Incoming freshman Neftali Alvarez has been lauded as best recruit Sydney Johnson has landed at Fairfield, and Miami native is poised to make immediate impact for Stags. (Photo by HoopMIA.com)
Fairfield University underwent a changing of the guard this offseason, graduating its all-time leading scorer, Tyler Nelson, and leaving a significant void in its returning offensive production for the coming season. Fortunately for the Stags, an experienced supporting cast returns to ease the blow of Nelson's departure, along with a four-pronged freshman class headlined by perhaps the most highly-touted recruit the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference program has seen this decade.
In Miami's Neftali Alvarez, the Stags inherit a guard who can make an impact right away -- similar to how Nelson did his freshman year alongside an established go-to scorer in Marcus Gilbert -- and forwardly position himself as a force to be reckoned with early and often in his young collegiate career. But how, exactly, did the Floridian settle on Fairfield when he could have, in theory, gone anywhere else? The answer stems from a strong relationship between one of head coach Sydney Johnson's assistants and Alvarez's mentor, who made the first contact in what could be a program-changing commitment.
The former head coach at Miami Christian High School, Art Alvarez -- no relation to Neftali -- has built quite a reputation for himself as a developer of young basketball players in South Florida, winning a pair of state championships within a three-year period before establishing the Miami Tropics, an Amateur Athletic Union team for whom he currently serves as chief executive officer.
"Neftali came to us two years ago in the summer, and the first time that he played basketball here in the USA was with the Miami Tropics," Art Alvarez recalled when spelling out exactly how Neftali, originally from Puerto Rico, came into the basketball world. "As he played with us in the summer, he decided to stay here and he went over to Miami Christian High School. One of the guys that he admires is J.J. Barea, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps."
Art Alvarez actually coached Barea -- who, of course, later went on to a record-breaking collegiate career at Northeastern before embarking on a successful professional career headlined by an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 -- at Miami Christian, where the comparisons between he and Neftali merely begin.
"This situation reminds me so much of J.J. Barea when J.J. had NC State, Oregon, all these big schools that wanted him," Art added. "And we sent him off to a small school in Northeastern, where he broke all of Reggie Lewis' records, and he went straight from there to the pros. This kid reminds me of him a lot."
Following a productive turn at the Peach Jam and across Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League circuit, the nascent star soon grew into one on the rise.
"That's where his recruiting started," said Art of Neftali's exposure. "It took off to the point where he basically had -- the number was 22 official offers -- and I don't mean where a guy is calling to say he's looking at you or he's interested in you. It was kind of humbling for him, because they would come at 6:00 in the morning, and you could see these coaches flying in just to see him for a 6 a.m. workout."
"We had an opportunity to sign early in November, and he had taken visits to Arkansas State, Akron, and then he took a visit to Wichita State, who really wanted him bad. Gregg Marshall was down in our gym two or three times. He took those three visits and he could have signed there, but he decided to play out his senior season. And in his senior season, he put on a show."
Neftali averaged 27.3 points and 11.2 assists per game in his senior year at Miami Christian, as well as over six rebounds per contest, cementing his credentials for his prospective suitors against highly-regarded national competition, including the powerhouse Montverde Academy program. As all this was going on, Art's longtime relationship with Tom Parrotta -- the former head coach at Canisius now on Johnson's staff at Fairfield -- began to play a factor.
"Tommy Parrotta is a dear friend of mine," said Art. "When he coached at Canisius, he had six of our players, so we had a good relationship. I reached out to Tommy, and I said, 'Tommy, you gotta come down and check out this kid.' I thought that could be a good situation, at the time not knowing how good of a chance he was going to have to land Neftali."
"So he comes down and sees him, and the first time he sees him, the kid had 37 points and 14 assists, and he said, 'God damn, Art, this kid's pretty damn good.' I think at the time, he had 15 offers, but I said, 'go for it, recruit him hard.' And he did. We knew we had two visits left for the late signing period in April, and Tommy recruited him, then Sydney came down for the first time and loved him, offered him right away."
Thus began Fairfield's courting of Neftali, which featured multiple visits from both Johnson and Parrotta, establishing the Stags as a major player in the sweepstakes for his services. Neftali's first of his two remaining visits was to Florida Gulf Coast, a perennial contender in the Atlantic Sun Conference, its Fort Myers campus close enough to his home base. The other, was used on Fairfield.
"Tommy and Dina Parrotta (his wife) played a major role," Art said when detailing Neftali's visit. "They just love to take care of kids, and when kids stay there with them, they treat them like they're their sons. That's something that he really liked. His mom went on the visit as well -- she liked it as well -- and then, they had a tremendous amount of respect for Sydney. It was a situation where the visit was so fantastic -- and we had planned that he was going to come back and we were going to think about it and then go from there -- that he called me up and said, 'Coach, this is where I want to come. I want to commit to Fairfield today.' So the next day, I called Tommy and I called Syd, and when I told them, they were speechless. That's how excited they were."
At 6-foot-1, Neftali slides right into a spot at Fairfield where he can play both on and off the ball, and with a track record of playing two point guards simultaneously, Johnson has the flexibility to use his new recruit alongside incumbent Aidas Kavaliauskas when running the Stags' offense, an uptempo attack that should highlight the existing facets of Neftali's game.
"He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and it's hard to knock it off," said Art of Neftali. "Nef plays the entire game, doesn't get tired, and he plays the last two minutes of a game like it's the first two minutes. He has big cojones. He just doesn't back down, and he does it against the best of the best. That's what he's done, and that's what he's proven the last two years. If he loses, he'll be the first guy challenging his teammates, and that's where he's special. I call him the Energizer bunny. He just goes on and on and on."
The feeling is mutual with his new head coach, whose perpetual excitement and optimism was so prevalent over the phone to where it was as though he had just won a national championship.
"I know that what we've done with the program -- and this is something that Art and Juan (Cardona, Neftali's high school coach) expressed to us -- what we've done with the program to get it to a certain point, I think that that was recognized by them, and I think a lot of other recruits we were involved with," Johnson said. "We've got national prominence, and now, we want to take a jump."
"What we can expect from Neftali -- and this is what we want from our whole team -- he's going to give you every single ounce of himself in terms of effort, intensity, and focus. He's going to play extremely hard, and that's one of the most valued things in our program. He's a very, very humble and likable kid, and as intense as he is on the court, he's a really good teammate. I think we can look for someone who will change the pace of the game, bring defensive intensity, and really want to compete in big moments."
All in all, Fairfield has themselves an instant spark plug, one that his mentor feels will make a profound difference sooner rather than later.
"We knew he could have gone to Wichita State or one of these other big schools that recruited him," Art Alvarez said. "But he wanted to go somewhere that he could play right away, and he wanted to go somewhere where he could lead -- put a team on his back and lead them -- and Fairfield has been very close. I think there's no doubt with Nef, as a freshman, I really feel that knowing him, don't be surprised if he's the freshman of the year, the player of the year in that conference. That's how good he really is."