Alfredo Ponce attended USC graduate school, roots for the Fresno State Bulldogs and lives about 3½ hours from Westwood.
But as UCLA made the run of a lifetime through the NCAA tournament, Ponce found himself captivated by the Bruins.
Ponce decided to honor his newly adopted team as only he could. The lifelong artist created a set of trading cards to honor UCLA’s appearance in the Final Four, featuring vibrant images of four players.
In one, Jaquez is shown shooting the ball in front of the Mexican flag. In another, Juzang is tugging on the front of his jersey to accentuate the four letters across his chest. In a third, Campbell is preparing to fling a pass with a kaleidoscope of Southern California images behind him, including Kobe Bryant Avenue, palm trees and the iconic Hollywood sign.
Ponce, the principal of an alternative school in Sanger, a Fresno suburb, understands that those who remember him as a doctoral degree candidate from USC might not approve of this apparent betrayal.
“I’m a Fresno fan, I’m a USC fan, but I’m also a California fan,” the 47-year-old said. “I know a lot of people would not agree with that, but I’m just making our state beautiful and promoting it.”
Each card takes about an hour to produce. Ponce said he starts with photos of players taken from Twitter or Google searches before inlaying his own vivid designs.
“Just kind of go color by color,” he said, “and putting the layers together.”
Ponce also created images of Jaquez in a green jersey, reflecting his Mexican heritage, as well as one of him sitting on a confetti-strewn floor after the Bruins upset top-seeded Michigan to reach the Final Four. Jaquez’s father, also named Jaime, saw the artwork on Twitter and asked Ponce if he could buy the images.
No way, Ponce told the elder Jaquez. He could have them for free.
“It was unbelievably cool,” Jaquez Sr. said by phone Tuesday.
Jaquez was so moved he put his son on the phone with Ponce to pass along his appreciation. The images reminded Jaquez Sr. of the loteria cards he once used with his mother while playing the Mexican game resembling bingo.
Highlighting his heritage was the only return Ponce sought.
“Anything I can do to promote our culture in a positive light, I definitely want to take that up,” said Ponce, who has made his art available through an online store at pholkgiant.com. “I’m an immigrant myself, so really just trying to find things that are inspirational.”
Jaquez isn’t the first UCLA player of Mexican descent that Ponce has befriended. When he worked as a school psychologist at South Gate High in the early 2000s, Ponce asked Lorenzo Mata if he planned on being the next great Mexican basketball player in the mold of Eduardo Najera.
“He said, ‘I’m going to be better,’ ” Ponce recalled, with a laugh, of the center who helped the Bruins reach three Final Fours before going on to play for the Mexican national team.
Ponce said he also created cards for comedian George Lopez as part of the roughly 10,000 images he’s made over the last five years. He seemed dumbfounded that anyone would be interested in his handiwork. To him, he’s just passing along traditions in his own way.
“Some people do it by words, some people do it by writing,” Ponce said. “I do it by artwork.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.