In Colombia, Juan Palacios joked, a soccer ball is given to you
Basketball found him on the back of a public bus in Medellin
when he was 11.
More accurately, it found his mother, Maria.
“My mom is about 6-foot-2,” said Palacios, a standout hooper at
the University of Louisville from 2004 to 2008. “One night, after
work, a basketball coach sat next to her on the bus. He said, ‘We
need a limo so we can be comfortable.’ He asked her if she had any
kids and when she told him I was 6-1 and 11 (years old), he said he
wanted to meet me.”
His name: Angel.
“The guy saw me and told me, ‘You are going to be the best
basketball player in Colombia and you will travel the world,’”
Palacios remembered. “I had never touched a basketball before.”
Now, 37, Palacios is one of the best players in Colombia and
basketball has taken him all over the world.
“Everything he said became a reality,” Palacios said.
Last year, Palacios, who is in Year 14 of his professional
basketball career, visited Angel.
“He has Alzheimer’s, but he remembers me,” Palacios said. “He
was super excited with everything I have
A chance meeting on public transportation, because his mom
wanted more leg room, started his journey on the hardwood; within
three years, Palacios began drawing attention for his play with the
Colombian U18 Men's National Team.
At 15, speaking almost no English, Palacios moved in with a host
family and enrolled at Our Savior New American in Centereach, New
“[They were] like, 'Okay we'll take him,' but it was more of,
'Let's do something nice for him and the world,'” Palacios said
with a laugh. “They didn’t have much hope that I was going to be
good, until they saw me at our first practice.”
Palacios was a Third Team All-America selection his senior year.
Shooting better than 50% from the floor and averaging 20.2 points
per game, he was nearly 6-foot-9 and a bulldozer at power forward —
an NBA prospect.
“I was playing with grown men over here in Colombia,” Palacios
said. “I knew the hard work I was putting in; I knew I was nice
[before they did].”
When it came time to pick a college, Palacios chose Louisville
for one reason: Rick Pitino.
In Palacios, Pitino saw a frontcourt duplicate of former NBA
player Jamal Mashburn; in Pitino, Palacios saw a “genius.” Someone
who understood people every bit as much as he understood
“He holds himself in such a way, when he talks, you have to
listen,” Palacios said of Pitino. “I understood how he was able to
manage people. He treats everyone according to what they need. He
understood what guys had to be pushed; what guys had to be left
alone — that was how he got the best out of everyone on the
An integral part of a Final Four team his freshman year and
Elite Eight team his senior year, Palacios attributed his longevity
in the sport to his experience at Louisville.
“There is nothing I have seen as a professional that I didn’t
see with Rick Pitino,” Palacios said. “Practice, preseason, he
prepares you for life.”
The most important piece of advice Pitino gave him: “Always be
under 10% body fat.”
“I am 37,” Palacios said. “There are a lot of guys that [came up
with me that] have already retired. Longevity is hard — it’s
something he cultivated in me.”
As a pro, Palacios has played in Spain, the Canary Islands,
Colombia, France, Turkey and, currently, Lithuania.
“I want to go to Asia, because I have never played there,”
As long as his body feels good and he is still performing at a
high level, Palacios doesn’t expect to retire anytime soon.
“I don’t have the millions that LeBron does to take care of my
body,” he said. “I don’t want to get to the point that I look bad
on the court. But if the knees don’t hurt it will be hard to
This summer, Palacios took on a new challenge: Rejoining the
Colombian national team for the first time in years, in the hopes
of leading the country to a FIBA World Cup appearance in August of
“They don’t really pay us and I don’t need the exposure, but at
the end of the day I love my country,” Palacios said. “I pride
myself on doing things that haven’t been done too often — I am glad
I came, being part of this is amazing.”
In early July, Palacios helped pace Colombia to back-to-back,
must-win games over Chile and South American powerhouse,
Palacios was the high scorer with 26 points in the
back-and-forth, double-overtime win against a Brazilian team
anchored by former NBA players Marcelo Huertas and Bruno
“That was a crazy moment — nobody thought we could beat Brazil,”
Palacios said. “Anything can happen in a basketball game — on the
first possession you felt the intensity of the game. Those special
moments are what we play for.”
The wins advanced Colombia to the second round of World Cup
qualifiers — with games on Aug. 25 and Aug. 28 against Mexico
and the United States.
If Colombia qualifies for the World Cup, it will be the nation’s
first appearance in the tournament since 1982.
“Having the opportunity to play against great competition is
what I am all about,” Palacios said. “Playing against the U.S. is
going to be nice — I am thankful.”