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Julio Toro: Coaching Philosophical Basketball

By Gabrielle Paese

JULY 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The Puerto Rico national team coach who is poised to tie a Superior Basketball League record for consecutive season victories, Julio Toro couldn't be sitting prettier.

No SBL coach has as many SBL championship rings on his fingers as Toro, who is looking for his 11th title in his 24th season coaching in the league. Toro's Santurce Cangrejeros have been the lords of the league for the past four seasons. If they win a fifth title later this summer, they'll tie Bayamon for the league record (the Vaqueros controlled the SBL from 1971 to 1975).

A former player, who won SBL titles in 1967,69 and' 71 with Bayamon, Toro's game is more than just X's and O's. He coaxed Guaynabo to championships in 1980, 1982 and 1989. He also led Canovanas to the league title in 1984. Ponce won back-to-back SBL rings with Toro in 1992 and 1993 and he's been at the helm of Santurce since 1998, now on the verge of taking the team to its fifth straight crown.

In addition, he coached Gurabo to a Puerto Rico Basketball League title in 1990 and the Guaiqueries Cocodriles to the Venezuelan League championships in 1997.

With more than 600 SBL wins on his resume and a regular season coaching record of 423 victories and 224 losses, Toro is by far the SBL's winningest coach. His nearest rival, Victor Mario Perez has just four titles to his name while Flor Melendez and Miguelito Mercado can only boast three. Internationally, Toro has more than 1,000 victories on his ledger.

„I had the good luck to combine by profession with my vocation," said Toro, a non-practicing lawyer. „Ever since I was a young boy, I've loved basketball. It makes me feel extremely privileged to be doing what I love. I don't know who said this but it applies to me: ŒAs I am fulfilled I become even stronger.' By some form all of that energy that comes from outside of me I was able to harness and make positive energy."

Known as the thinking player's coach for his philosophical lectures and loose rein with the players, Toro has often been compared to NBA wizard Phil Jackson.

The two have more than just yoga and a transcendental approach to the game in common.

„He places a lot of emphasis on the mental aspect of basketball," said forward Rolando Hourruitiner, who got his first chance to star under Toro when he was just 17 years old. „He teaches you very important things, things that maybe another coach might not think are so important. He never once told me how to dribble or pass the ball in all the years I played for him. He always dealt with the psychological part of the game. Julio says that 75 percent of the game is mental."

It was Toro who convinced Hourruitiner to step forward and take a leading role in 1992 with the Ponce Leones when Hourruitiner was still a high school senior. That season, the Leones won the SBL crown and followed up again in 1993. Based on his role with Ponce, Hourruitiner was invited to join the national team, for whom he has served ever since. The 6-7 forward has played a vital role in Santurce's past four championships.

„I've learned a lot with Julio,"said Hourruitiner, who also won a Puerto Rico Basketball League title under Toro with Gurabo in 1990. „He's very sincere and he has a subtle way of telling you things."

Toro also has a not-so-subtle way of turning mediocre teams into champions. In 1992, Toro took an unheralded Venezuelan national team to a second-place finish at the Olympic qualifying tournament, which marked the Dream Team's debut in international basketball. For Venezuela it meant a first-time berth at the Olympics.

The Venezuelans have since been unable to match Toro's success on the international scene.

„My years with Venezuela were very special for me,‰ said Toro. „I had a good group of players who already knew the game's fundamentals. They were hungry to win and they had goals. I was where I wanted to be when I had to be."

This summer, Toro will face the challenge of coaching Puerto Rico's national basketball selection at the 2002 World Basketball Championships. The national team failed to qualify for the 2000 Olympics, marking the first time since 1984 the island didn't compete in basketball at the Games. As a result, Puerto Rico's fans are eager to see the national team in an international forum once again. Toro knows expectations are high and odds are long.

„I don't want to think of this as easy or difficult, although I'm aware of our need to quantify," said Toro. „Our first-round rivals, Turkey and Brazil are going to be challenging."

Toro also refuses to place any importance on the team's lack of practice time prior to the tournament. Puerto Rico has just two weeks to get ready. Other squads have prepared for months.

„That's our reality so I think we have to be careful not to use it as an excuse and defeat ourselves before we even start,‰ said Toro. „When you place a lot of importance on that factor it becomes a way of saying, ŒWell, we can't win because we haven't practiced.' That's not the kind of attitude we need."

Toro knows from attitude, according to Jose „Piculin‰ Ortiz, the Cangrejeros' key player in its past four championships.

„He trusts his players and he's simple and easy to talk to,‰ said Ortiz, who was named SBL MVP last week. „As a coach, he recognizes hard work and he lets the players have input."

„Everyone is important on a team and everyone has a role to play," said Toro. „Basketball doesn't escape the basics of group theory. From the statistician to the water boy it's a studied science. The individual ego bows to the team goal."

He credits 32 years of yoga for keeping him balanced in his profession.

„I have access to this kind of a tool that can help me relax, visualize and meditate,"said Toro of yoga. „My relation with stress is like that of a passionate love. Stress is good because it stimulates you. Without stress you would lose your self-esteem."

As a coach, he hopes to demonstrate that kind of balance to his players.

„I try to be tough and easygoing at the same time," said Toro. „I try to be a soft dictator. It's an equilibrium worth studying. "

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the most recent recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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