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Arroyo returns — bigger than ever

Here he comes, into practice gym, where a horde of media awaits. Carlos Arroyo is a must-have story. Everyone wants to know whether he's tired from all his offseason basketball ("I feel great"), what he thinks of the new Jazz ("we'll be a great team"), and most of all, how he got from nowhere to here ("I believed in myself").

What reporter could resist that? The guy from Puerto Rico, and Florida International University — neither a Mecca for aspiring hoop stars — is now on the Jazz's A-list. Last time Utah took a chance on a Puerto Rican player was in 1987, when it drafted the star-crossed Jose Ortiz. Now 41, Ortiz is retiring after a career in international play. But Arroyo is as hot as a San Juan sauna. He led his country in the Olympics this summer, averaging 18 points and five assists, as his team finished sixth in the tournament.

More important, he is the undisputed Jazz starter at point guard going into training camp.

This is how big Arroyo has become: Roberto Clemente big.

If you don't know who Clemente is, you don't know much about baseball. Or Puerto Rico. Clemente is the '60s Pittsburgh Pirates icon who scattered hits to every nook of the ballpark. He would swing at anything and had a strike zone as wide as the Allegheny River.

Clemente died prematurely in a plane crash.

Over three decades later, Arroyo joins Clemente as the only Puerto Ricans to be signed to commercial endorsements by Gatorade. Clemente starred in TV commercials in 1971.

Arroyo's newfound celebrity couldn't have been foreseen.

Undrafted in 2001, he played briefly in the NBA that year but spent most of the season in Spain. In 2002-03, he was the Jazz's No. 3 point guard, playing in just 44 games.

A year ago, his recognition index was somewhere between "low" and "Montreal Expos low." He was on the team but not a certain starter. There was speculation the Jazz would put their hopes on Spaniard Raul Lopez, a quicker, flashier option at point guard.

Beyond that was the John Stockton factor. Arroyo was trying to fill the shoes of a future Hall of Fame point guard, which for Jazz fans was like being told the kitchen is out of steak but would you mind trying the meat loaf.

Turns out Arroyo wasn't bad. He averaged 12.6 points and five assists last season.

"People didn't believe I could make it, but I believed in myself and I've shown I belong in the league," says Arroyo. "I've proved some people wrong. I love that — proving people wrong."

He wasn't perfect — he tends to get impatient and force shots — but he was competitive. His game-winner against Denver on March 27 was a defining moment. Teammates mobbed him as though they had won a title.

Even that couldn't have portended what would come. This summer Arroyo became an international figure by first carrying his nation's flag in the Olympic opening ceremonies and later pumping in 24 points in the win over Team USA — an event seen by hundreds of millions. The sight of Arroyo tugging at his jersey, gesturing to his country's name and pounding his chest, brought home a sobering reality to Americans: They aren't the only ones who can play basketball.

Getting trashed by an island of 4 million people can be humbling.

Arroyo enters training camp with more certainty than he has ever enjoyed. The shadow of Stockton no longer stalks him so closely.

"There's definitely less pressure this year for me and as a team," says Arroyo.

Still, he didn't get here by sitting on his accomplishments.

So when asked if it's now his team, not Stockton's, Arroyo smiles almost shyly.

"It's not my team. I'm still learning. I need to get a couple of years under my belt and earn more respect. In a couple of years maybe I can say that, but not now. You could say this is Andre's team — no! it's Jerry's team. Forget that other stuff. It's Jerry's team."

Fair enough.

But it's Arroyo's moment.