By Karl Bullock
As a scrawny 15-year-old freshman in 2013, Rafael Cruz Jr. sauntered up to Von Steuben basketball coach Marvin Williams with confidence.
“I told him I was going to play varsity, and he just laughed at me,” Cruz said as he stretched his arms out on his living room couch with a slight smirk on his face.
His words, unexpected and brash, wasn’t typical from someone who had played little organized basketball until he was 13.
“When a young man comes with that statement, it’s a way of trying to be an icebreaker and gravitate to a coach,” Williams recalled of the encounter.
Within a year, the 6-foot-3 point guard had become a starter and led Von Steuben to a 19-6 record, while being selected to the Chicago Public League all-conference team as a sophomore.
“I was very impressed with him as a freshman, but I had elected to him playing up a level,” Williams said. “He was showing me some promise, and I thought I might have something here.”
Since that breakout season, Cruz has earned two more all-conference selections, been named MVP of the Red-North division and twice earned all-city team honors.
Cruz took an unorthodox path to basketball despite living in the basketball frenzy that is Chicago. Born and raised in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the West Side, Cruz played baseball in the Roberto Clemente Little League organization with little knowledge about basketball outside of local pickup games.
But Cruz soon encountered a problem with baseball. He was bored.
“I couldn’t control the game,” he said. “I only went to bat four times a game.”
He began to gravitate away from baseball in search of a new competitive outlet. It wasn’t long before his father, Rafael Cruz Sr., noticed the way basketball consumed his son.
“After the [little league] game, he’d go over to the [basketball] courts right off Augusta and shoot right there in his cleats and [baseball] uniform,” the elder Cruz said.
In a community surrounded by gang activity and gun violence, there were times where a safe place to play basketball became hard to find.
Cruz Sr. ambles over to the living room mantle as he knocks dust off of his son’s baseball trophies and rearranged the awards. He remembered a moment when he feared for “Lil Ralphies” life. As Rafael Sr. sat outside his house, gunshots pierced the air. Without hesitation, the father sprinted towards Kedvale Park.
“I was scared to death,” said Cruz Sr. “Not for the gunshots, but for my son because he was that park in the spot where the shots were coming from.”
Rafael Jr. said the sounds of gunshots was only a momentary deterrent.
“We’d wait around for 30 minutes and head back up there,” he said. “We knew the guys shooting would be gone.”
Regardless of the risk, the younger Cruz was determined to go back and play.
“It was an argument with him all the time,” Cruz Sr. said. “He had the attitude that he was going back over there anyway.”
Cruz’s father used an old-school basketball classic to keep his son away from the shootings: milk crates. He cut out the bottom of the crate to replicate a basketball hoop and nailed it to a telephone pole in the alley so Rafael Jr. could shoot around with his friends.
“It would keep him away from that [violent] environment,” Cruz Sr. said.
Although the crate occupied Rafael Jr., he soon found other means to get back to the local basketball courts to the real competition.
“I’d send him to the store and he’d take forever,” said his mother, Rose Demarrias. “We knew he was back at that park.”
At that time, it may have seemed like rebellion, but Cruz only wanted to compete. He looked at his environment and wanted a way to get out.
“You see families struggle, mom’s crying on their front porch because they can’t afford their bill and the eviction notice is on their door,” he said. “That really shows you that you have to take this [basketball] somewhere.”
For Rafael Jr., high school basketball can’t be the end. As his pride-filled parents look at him, he shakes his head looking down at the floor in disappointment. In this, his final season at Von Steuben, the team is 4-17, far below preseason expectations.
“You lose a game, but you have to look at the overall aspect,” he said. “You’re just trying to get out, get that scholarship, that education and get a good job.”
Demarrias still can’t help herself. Grinning from ear-to-ear, she asks her son about his next step.
“I want to play D-1 college basketball,” he said staring straight ahead. “I know I’m that caliber of player.”