Carlos Arroyo was a good basketball player. He was mostly known for leading the Puerto Rican national team to an upset victory over the United States in 2004, Team USA's first Olympics loss in 16 years. He also carved out a nice career in the NBA. He only averaged 6.6 points per game for his career, but he hung around for nine years and even spent the majority of the 2010-11 season—LeBron James' first in South Beach—as the Miami Heat's starting point guard.
Arroyo's career wound down after that, and he played his final NBA game that spring. Save for a few seasons overseas—and a stint last summer with the BIG3—he's mostly receded from the basketball spotlight.
But Arroyo, it turns out, has another talent: He happens to be a reggaeton star. In March, he released "Baila Reggaeton," featuring the popular duo Zion & Lennox. His first release since 2010, it's since been viewed on YouTube more than 4.6 million times. Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union danced to the hit on Instagram. So did Reggaeton star Nicky Jam. The news of the release was shared as an "exclusive" on Billboard.com.
"People see me as a basketball player first," Arroyo said. "I'm having fun showing people that I'm more than that."
Music was a big part of Arroyo's childhood. His father loved Phil Collins and Lionel Richie and introduced his five children to 1980s American rock and pop. As Arroyo grew older, his preferences evolved. First it was American rap, like Nas, 2Pac and Jay-Z, that caught his ears. Then, like many teenagers in Puerto Rico, he was smitten by the bouncy hits from reggaeton artists like Daddy Yankee and Vico C.
His father was not a fan. "He'd say, 'You're not listening to songs with lyrics like that,'" Arroyo said. "So we'd wait for him to go to work and then blast it." Arroyo began recording songs off the radio. He performed in talent shows with friends. Sometimes he'd write lyrics. "Mostly talking about nothing," he said. "Just, like, being in the club or in the street or about a girl."
In 2008, Arroyo was living in Israel and had more free time than ever before. After spending eight seasons in the NBA, where his teams often played four games a week, he'd signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv, which never played more than two games each week. Arroyo needed a way to pass the days.
He found a studio in Tel Aviv. "I was so bad, the engineer kept getting angry at me," he said. But he kept writing music. After the season, he signed with the Heat. In Miami, he connected with a popular artist named Yomo, and the pair released "Se Va Conmigo," which climbed to No. 45 on Billboard's Latin Digital Songs chart. Before long, Arroyo's Heat teammates were crooning the Spanish lyrics in the locker room and mimicking his music video. Arroyo recalled Pat Riley once walking into a practice, doing his best reggaeton intonation while his feet glided across the practice facility gym floor.
"Pat can dance," Arroyo said. "But Pat dancing reggaeton, that's something else."
Other local artists started asking to collaborate, but life got in the way. Arroyo's contract with the Heat was not guaranteed, and he was released in the spring of 2011. The Celtics scooped him up but didn't retain him after the season. As he spent the next few seasons bouncing from Turkey to Puerto Rico to Spain, his music career was put on hold.
"Basketball's my moneymaker. I wanted to find stability there," Arroyo said. "And I didn't want to do the music unless I had the time to do it the right way."
His wife, Xiomara Escobar, described Carlos as a planner. "He's really methodical," she said. "He doesn't just jump into anything."
In 2016, Arroyo wrapped up his professional basketball career and settled with his family in Miami. There, he was surrounded by other Latin music artists who became his friends. They'd play basketball in Arroyo's backyard and ask him about his music.
But Arroyo's life was full. His three kids. His work with the Puerto Rican basketball federation. He was still trying to map out the next stage of his basketball career.
"I always said, 'I'll do more in the summer; I'll do it next year,'" Arroyo said. "And then summer would come and go and I hadn't done it."
There were other issues too. He'd released "Se Va Conmigo" himself, spending his own money to mix, produce and promote the album. "I didn't want to do that again," Arroyo said. "I said if I did something again, it would only be with a record label. But one that would let me do things on my own time. I didn't want to commit to something and miss all the other stuff."
But he also realized he was letting an opportunity slip away. He thought back to his journey to the NBA, how he and his twin brother, Alberto, had left Puerto Rico as teenagers and found a family to live with in Georgia, where scouts could see him play. His brother grew homesick after two weeks and moved back home, but Carlos stayed.
"Because my dreams were bigger than whatever fears I had," Arroyo said. He figured it was time to apply the same thinking to his music career.
"I think when you sacrifice so much and dedicate so much of yourself to a craft from early on, you want to do that for everything," Arroyo said. "But I'm also big on living with no regrets. And I didn't want to look back at my life and say, 'Damn, I have all these great artists wanting to work with me, and I didn't do it because I was timid.'"
He started taking his friends up on their offers. "He takes his music really seriously," said Luis Fonsi, a renowned Puerto Rican singer and actor best known for his megahit "Despacito." Fonsi and Arroyo are neighbors. They play poker, pickup hoops and golf together. "It was clear that this wasn't just some hobby for him, the way, like, basketball is for me," Fonsi added.
Around the start of 2020, Arroyo signed with a label, Rimas Entertainment. "He has this unique sound to him," said Noah Assad, the label's co-founder. But what has impressed Assad most is Arroyo's commitment to the craft. "Carlos is a legend in our country," he said. "But you wouldn't know it by how he acts."
Arroyo is on a WhatsApp chain with Assad, a marketing manager and other members of Rimas. He texts his label partners every day. He meets with a producer in his backyard. Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, he's working. "I'm hoping this is just the beginning of a great year of music," Arroyo said. "But I waited 10 years already. I'm in no rush."
His first single under Rimas, "Baila Reggaeton," was composed with the duo Zion & Lennox in mind. Arroyo had known Zion for years. He recorded a sample, played it to Zion on a Friday, and by the following Wednesday, they were in the studio together.
The song blew up. One of Arroyo's two daughters celebrated every time it passed another million views. "And she's 14, so if she didn't like it she'd be honest," Arroyo said. His parents are proud.
"Even though in my head I can still hear my dad yelling to turn it down," Arroyo said.
Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.
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