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One Heck of a Ride

The following story originally appear in the March issue of Everyday Champions magazine. You can read the entire issue here.

 

By Jon Cooper

One of the more fascinating aspects of how the brain works is the acute stress response.

Also known as “the fight-or-flight response,” it’s basically the way the brain handles a stressful event, prioritizing and activating the most important aspects of the body necessary for survival.

Georgia Tech point guard Jose Alvarado’s acute stress response might be better classified as “fight-or-fight harder.”

“His heart and soul, his toughness, his energy have carried us through his four years here,” said Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner, who brought Alvarado to Atlanta from Brooklyn, N.Y., as part of his first recruiting class. “He has set the tone of what we are about and how hard we play.

“Our teams have always been able to battle back,” he continued. “That’s a credit to the student-athletes, their character, their resilience, their fight, their toughness. When they get on the ropes and get punched, they’re not getting knocked down. They’re punching back to get off the ropes.”

It’s not surprising that an Alvarado-led unit would roll with the punches then hit back. Jose learned well from his father, Jose Alvarado, Sr., a one-time boxer and now a full-time trainer at T2T (Technique 2 Training) in Brooklyn.

“He was really good. He was on the verge of going professional, but he had to put it on pause and make some money for his family, and that’s what he did,” Alvarado said. “But he never stopped training.”

Through boxing, Alvarado’s dad instilled defense. Through the women in his family, Alvarado got perspective, his passion for life and his quest to get the most out of every day.

He certainly got the most out of his four years at Georgia Tech, where he was a four-year starter at the point, earned third- and second-team All-ACC honors his last two seasons, and won the 2021 ACC Defensive Player of the Year award. Off the court, he’s been the loving father of an infant daughter, Nazanin, whom he raises with girlfriend Flor Castillo, and on May 8, he officially became a Georgia Tech graduate, having earned his degree in Literature, Media and Communications.

In addition to the individual accolades – he ranks third all-time in steals (226), 11th in assists (384) and three-point field goals (172) and 19th in points (1,429) in Georgia Tech history — most important was his role in Georgia Tech’s ascension and return to a place of prominence. The Jackets improved their win percentage every year and made history in 2021 by winning the school’s fourth ACC tournament championship, the program’s first in 28 years, then getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years.

“When I committed to Georgia Tech, no one thought I was good enough for the ACC,” he said. “‘He’s a decent player but not an ACC guard.’ Taking a chance on me four years ago, seeing who I was when in high school and taking that chance, grooming me into the person and the player that I am today, you’ve got to love [Coach Pastner].”

Pastner loved what he saw and chose to believe his eyes, not his ears.

“I’m just so proud of Jose Alvarado,” he said. “A lot of people told me they thought I was crazy taking Jose. They said he was too small, not quick enough, he’s a three-star recruit. You can’t take guys like that if you want to win.’ But I knew how tough Jose was. I knew he was a winner. Winning was more important to him than breathing.”

While he wasn’t a five-star recruit like previous Jackets’ point guards from New York City, Kenny Anderson and Stephon Marbury, Alvarado still had plenty on his resume. ESPN ranked him the ninth-best player in New York and 33rd in the nation after he led Christ the King to a pair of New York City titles.

He won New York City Catholic League Player of the Year as a junior and even recorded the school’s first quadruple double (18 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals).

“You’re never going to be able to make Jose question his confidence. It’s not going to happen,” recalled Joe Arbitello, his coach at Christ the King. “On the basketball court, he was fearless. He played as hard as you could play. He didn’t care who the other person was. [Georgia Tech] was where Jose was going to go, and he was going to play in the ACC as a guard.”

Turns out, he would do so right away, as Pastner gave him the keys to the offense.

Alvarado responded in both his freshman and sophomore years, although his freshman year was unfortunately cut short by a dislocated elbow.

In his junior season, Alvarado was forced to miss seven games early on with an ankle injury, but his return ignited the Jackets. Tech finished with a flourish, winning six of its final seven games and nine of its last 12 to finish in fifth place in the ACC with an 11-9 record, its first double-digit conference season since 1995-96.

Yet, despite earning All-ACC honors, tying for the conference lead with 2.2 steals per game and making a league-best 2.3 swipes per game in ACC play, including a school-record nine in a win over NC State — breaking Anderson’s record set nearly three decades earlier — “The Brooklyn Burglar,” as Alvarado had become known, didn’t get a single vote for ACC Defensive Player of the Year and was left off the All-Defensive Team entirely.

That slight would serve as his primary personal motivation heading into his senior year.

“I told myself coming into this year, ‘I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,’” Alvarado said. “That was the only award I really, really wanted and focused on.”

It was impossible to miss Alvarado’s extra drive — and fun to watch.

“Jose came into the year with a different kind of focus,” said former Yellow Jacket and current ACC Network analyst Brian Oliver, who was a teammate of Anderson’s and a key component of “Lethal Weapon 3” during the Jackets’ 1990 run to the Final Four. “I think that he understood that he’s the head of the snake when it comes to that defense, and he’s a guy that takes pride in the matchups. Most people would think that with his size, he’d be limited to guarding just the point guards, but he has taken on the best offensive guy. You could tell every game, he had a certain type of fire and commitment to being the leader on defense.”

Ironically, in a season where he did so much, a moment when he didn’t come through — and his reaction to it — changed everything.

With eight seconds left and Tech up by one point in a game at Clemson on Feb. 12, Alvarado missed a pair of free throws that opened the door and the Tigers got a crazy, banked three-pointer with a second left to pin a 74-72 loss on the Jackets. Normally a rock emotionally, Alvarado was devastated by that loss, the team’s fifth in seven games.

“It was heartbreaking,” Alvarado admitted. “It was like the end of the world for me, but at the end of the day, there are things in this world worse than missing two free throws. My teammates and my coaching staff, stood by my side and said, ‘Hey, that’s basketball.’ I told myself, ‘I don’t want to miss any more free throws.’”

He wouldn’t the rest of the regular season, going 16 for 16 over the final six games, adding 25 assists vs. only 12 turnovers and making 18 steals. The Jackets won them all to go into the ACC Tournament with a 15-8 record, 11-6 in conference play, good for fourth and the first tournament double-bye in program history. The conference finish was the team’s best in 17 years.

Alvarado’s resolve impressed classmate Moses Wright.

“I saw a lot of fight in Jose,” Wright recalled. “After what happened at Clemson, he was beating himself up about it. I kept talking to him, telling him, ‘We’re going to need you for the next stretch. You have to shake off what happened at Clemson and get ready to get back into it.’ He took the day to himself to gather his mental and everything, and then he was right back at it. He proved to everybody that he can face adversity head on.”

Alvarado finished the season with career-highs in minutes, points, assists, and steals, while doing his best shooting from the field, from behind the arc and at the line. He led the ACC in free throw percentage and steals per game and ranked in the conference top 10 in scoring, field goal percentage, assists per game, assist-turnover ratio and minutes.

Defensively, he earned a rep for locking down opponents’ high-octane players — tops among them Virginia forward Sam Hauser, whom he spotted eight inches and 40 pounds — and was voted Defensive Player of the Year, in recognition of his being the first player since Chris Paul, Alvarado’s idol, to lead the conference in steals in consecutive years.

Pastner loved that he got to deliver the news to his point guard — the second time he got to do so as head coach at Georgia Tech, as Ben Lammers won it in 2017.

“I couldn’t wait to call, because he wanted that award so bad,” he said. “He deserved it, earned it. I’m so happy for him.”

“This is the best award I could have won,” Alvarado said. “Growing up I was always an undersized kid. Going on the court I had to defend. It was something that I could control. I could control sliding my feet, I could control taking a charge, I could control maybe getting under somebody’s waist and trying to get the ball. So it was just something that I really wanted to get.”

The next thing he wanted was a postseason run for Georgia Tech.

He made a dramatic, chase down and save of an errant inbounds pass to save the ACC Tournament quarterfinal win over Miami, then, in the championship game, he was superb (13 points, five steals, three assists, no turnovers in 40 minutes), helping Georgia Tech to an 80-75 victory over 15th-ranked Florida State. As the horn sounded, he did his signature court-wide sprint then finished with a headlong dive into the balloons and confetti.

The Jackets’ season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, their first appearance since 2010. It was an emotional affair for the team, as Wright, the ACC Player of the Year, had to sit out under to COVID-19 protocol. Alvarado donned Wright’s No. 5 in support of his classmate and put together another solid game, 13 points, three assists in 40 minutes, but the Jackets came up short.

It was a tough end to a great season, but not what he’ll remember.

“We won the ACC Championship. It was the best feeling,” he said. “This program deserves that and I’m glad they got the trophy.”

As far as basketball goes, the future is still uncertain. He can come back for another year and try to get Georgia Tech its first back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths since 2004 and 2005 – How’s that for incentive? — and continue his on-the-job mentoring of point Kyle Sturdivant, or try to get to the next level.

Whatever he chooses, Alvarado will have no regrets looking back at his college career.

“Coach Pastner put the ball in my hands since freshman year and told me to, ‘Get the job done.’ I don’t know if I did or not,” he said. “Georgia Tech changed my life. It was one heck of a ride. I love it, I love the fans, I love the program.”

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