The spirit of Tech basketball, Jose Alvarado attacks one complex life

Break out the air guitar, Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado enjoys himself against North Carolina State in January. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

Break out the air guitar, Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado enjoys himself against North Carolina State in January. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Likely, you never met Jose Alvarado’s grandmother. Back in New York, Diana Martinez died too young in 2016 of stomach cancer. For his part, Georgia Tech’s gyro spinner of a point guard has all the ink across his body and over his heart that he needs to attest to her everlasting influence.

If it is, as Alvarado says, that it was his grandmother and “her heart, her will to just keep fighting for everything” who taught him his whirlwind ways, then maybe you do know her just a little bit. You wouldn’t have to meet his abuela to see her uncompromising spirit in Jose as he tore down the court as Georgia Tech’s junior point guard this season, setting his own tempo, riffing on another way to make some opponent’s life miserable. If she had anything at all to do with all this kinetic competitive energy, then you know Diana Martinez as a woman you would have liked very much.

Her struggle is now Alvarado’s reminder.

“Seeing her every day in the hospital fighting to wake up the next day was very eye-opening for me,” he said. “When I wake up, I try not to complain that I got practice or school because I know someone is out there just waking up trying to fight for their life.”

Now that his team is serving its one-year postseason ban for varied NCAA infractions, Alvarado’s season ends at Clemson on Friday night. One full-tilt player must suddenly decompress as he prepares to lead the Yellow Jackets into a next season that will come with greater demands. And where does all that wattage go?

He will not lack for other outlets. About a month away from his 22nd birthday, Alvarado is five months older than another slight, Atlanta-based point guard of some repute, the Hawks’ Trae Young. Yet, without the benefit of the three-year, $18 million contract, Alvarado has a cluttered and complicated life that includes balancing basketball, school and, since last month, the birth of a daughter, Nazanin (Persian for “sweetheart”).

Asked the degree of difficulty for all this, he leaves no doubt. “Really, really, really, really tough,” he said. He couldn’t manage without family – they live with his girlfriend’s mother here in town. About now, some of those lessons of his grandmother come in quite useful in matters that have nothing to do with basketball.

“Dealing with school, trying to be the best guy I can be on the court and then going home and trying to be the best dad and best boyfriend – it’s definitely a roller coaster,” he said. “You have to try to see the positive side of it. I’m going day by day, enjoying it and living life.”

Following January’s tragic deaths of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gigi, in a helicopter crash, the importance of being a “girl dad” gained worldwide prominence. That became a fixture of Bryant’s legacy. And there was one basketball player in Atlanta paying attention to message. “I’m gonna try my best to be the best dad, try to pick up little things Kobe did with his girl,” Alvarado said. “Like he said, he let all his daughters choose what they wanted to be. Gigi was going into basketball. Obviously, I hope Naz goes with basketball. But if she plays golf, I’m going to be that dad yelling in golf.”

The intensity that Alvarado could bring to the 18th green is a little bit scary.

For all her other great qualities, Alvarado’s grandmother may not have been the best career counselor. She always called Jose her “little Derek Jeter,” seeing his future at shortstop. But this definitely is not the kind of kid who was going to stand still on the infield waiting for a ball to find him. He sampled football, but a neck injury quickly dissuaded this sliver of a youngster. It had to be basketball, the city game for an antsy Brooklyn boy.

His heritage is a mixture of Puerto Rican and Mexican, but when Alvarado explains why he never learned Spanish, one gets an idea of what a handful he must have been. “When I was a kid, I was a head case, always off the walls, never listening to anything,” he said, explaining there wasn’t much opportunity to hold Spanish lessons in the home. “I guess they were so focused trying to get me in a better place.

“That was me: Bouncing off walls, thinking I knew everything.”

It was suggested to new father Alvarado that children are nature’s revenge, that all the irritation you caused as a child just might revisit you as a parent.

“My mom tells me that all the time,” Alvarado said.

“I hope it’s not that way, because I gave my folks a hard time.”

There are certain benefits to bringing an attitude and an edge to a basketball court that may not be as readily apparent around a dinner table. And as Alvarado increasingly curbed his frantic nature this season, his value to the Yellow Jackets soared. To coach Josh Pastner, “Jose’s our engine, he’s the head of our snake.” That role will only be magnified next season, Pastner’s fifth at Georgia Tech, a stage at which the Yellow Jackets need to show themselves worthy of a NCAA Tournament bid.

Alvarado’s junior season served notice of just how much rests on his 6-foot, 179-pound frame. Much of the Yellow Jackets finishing kick – 6-2 in their last eight ACC games entering Friday’s finale – can be traced to Alvarado’s return to health after an early ankle injury. He was second on the team in scoring (14.4 points a game), tied for the team lead in assists despite missing seven games with the ankle injury and the leader in steals. With nine steals against N.C. State Jan. 25 he broke Kenny Anderson’s long-standing team record for thefts in a game.

Not all his contributions are so measurable. There are photos lining the wall of the entrance hallway at Tech’s practice facility, the Zelnak Center. A number of them feature Alvarado. In one, he’s celebrating something with vein-popping abandon (he’s the guy who plays air guitar on the court when particularly pleased). In another, he’s diving headlong for a loose ball. And yet another he’s tying up some poor opposing guard, an undersized constrictor on defense. That pretty well sums up the Jose Alvarado Experience.

What Pastner wanted when he revived the old New York guard pipeline that had brought the likes of Anderson and Stephon Marbury to Tech was somebody to caffeinate his program. What he wanted in Alvarado, one of his first recruits at Tech, was the same player he saw at an AAU game who was jumping on teammates for not playing as hard as he always does. He wanted the guy of whom one famed New York recruiting analyst – Tom Konchalski – said, “He’d rather win than breathe.” And that’s what Pastner got.

Seen through the eyes of an opposing coach, Alvarado looks no less important.

This was Pitt coach Jeff Capel, a better than fair guard himself back when, fairly gushing after losing to Tech Wednesday night:

“(Alvarado’s) good. He’s really confident. He plays with great spirit. He looks like he loves to compete, not just play basketball. And he loves to figure out how to beat you and how to get under your skin and how to motivate his team.

“I love guys who love to compete, that are all about team. His competitive spirit and his energy for his team and his program is contagious. ... It’s great when you see a young person that loves competition. I have a hell of a lot of respect for people who do that.”

Against Pitt, Alvarado began the night on the bench, having been the first to volunteer to sit out so that senior backup Shembari Phillips could start on senior night. Upon entering the game, he immediately hit a pull-up two-pointer and poked the ball away from one Panther on his way to a seemingly certain fast-break layup.

Twice Alvarado broke out the air guitar celebration, once after making a desperate heave of a 3-pointer with the shot clock on its last gasp and again after making an uncontested 3. And one mighty chest thump/primal-scream-to-the-crowd combo after a driving layup (and one).

They got the Full Alvarado for the last home look of 2019-20. A little something to whet the appetite for 2020-21.

Amid all the theatrics it would have been easy to overlook his one unadorned gesture that night. While coming downcourt with the big voice of the in-game announcer proclaiming that he had just reached 1,000 points for his Tech career, Alvarado simply pointed heavenward. You know who he was thanking.

Georgia Tech junior point guard Jose Alvarado missed eight games this season because of an ankle injury. Here is how the Yellow Jackets fared in those game in which he did and did not play:
» With Alvarado
Record: 14-9
Points for: 70.4
Points against: 66.3
Assists: 14.0
Turnovers: 15.7
Steals: 7.2 
» Without Alvarado
Record: 3-5
Points for: 63.4
Points against: 66.9
Assists: 12.9
Turnovers: 18.1
Steals: 6.8