J.J. Barea, Claudia Ortiz lead the charge in Puerto Rico relief effort


Charlie Wolfson

J.J. Barea is a busy man. The Northeastern basketball alumnus and current Dallas Maverick has had his hands full scoring 12.2 points per game in the NBA this year. He played a game in Dallas (a win over Denver) Monday and flew to Boston for a quick turnaround and a matchup with the Celtics Wednesday.

Barea is busy, but something more important than basketball required his attention Tuesday night. He spent the evening at the NU men’s basketball game against Bucknell at Matthews Arena, where his former team staged a fundraiser — which raised almost $4,000 — benefitting his native Puerto Rico, a place desperately in need of assistance after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September.

“Like a bomb exploded,” Barea said was his impression after a recent trip to deliver supplies and offer support to the island he fondly calls home.

“When I go back, I look out the window and it’s beautiful,” he said of his usual flights home. “The water’s blue, there’s green, there’s traffic, it’s awesome. This time, this was the first time in my life I’ve seen it like this. You look out the window and it’s destroyed. The water’s ugly, there’s no green, no traffic. It’s pretty nerve-wracking to see. To see the faces on the people was tough.”

When NU men’s basketball head coach Bill Coen reached out to Barea to offer to put on the fundraiser — dubbed “Paws for Puerto Rico” — he was moved by the care shown by his alma mater.

“It’s amazing, how special Northeastern is for me and my family,” he said. “When I got the text from coach Coen it was awesome. He’s a great coach, I would have loved to play for him. When I was here in this school, they helped me out, I helped them out. They noticed that, and for them to be able to help my Puerto Rico is amazing.”

Coen was quick to deflect any credit for the event, saying, “J.J. just jumped in with both feet.”

Claudia Ortiz, a third-year guard on the NU women’s hoop team, also hails from Puerto Rico. She was thankful for the chance to use the relatively prominent Northeastern Athletics platform to help her home.

“It means everything,” Ortiz said. “It’s not about me. It’s way bigger than me, the fact that J.J. and I are here. We need to use these resources to help as much as we can. It just means a lot that there’s so many people here today.”

Unlike Barea, she hasn’t had a chance to return home since Maria hit. Her family still resides there.

“I won’t be back, probably, until the summer,” she said. “It breaks my heart. My heart is there with my family. It’s slowly getting better.”

She said the fact that Barea carved an evening out of his NBA schedule is an indicator of just how dire Puerto Rico’s situation is.

“You have to put a stop to everything when things like this happen,” she said. “This is not something common. It doesn’t matter how busy your schedule is, when something like this happens you do whatever you can. He knows that.”

Barea touched on recent public relief efforts led by celebrities — some Puerto Rican, some not — such as NFL star J.J. Watt. Watt raised millions for relief in Houston after Hurricane Harvey flooded the city in August.

“I think it’s huge,” Barea said. “What J.J. Watt did was a great example. For Puerto Rico, we’ve had a bunch of baseball players that did a great job. We got a bunch of singers, you name it. Everybody helps. If you can help where you’re from, you’ve got to do it.”

Coen, who started coaching Northeastern men’s basketball one year after Barea graduated and never got the chance to coach him,  marveled at his compassion and desire to help people less fortunate than him.

“As good a basketball player as J.J. is, I think his concern for his fellow man is even greater,” Coen said. “We’re proud of him.”