Arroyo magic for Orlando fans

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When he gets caught up in the moment or in a particular game, all Carlos Arroyo has to do is gaze into the stands at TD Waterhouse Centre to remind himself of the bigger picture.

The dozens of Puerto Rican flags that dot the crowd fill the Orlando Magic point guard's heart with joy, and reaffirm that he's playing with a country in his corner.

In NBA circles, Arroyo, 27, might be considered just another journeyman point guard. But to Orlando's booming Puerto Rican community and his fans back home on the Caribbean island, Arroyo is a star of the highest regard.

It is a responsibility that Arroyo carries with great pride. He is fully aware his presence in the NBA is about so much more than just him. Instead, he says, he's playing for the thousands who support him now and for the future of basketball in Puerto Rico.

"Seeing those flags helps me understand that every time I step on the court I'm representing a group of people who really support me," Arroyo said. "I'm sort of here by myself in the NBA, but I'm trying to accomplish more things for Puerto Rican athletes and open more doors. I consider it my job to keep getting better so that I can continue to open doors for other kids in Puerto Rico who love basketball."

The Magic are Arroyo's fifth team in five NBA seasons, but never has the fit been as perfect for the flashy point guard. Orlando has the second-largest Puerto Rican community in the United States, trailing only New York. According to the U.S. Census, Hispanics are now the largest minority group in Orlando's metro area with approximately 370,000 people. Nearly 200,000 of them are Puerto Rican.

For years, Arroyo said, he dreamed of playing for the Magic. Apparently that was a dream shared by many of his fans in the Orlando area. The day after his trade from the Detroit Pistons to Orlando in February, the Magic sold 150 tickets within the first hour of the ticket office opening. The team sold 75 of Arroyo's No. 30 jerseys within the first week of his arrival. And more than 400 fans turned out at a local car dealership for Arroyo's first autograph signing.

"It's been everything I thought it would be and more," Arroyo said. "A lot of people asked me, 'Do you really want to be here?' I used to tell my wife, 'I want to be in Orlando so bad.' She would tell me not to mention it so much because then it would never happen. Of course, we laugh about that now. It's amazing how the people have embraced me here."

Of course, that's the way life has been for Arroyo since the summer of 2004, when he helped Puerto Rico to its finest moment in sports.

He was chosen to carry Puerto Rico's flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics -- "the highlight of my career," he said -- and things got better from there. Facing the United States in the opening game of the tournament, the 6-foot-2 Arroyo torched NBA stars Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. Arroyo scored 24 points, including two big 3-pointers down the stretch, and handed out seven assists in Puerto Rico's stunning 92-73 rout of Team USA.

At the time, the loss was the United States' third in 112 Olympic games and its first in 16 years. But to Arroyo, the game held even more significance. It justified his status as an elite, playmaking point guard, and it turned him into a conquering hero in Puerto Rico.

"After we beat the Dream Team, he became the Michael Jordan of Puerto Rico," said Gerrie Marrero, a native of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, who twice traveled to Orlando last season to watch Arroyo play. "He's just become a bigger and bigger star since then to the people of Puerto Rico."

Arroyo still has the letters of congratulations from Puerto Rico's governor, senators and fans after beating Team USA. Various Puerto Rican actors and actresses also befriended him following the 2004 Olympics. Just getting around in his hometown now is a chore because of his popularity.

"Every day somebody will mention that game [against the U.S.] and tell me how excited they were," Arroyo said. "A lot of people will tell me how much money they made off that game. And I have guys coming over saying, 'Hey, please kiss my girlfriend.' That's overwhelming to me sometimes, seeing the impact that game had on people."

Puerto Rico is also home to baseball stars Bernie Williams, Pudge Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado. But to hear sports fans tell it, none of them can match Arroyo in popularity.

"You wouldn't believe it," said Marrero, who traveled to Orlando in the spring with a tour group of 80 people for a Magic game and the team's first Salsa Night. "Everybody down there [in Puerto Rico] are Magic fans now. We watch his games on TV, and everybody talks about how, now that he's in Florida, they hope to come and watch him play."

For years the Magic have considered the Hispanic fan base a sleeping giant in Central Florida. Over the past five years, nearly 100 Spanish-speaking people have moved to Central Florida each day. And there are predictions that by 2020, almost one in every three Orlando residents will be of Hispanic descent. Now that Arroyo has stirred that group, the Magic are trying to tap into it.

The Magic have fortified their Latin Affairs department and are pouring more resources into luring Hispanic fans to games. They have broadcast games on the radio in Spanish for the past eight seasons, and now their reach will extend beyond that.

This summer, the Magic mailed season-ticket brochures in English and Spanish. More radio and television advertising was done on Spanish-speaking media outlets than ever before. The Magic bought a billboard, featuring Arroyo in action, to encourage fans to support their Hispanic hero. And like the Houston Rockets have done by creating a Chinese version of their Web site for fans of All-Star center Yao Ming, the Magic hope to eventually offer a Spanish version of their home page.

"The Latin population in our community is almost 30 percent now and when you have that sort of percentage, it's bound to help you in terms of drawing power,'' said Alex Martins, the Magic's chief operating officer. "Really, [Arroyo's arrival] has just helped us step up what we already had in place in terms of a Latin outreach program. Now, it will come to a massive impact for us."

Arroyo seemed to feed off the support from his new fans, playing some of the best basketball of his career late last season after arriving in Orlando. In his first home game with the Magic, he delighted a sellout crowd with 18 points and four assists. Salsa music greeted his every basket and those red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags filled the air.

The Magic finished last season with a 16-6 run, beating powerhouses Miami, Dallas, Detroit and San Antonio down the stretch. Now, Orlando is one of the chic picks to become a playoff contender this season. That success, Arroyo said, left Magic players more determined to make this season special.

"The way we finished last year, everybody left going into the summer knowing how good we can be," said Arroyo, who averaged 21.2 points, 5.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds in the World Championship this summer for Puerto Rico. "That success we had was something that motivated all of us to work on our games and get better. I definitely worked on mine. The whole summer I've been thinking about this season and getting myself ready to contribute to a team that's going to have tremendous success."

Arroyo knows he could probably start at point guard for a lot of NBA teams, but he says he's happy in Orlando sharing the ball-handling duties with Jameer Nelson. He said he never wants to leave Orlando, a place where he feels most at home with the throngs of fans supporting him.

"I just want to be somebody that people will remember for hard work, discipline and dedication," he said. "It's my dream to be here, and now I know my responsibility is to keep opening doors for others back in Puerto Rico."

John Denton covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today. You can e-mail him at jd41898@aol.com.