LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The phone calls would come once or twice a week, with Juan Palacios dutifully checking in with his mother.
The chats have been one of the few constants in the Louisville forward's life since he left Colombia as a shy 15-year-old in 2001 to chase his basketball dreams.
Over the years, his mother has been his sounding board. Maria would listen while he talked about the demands of playing for Rick Pitino, the joy of helping the Cardinals make the 2005 Final Four, the anger of a string of injuries.
And sometimes his mother, who cleans buildings in Medellin, would tell him to snap out of it.
sings that God has given you are more than enough.'''
It's a lesson Palacios has tried to remind himself of almost daily. He briefly mulled entering the NBA draft after averaging 9.7 points as a freshman in 2004-05 while helping the Cardinals to the Final Four. He knew there weren't too many 6-foot-8 players out there with his kind of range.
Palacios decided to stay and figured to be the linchpin of the program as the Cardinals reloaded. It never happened. He dislocated his right ankle in a pickup game before his sophomore season, and the last three years have been nothing but a series of stops and starts. He's spent nearly as much time with trainer Fred Hina as he has with Pitino and his teammates.
The injuries have forced Palacios to modify his game. The 3-point shooting slasher who ran the floor with ease as a freshman has become a methodical banger whose face is fixed in a perpetual grimace.
``You could never get him over the hump as far as improvement is concerned because he was always getting to first base then going back home,'' Pitino said. ``You could never get him to third base or home because he was always taking steps backwards because of injuries.''
Palacios thought this year would be different and says he began preseason practice in the best shape of his life.
It lasted two days.
Palacios tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee and missed nine games. He hasn't been the same since. His average of 6.0 points and 4.3 rebounds are both career lows, partly because he's playing just 18.3 minutes a night.
``Some days I play good and feel good and other days my knee hurts and I don't perform as well,'' he said. ``You just have to be patient and understand that I'm not playing as well as I would like to, but still we're winning so that's something for me to be happy about.''
Still, Palacios has found his way to contribute to one of the hottest teams in the country. The Cardinals (24-6, 14-3 Big East) enter the final week of the regular season tied atop the Big East with Georgetown. And that's partly because of Palacios' transformation from budding star to reliable sixth man.
It's not the role he imagined he'd play as a senior. But he's done it without complaint while serving with roommate and fellow injury-scarred senior David Padgett as role models for Louisville's talented but sometimes temperamental sophomore class.
``These guys have witnessed all of that and their appreciation is off the charts,'' Pitino said.
So much so that sophomore forward Earl Clark went into Pitino's office and told his coach he wanted Palacios to start in his place against Villanova. Clark even offered to sit out the entire game so Palacios could soak in his final 40 minutes at Freedom Hall.
Clark played, but Palacios started, scoring 13 points in a spirited 21 minutes as the Cardinals won 68-54 for their ninth straight victory. He hit a couple of 3-pointers, snagged an offensive rebound and even recaptured a moment of explosiveness, throwing down a rare dunk in the second half.
It was the kind of performance that leaves a whiff of what might have been. Palacios says he doesn't really think about that anymore, and instead focused on the opportunity to show his mom what he could do.
Maria Palacios watched her son play in the U.S. for the first time as the Cardinals routed Villanova, and could be in the stands on Saturday when Louisville plays at Georgetown. She will have a chance to meet all the people her son has spent the last seven years talking about. He will have a chance to show her that the roller coaster he's been on has been well worth it.
Though a career in the NBA now appears a long shot, Palacios most likely will have no trouble finding a job playing overseas. And maybe he'll make enough money to provide some comfort for his mother.
``I would like for her to have a better life, and that's my goal, whether it's here or back in Colombia,'' he said. ``It depends on how the future falls, but I'll be able to decide the best.''

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