.

The 26-year-old Cuban defector gave up everything - his country, his fans who knew him as "El Toro" (The Bull), his parents, two sisters and a younger brother - to chase his dream of playing in the NBA.

Two months later, after signing a two-year minimum deal with the Sonics yesterday, Borrell is on the cusp of realizing that dream. The Sonics, at least, fully expect him to.

"This is a low-risk, high-reward situation for us," team president Wally Walker said.

Borrell sees it the same way, despite all nefarious connotations associated with his politically charged act.

On July 17, the night before Cuba was to play star-studded Team USA in the Pan American Games, Borrell climbed into a van with three teammates and a trainer. From their hotel, they whisked to the San Juan, Puerto Rico, home of Andres Guibert, a friend who played from 1993 to 1995 with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The next stop was freedom.

"I wanted more freedom to do what I do best - play the game," Borrell said, speaking through an interpreter. "It was a dream all my life to play in the NBA. This was the only way for the dream to come true."

It didn't take long for a strong buzz to develop over Borrell, the Cuban national team's leading scorer. New Jersey and Houston, teams in cities with large Latin communities, pounced first - and often. The Nets were intrigued by the athleticism and shooting that Borrell exhibited in three private workouts, but they balked long enough to allow the Rockets into the picture.

Steered to Borrell by recently hired scout Dave Pendergrass, the Sonics brought the 6-foot-8 forward to Seattle for workouts last Thursday and Friday. Borrell's performance in drills and scrimmages against Sonics and other locally-based NBA players was so eye-popping that the Sonics kept him stashed in Seattle until details could be worked out.

Borrell, a native of Santa Clara in central Cuba, needs to obtain a work visa and permanent grant of asylum. Buoyed by last season's experience with Vladimir Stepania, the Sonics are confident they'll cut through the red tape swiftly.

They certainly are eager. In workouts, the Sonics have seen in Borrell a player with good midrange shooting ability, more-than-competent ballhandling skills and good instincts with the ball.

Billy McKinney, Sonic executive vice president of basketball operations, believes in time that Borrell also could play shooting guard and possibly point guard. For now, the Sonics project him as a small forward.

McKinney says Borrell has more overall skills than Rashard Lewis or Ruben Patterson, the two other young players the Sonics have at that position.

"He fit in so easily," McKinney said of Borrell's workouts. "It was very apparent how good he could be, with the skills that he has."

Besides acclimating himself to NBA-level basketball, Borrell will spend evenings learning English from Mercedes Butler, a Cuban-American who works for Nordstrom. For Borrell, this will be a long-term investment. Branded as a traitor by Cuba's dictatorial socialist government, he might never be allowed to return home.

Borrell doesn't fear any repercussions for his family. He doesn't have the same kind of burden suffered by teammate Roberto Herrara, whose father, Tomas, is president of the Cuban Basketball Federation. Still, to "avoid a sentimental situation," Borrell said he spoke to no one of his intentions.

"It was a decision for me," he said.

And a decision for basketball over everything else - exactly the kind of hunger the Sonics are looking for as they attempt to defect from the NBA's paunchy middle ground.

Copyright © 1999 Seattle Times Company



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