Three years ago, Alex Abreu led Akron in assists, and once the games had ended, he dished dimes on the local streets.
But an arrest on a felony marijuana trafficking charge, the night before his team’s final regular season game against Kent State in 2012-13, and subsequent conviction ruined his career with Akron, which had won 19 consecutive games with the 5-11 point guard running the show.
Today, Abreu, who competes in Puerto Rico’s professional league, wants to warn youngsters about the consequences of their mistakes.
“I didn’t measure the trouble I was getting into,” Abreu told ESPN.com about his time at Akron, which will face Western Michigan at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU on Friday night. “Let me serve as an example.”
Abreu, who averaged 10.3 PPG and 6.0 APG in 2012-13, maneuvered through the city’s underworld and made thousands off the pounds of marijuana he sold -- in all, he handled more than $15,000 in cash and $25,000 in weed, he claims. But he masked his illegal activities as he balanced two lives with the same tact he demonstrated as a point guard who finished 26th in assist rate and made 81 percent of his free throws that season.
“The guys on my team didn’t even know,” he said.
He didn’t flaunt the extra cash -- and he says he received more money from his Pell Grant than the drug game -- but he admits he bought his girlfriend a few things, purchased plane tickets for his mother and acquired a few luxury items for himself.
He said it started as a curiosity and evolved into a full-scale situation.
He operated a few steps above the street hustlers in the local hierarchy, an arrangement that helped him stay in the background and prompted a cop to ask if he was the “Weed Man in Akron,” per the Akron Beacon Journal.
“I didn’t talk to nobody that wanted something,” said Abreu, who said he wasn’t a “kingpin.” “I wasn’t at that level. I was at the level where I deal with a couple people and that was the only people that talk to me and after that, it wasn’t my problem.”
On March 7, 2013, Abreu received a call about a five-pound shipment that had arrived at a stash house. Something didn’t feel right, though. So he circled the block more than a dozen times and searched for any mysterious vehicles or characters. And then, he approached the back door of the pickup spot. That’s when undercover agents who’d been tracking his drug shipments opened the door and arrested him.
“All I could think of honestly was the Kent State game, how we might lose,” Abreu said. “That’s so crazy that that’s the first thing I said to the guys. I’m like, ‘Am I not going to be able to play tomorrow?' and they looked at me and said, “You might not ever get to play there again.” That’s when it hit me like, ‘Oh my god, what did I just do?'”
It’s a tale that still affects an Akron program that’s pushing for its first NCAA tournament appearance since Abreu’s final season -- the 26.3 percent mark from the 3-point line by Zips’ opponents is the third-lowest success rate in the nation.
“Things came so easy for him,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot, who admits he’s more cautious now about recruiting kids with any ties to recreational drugs. “He almost had this invincibility syndrome where he felt like he could take shortcuts and still be successful.”
Every day, Dambrot gives his players articles about athletes who’ve encountered trouble and legal issues as an admonition.
But he still believes in second chances. He needed one after he used a racial slur and lost his job at Central Michigan in the early 1990s. So he helped Abreu, who received probation instead of significant jail time, earn another shot on the court at Division II West Georgia in 2014-15. He led his team to the NCAA tournament and earned all-conference honors.
Construction jobs, remodeling gigs and landscaping work in Akron, however, occupied Abreu’s time while he missed a year on the court before joining West Georgia. The Puerto Rico native needed that time to grasp the gravity of the rebuilding process ahead.
“It was more than a bad mistake,” said Abreu’s mentor John Saucier, a local chaplain and a pivotal figure in Abreu’s transition from Akron. “It was a lifestyle.”
Today, Abreu reflects on his Akron experience with both sadness and joy. He hates that he hurt his teammates and the Akron program. He cried when he watched the Zips suffer an 88-42 loss to VCU in the opening round of the 2013 NCAA tournament without him.
But he’s glad he got busted when he did. The more money he made, the more he wanted to grow his business. He suspects that the legal consequences would have ruined his life if he’d continued to sell at the rate. Probation could have quickly become prison.
He said he’s no longer connected to the seedy world that ended his time in Akron, and he’s focused on the future.
“I basically just got up and started a positive life,” he said. “Positive thinking, positive everything. Everything changed for me.”
Now, he waits and wonders. Will European teams call? Will he get a shot in the D-League?
Beyond that …
Will Akron forgive him?
“I started seeing the profits,” he said, “and I fell in love with the money.”
Today, he’s back in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, playing pro ball and helping his mother care for his grandmother.
The caption on a September Instagram post that shows the point guard wading in the Caribbean Sea says, “No caption needed just know that im living my life… Wat are u doing with yours.!! #blessed #BTBG #playita #ilivewhereyouvacation.”
Paradise, he calls it, mixed with hope, sorrow and a past he’d love to wash away in those warm waters.