Aaron "Smiley" Contreras flips his improbably strong and deceptively quick left wrist thousands of times a week, arcing wide-seamed basketballs from unlikely distances. Many of the balls from his graceful shots fly through rims to swish, snap or pop nets. Sometimes, the nets briefly cradle the basketballs before releasing them to the floor, a practice partner or, on most Tuesday and Friday nights, into the hands of a grimacing but not surprised opponent of Contreras' Pueblo High School Warriors.
Contreras was just a kid, 5 perhaps, when his dad introduced him to the game at a hoop -- he remembers it being at little Ormsby Park on the West Side; his dad recalls Sam Lena Park.
It was a cold day. There were light flurries of snow. His shots naturally fell short, went wide, or straight up and down, clanked the underside of the rim or even the backboard.
Most kids get started with a small ball, a lowered hoop. Not Smiley.
Contreras is remembering that day in the park about 15 minutes after his Warriors, easily the best and most dangerous 4A team with a so-so record, arrested several bad habits and prevented a game from slipping away. By a score of 82-78, they defeated Sahuaro, the two-time 4A champ before the East Side school moved to the big-school 5A classification this year.
"We stayed till I made one," Contreras says of that long-ago day in the park.
Now, teams are forced to stay until he misses. It can make for long nights for opponents of the polite, engaging Contreras, who burst onto the sports pages after record-setting scoring early in the season and who is now happy to lead Pueblo's nuevo balance.
HE'S SHOT HIS TREYS and fired off sweet, no-look passes for Pueblo's varsity since his sophomore year, a season delayed then interrupted by two breaks to a collarbone, the first while piling up his bike, the second from an on-court collision.
That first day at the park had set the tone. Contreras worked out especially hard in the summer on his shot and other drills, said his father, who played a year of high school basketball and ran track in his native Lordsburg, N.M.
Chris Contreras, an equipment operator for Tucson Parks and Recreation, and his wife, Viola, a Pueblo graduate, usually find an unobtrusive spot high up in the stands to watch their son and his team play.
"We're happy for him," said Chris Contreras, who zipped west along Interstate 10 after his graduation 22 years ago to settle in Tucson. "We're proud of him."
But, like their unassuming son, they want to talk about the team, about how the players, all friends, have come together to play better basketball. Personal glory, they say, is not what Smiley sought.
When the local daily newspapers "discovered" him after he rang up a stunning 14 three-pointers, on 50 percent shooting, on Nov. 29 en route to 54 points against Sierra Vista Buena, Contreras actually felt empty. Pueblo lost. "He didn't want the attention, but when he got it, he stayed level," Chris Contreras said.
There were more big games. He poured in 42, 41, and 40 points, and has had a bunch of games scoring in the 30s. But his team has struggled to win as many games as it loses.
Contreras, befitting a nickname bestowed each generation in countless Mexican-American families, is hardly one to brood. But without the wins, his father said, the rides home were, if not tense, quiet.
"We didn't know if we could say anything on some of those trips. That drive home after (beating) Sahuaro was great," his father said.
Clamped down effectively by Sahuaro's Jorge Valenzuela, Contreras didn't bust one until midway through the third quarter. But he dished and created opportunities for others then sealed the deal with two free throws with 7 seconds left in the game. During a timeout before those shots, Pueblo coach Barry O'Rourke said what all good coaches say: "OK, Smiley is going to make these two" before giving instructions. It wasn't hollow optimism. Contreras rarely misses from the foul line and, for the night, ended up with 13 points.
Afterward, he was thrilled to talk up Pueblo teammate Ruben Ruiz, who had 27 points and 18 rebounds in the game, Contreras noted with the same glee as when teammate Chris Villegas has a breakout game and takes team scoring honors for the night.
Next, Contreras commended his opponent, Sahuaro's Valenzuela. "He does a great job," Contreras said. "He doesn't get enough credit."
The game mattered not to Pueblo's sudden surge for a playoff spot. Still, it showcased two of Tucson's historically rich basketball programs. Pueblo's smart and gregarious coach, Barry O'Rourke, against patrician Dick McConnell, the only coach in Sahuaro history and the leader in career wins in Arizona high school basketball history.
EXITING PRACTICE AND seeking a clear spot to bound across South 12th Avenue, Ruiz, in testimony to Pueblo's rare lack of jealousy among teammates, announced: "Smiley, man, I wish he'd hit 40 every night."
Junior Soto spent hours on the court and in the weight room to win a spot in this year's Warriors rotation. He's the blue-collar rebounder and is a tenacious, if frequently outsized, defender. Contreras, he said, is an ideal, unselfish leader.
"He thinks of his teammates and spreads the ball around," Soto said.
Contreras' 54-point explosion, particularly the 14-for-28 from three-point range, drew attention from many on the South Side, including political hacks who claim attendance. In fact, it was a game not unlike the late Wilt Chamberlain's stratospheric, 100-point game in 1962 when he led his Philadelphia 76ers over the New York Knicks. Everybody saw Chamberlain set the pro basketball scoring record that night, even though just 4,112 fit into that Hershey, Pa., arena.
Contreras and his friends --teammates -- like to hang out and play video games. Chamberlain spent the hours before his record game with his teammates playing games in an arcade.
CONTRERAS' FEAT PROVIDED the South Side with a source of pride similar to that derived from Sunnyside High School's 4A state football championship last fall.
Covetous coaches paid Contreras odd, even derisive compliments, saying that he simply had a perpetual "green light" not afforded to other players. Actually, O'Rourke has pleaded and prodded, cajoled and even bellowed to get Contreras to shoot more.
The head man at Pueblo for 22 years, O'Rourke was born in the Bronx, but raised in a big family in Chicago. His father played for Fordham University and Barry O'Rourke studied hoops at Notre Dame under a onetime Fordham coach, Digger Phelps. Devoted to Pueblo, where he teaches government and social studies, and the family of Pueblo basketball, O'Rourke works the sidelines in one of the XXL Hawaiian prints that are his trademark.
When he confers with Contreras while someone else is at the free throw line, they are usually arm in arm. Contreras' game is not flawless, something he faces with characteristic humility. His ball handling, ability to go strong to the basket with his right hand and sometimes his decision-making give the coach opportunities for instruction.
Still, Contreras can punish opponents by driving his lithe, 5-foot-11-inch body into narrow creases, down sidelines and along the baseline even when defenders seem to have him sealed off. If he doesn't find a shot, the result is frequently a foul that he, with rare exception, converts into points.
He never complains about poor officiating calls. He, well, smiles and confers with referees, but unlike many high school stars, he doesn't stomp, cuss, spit or pout. "I don't get upset," Contreras said. "I also get a lot of calls my way."
Nor does he agonize, at least during the game, about mistakes. He smiled off an embarrassing, completely inadvertent double-dribble violation against Sahuaro. You can't worry about mistakes, he said, or you will just compound them.
Perhaps what is most striking is what Contreras does when he doesn't have the ball. He has become such a threat that his mere presence, lurking in the corner, darting in the lane and then back out, opens up shots for his teammates. That certainly was the case when Pueblo avenged a Jan. 8 overtime loss to the Trojans of Catalina.
Pueblo jumped out to 6-0, 8-3 and 15-8 advantages before Contreras nailed his first shot, a three-pointer, or trey, from the right side. Ruiz would score more points, and fierce and loyal teammates Aromeo Grigsby and Soto would play key roles. Contreras finished with 17, and Pueblo won 62-46.
Three weeks earlier, Catalina had embarrassed Pueblo. Contreras was suffering from a slight groin pull, but he didn't use the excuse for his struggles. He lifted Pueblo into overtime, but with time slipping away, he got bumped and lost the ball. He then committed his fifth foul and had to leave the game. He made no complaint, there was no whining, no outburst.
He finished with 29 points, but Catalina's Trojans took to taunting, asking in a shout: "Smiley who?"
TWO ROWS FROM THE bench, one of O'Rourke's mentors and the man for whom he served as understudy, watched.
Roland LaVetter, a plain-spoken basketball intellectual, guided Pueblo to back-to-back state titles in 1977 and 1978. The teams included Lafayette "Fat" Lever, who went on to star at Arizona State University and then in the NBA with Portland, Denver and Dallas.
In his warmup suit and looking 20 years younger than his 61, LaVetter talked about working with Contreras on technical parts of his shot and his release. He also talked frankly about how Contreras will need to adjust to a faster, more physical game at the next level. Everybody, Contreras included, realistically knows that will be at a junior college or small four-year school, not at a high-powered college basketball program such as the one a few miles north.
Contreras spotted LaVetter and walked over. LaVetter asked not about the game, the shot, but rather the recent report card. "How are your grades? How did you finish the semester?"
"Good," Contreras says. "All Bs last quarter."
LaVetter gave a look that he wants better. After Contreras packed up, LaVetter talked about how onlookers, fans and reporters should view Contreras as more than Pueblo's latest basketball sensation.
"He is," LaVetter said, "a fine young gentleman."
O'Rourke, 51, coached under LaVetter for seven years and ran famously long practices. Parents once arrived at the gymnasium doors around midnight to see if their kids were still where they began at 1:30 in the afternoon. None complained.
"Barry," asked the incredulous LaVetter. "Did you really keep them until midnight?"
"I was young," O'Rourke said during a recent Saturday practice, chopped short after just two hours so players could watch the UA-Connecticut game. "I was single."
Contreras and his crew have had a few of those marathon practices. That is why O'Rourke is the rare coach who will play nearly all his players, even when the game is on the line. He has substituted in the first half of games when most coaches would continue with their starting players to build big leads. But if his players put up with his barking and long practices, they deserve playing time, O'Rourke reasons.
O'Rourke loves his players and they love him. They can call him at all hours and, during the college basketball season, usually do. "They know I don't go to bed early," O'Rourke said.
"Coach, are you watching the game?"
"Coach, are you watching ESPN? Did you see that?"
But the coach does not give breaks in the classroom, even when it involves an impact player. He is not afraid to flunk one of his own and did so last semester. That is a refreshing departure from other sometime sports factories in the Tucson Unified School District, such as Sabino, where counselors, teachers and registrars were pressured to change grades and inflate eligibility status for pampered football players.
IT WASN'T HARD TO SEE something was amiss when Pueblo traveled to South Side rival Desert View High School on Dec. 14.
Just before the 7 p.m. tipoff, O'Rourke fired up his aging Mustang convertible to drive onto Valencia Road and away. His animated reaction to something during the underclassmen game before his prompted an ejection for the coach. His assistants stepped in and Contreras did his part, with a quiet 27 points.
With a chance to tie or go ahead late in the game, Contreras -- who sometimes calls for the ball with a loud, clipped "wooh wooh" -- didn't get this one. Calm and optimistic, with just a few ticks remaining on the clock, Contreras didn't scowl or chastise any teammate. He joined the huddle, listened, then got the ball on the final play. Hemmed in about 27 feet from the basket near his own bench, Contreras launched the ball. It rimmed out. Game over.
Things had not gone well. Some teammates bobbled and lost his pretty passes. But he didn't complain and the next week, he and his Warriors upset Rincon. They also have victimized league-leading Santa Rita. But they dropped games they should have won in Pueblo's annual Santa Cruz Shootout tournament, including squandering a comfortable lead to Coolidge, a 3A power that has trampled 4A and 5A schools while compiling a perfect record.
But Contreras still kept thinking of a turnaround It got started on Jan. 22 at O'Rourke's Old School Night, which brings past players back home. The Warriors would serve Desert View revenge in the gym that served as his and LaVetter's power base before Lever Gym, named for the star and benefactor, opened 14 seasons ago.
The names of Lever and other Pueblo greats are on the wall; Randall Moore, who coaches at Pima Community College, Jeff Moore, Willie Austin. There are others who pass through, either on this night or others, including Jeff Clark, who played on the stocked 1998-99 team with Hakim Rasul, Sammy Wade, Bam McCrae and Micael Kidd.
Clark, who played for Moore at PCC, said Contreras "definitely has got a good shot. He's got a quick release and it's difficult to defend. It's different because he's a lefty."
It wasn't all Old School. Too many cell phones. The smaller space in the old gym seemed to enlarge the crowd and crank the noise. Players wore high socks but balked when O'Rourke vowed to pull out the old uniforms, with their laughably small and tight shorts compared to today's loose, baggy trunks.
Before Desert View knew what hit them, Pueblo jumped out to a 10-0 lead. Contreras popped in a trey and Pueblo boosted the lead to 17-2. More of the same in the second half. Villegas, much to Contreras' approval, lit it up this night and the Warriors won, 64-58.
Winning these rematches prompts the question of how Pueblo could possibly have lost to these teams earlier in the season. Slow-starting Pueblo is making a run, earning its way into the league tournament with yet another win over Desert View last Saturday. But it might not last. This team, scheduled to meet Catalina's Trojans again in the first round of the tourney, probably doesn't have the talent for a state title run.
BASKETBALL DOESN'T last forever, particularly for a slight kid who may grow to be only 6 feet tall and who is easily bumped off his mark by bigger, more physical players. Despite 54 points in a single game and 14 of 28 from three-point land, what O'Rourke called "a remarkable feat, at any level."
In the lobby of the gym that honors Lever are the trophies from two Pueblo teams that won state titles, one of which was ranked fourth in the country, and Lever's Denver Nuggets jersey.
Lever, who also is remarkably soft-spoken and approachable, was one of the few Pueblo stars to reach the basketball elite. Randall Moore was a star playmaker at Abilene Christian College, while Jeff Moore played at Loyola Marymount and professionally in the Philippines.
But Contreras, who has taken his SAT for college entrance, need only look at the stars, all with explosive athletic ability, from the 1999 Pueblo team. Only two moved on to higher hoops - at junior colleges.
Contreras doesn't boast about college or scholarship offers. Instead, he said he wants to play and "learn from other players," some who are faster, some who are stronger and some who can shoot just as well as he can.
He will get that chance, at some small college, and if Smiley Contreras remains as grounded and appreciative of familia as he is today, then he will find success at the next level, whether that's on a basketball court or not.