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PUERTO RICO HERALD
"Our Team," As In, "Did You See How We Won Last Night?"
By Gabrielle Paese
September 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
No matter where you go in Puerto Rico this week, you'll hear people talking about basketball and volleyball. And it's not just idle chit chat. It's that third-person plural ("our team," as in "Did you see how we won last night?") conversation as the whole island tunes in nightly to watch our team compete at the World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis.
It's been two years since the basketball team has aroused national pride and a collective use of that third-person plural. They missed qualifying for the Sydney Olympics entirely. But this past week, a scrappy mix of veterans and rookies have combined to defy the international order stateside, upsetting Yugoslavia and Spain and then squeezing out a double overtime victory Wednesday night over Angola to gain a quarterfinals berth. Puerto Rico began quarterfinal play Thursday night versus New Zealand and would advance to take on the winner of the United States-Yugoslavia game on Friday.
Meanwhile, a continent away in Riesa, Germany, the Puerto Rican women's volleyball team stole its own spot in the limelight, surprising the Dominican Republic and Argentina to advance to the second round in the Women's World Volleyball Championships.
While the volleyball squad is unlikely to gain any more ground after having lost tough games to world powerhouses United States and Russia, the islanders' worst-case scenario finish in Germany is 12th, a historic advance no matter how you look at it.
The last time Puerto Rico even qualified for a women's World Volleyball Championship (1974), the team finished 22nd out of 23 teams. It was the first time in nine years that Puerto Rico beat the Dominican Republic in a game, and the first ever victory over Argentina.
Volleyball team coach David Aleman said he thinks this is the best group Puerto Rico could have assembled, and they showed sparks of what was to come this past summer at the qualifier in Canada.
"We are proud of what we've accomplished already even though we couldn't beat Russia," said Aleman about the European champions. "We've gained a lot of experience here. Our goal was to make it to the second round and we are in there."
Led by Aury Cruz, a University of Florida sophomore, and her older sister, Eva, as well as blockers Jetzabel del Valle and Karina Ocasio, Puerto Rico showed it has international caliber.
The island basketball quintet has long been on the world basketball map, leaving its mark at the World Basketball Championships in 1990 with a fourth-place finish, its best to date. But with the advent of pro players at the World Championship and Olympic level, Puerto Rico struggled in the 90s versus bigger, more experienced teams. Once dominant in the Americas, the island struggled as Argentina surged to take over second place behind the United States.
Argentina is still a force to be reckoned with, maybe even more so than was previously imagined after its 87-80 upset victory over the United States Wednesday night. But the quarterfinal teams in Indianapolis know they can't count out Puerto Rico.
The islanders survived a double overtime scare from Angola Wednesday to finish in first place in the second round and stave off a first-round quarterfinal matchup versus the United States.
"It was one of the hardest and toughest games that I have played in, in the last couple of years. They scored a lot of baskets from outside. It wasn't our best game from outside but total credit to them because they played a great game," said forward Rolando Hourruitiner. "We stayed patient and focused when any other team might put their heads down."
"We're ready to move onto to the big games," Puerto Rico assistant coach Manolo Cintron said after the 89-87, 2OT victory. "We knew that this was the most important game for us, and we needed this win going into the quarterfinals."
Coach Julio Toro has already outdone himself in Indianapolis, even if the Puerto Ricans finish no better than eighth. While he had some NBA material to work with in Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, Carlos Arroyo and Daniel Santiago, he worked his motivational magic with the rest of the players, many of whom will get NBA and European league offers out of their performance this past week.
Arroyo, a 6-2 point guard, was under contract with the Denver Nuggets last season while Santiago, a 7-1 center, saw time with the Phoenix Suns last year. Ortiz, 38 and the backbone of Puerto Rico's team since the late '80s is a 6-10 forward/center who was drafted by the Utah Jazz out of college but spent most of his career playing in Spain and Greece. This is his fourth World Championships.
Providing leadership mostly from the bench this time around is 6-7 forward Jerome Mincy while players like 6-7 forward Antonio "Puruco" Latimer, 6-2 shooting guard Larry Ayuso and 6-7 forward Rolando Hourruitiner have stepped up their game and performed in the clutch.
As I've said in previous columns, if anyone was going to take the Puerto Rico basketball program to new heights it was going to be Toro. The veteran skipper has a reputation for molding worthless lumps of clay into men. It was under his thumb that a similarly scrappy Venezuelan squad nearly beat the original Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics qualifier and earned its first Olympic berth.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.