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Bitter Feud Over TV Contract Mars SBL Season Start; P.R. Hosts Group II Fed Cup Qualifier

By Gabrielle Paese

April 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The 75th Superior Basketball League season gets under way this week, but not without a little drama.

Actually, the SBL has had more than its share of theatrics over the past two months leading up to the opening tip-off. For those keeping score, there was the labor dispute between the SBL and its referees, followed by the intervention of Rep. Severo Colberg Toro and nearly three weeks of public hearings and legislative scrutiny.

None of it pleased SBL president Henry "What, me worry?" Neumann. He put on a smile for the league’s pre-season press conference/luncheon bash earlier this week, but had this to say prior to taking the microphone: "I thought the season would never start. The preseason has been very difficult for us and I’m desperate to see the first game at Pachín Vicéns Coliseum in Ponce."

But before you could say "¡Aqui…Sí se juega!" (the league’s slogan), Neumann again found himself at the center of controversy. This time, he felt the wrath of a franchise holder scorned.

The league recently revealed that it signed a TV deal with local Channel 24 for up to 40 regular season games, a pact valued at an estimated $750,000. By joining up with Channel 24, Neumann spurned Santurce Cangrejeros franchise holder Angelo Medina, who is also a very successful sports and entertainment promoter AND the owner of Sports Channel 13, a new all-sports venture in San Juan.

Neumann, who is in his second year at the SBL helm, said that signing the deal with Medina would have been a conflict of interest, given that Medina owns one of the league’s richest franchises.

On the very day of the SBL’s preseason press conference earlier this week, Medina countered, announcing that the Cangrejeros would resign from their post on the SBL board of directors. He blasted Neumann for "conformist and mediocre behavior" and lack of leadership.

Without the Cangrejeros, the league loses one of its top teams and without the SBL, the Cangrejeros can’t play basketball so it’s obvious Medina and Neumann need each other. Power struggle? Yes. Who should win the argument? It depends on how righteous you want to be.

The SBL is no stranger to conflicts of interest. For nearly a decade (and before Neumann’s tenure), the SBL’s radio and TV broadcast contracts went to Jaime Ruiz Escobar, the father-in-law of the SBL’s flagship player, José "Piculín" Ortiz, who at the time played for the San Germán Athletics. No one ever called a foul. It should also be noted that for years no one even saw any conflict in having the president of the SBL also be the president of the P.R. basketball federation.

Both Neumann and Medina have been positive forces in local basketball in the past decade. Both have moved on to MP3 while the rest of the SBL continues to listen on LPs. The two have helped the SBL evolve into its present status as a wildly popular league that enjoys fan support and corporate sponsorship. About $1.3 million fans turned out to watch last season.

They need to work as a team. Is it time to call in the counselors?

Puerto Rico eyes move to Group I in Federation Cup

One team that doesn’t need any counseling this week is Puerto Rico’s Federation Cup group. After a couple of years of trying, it looks like coach Gigi Fernández will finally reach her goal: Puerto Rico moving up permanently to Group I status.

While Group I is still a step down from the world group of teams like the United States, Fernández said this week, she’ll take it.

"We came here to win," said Fernández, herself a winner of 17 Grand Slam doubles titles and two Olympic gold medals. "If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to finish first. There are times when that doesn’t happen but one always tries to win and finish first."

Puerto Rico is hosting Fed Cup Americas zone Group II qualifying for the second time since the island made its Fed Cup debut in 1992. The last time Fed Cup was played in Puerto Rico was 1993.

In 1995, the women moved up from Group II to Group I during the tournament held in Trinidad-Tobago. They’ve been going up and down since, unable to hold on to that elusive Group I. It took the team three more years, until 1998, to regain Group I status again after dropping back down in 1996. After 1998, the team again dropped to Group II, before clawing its way back up in 2001.

This weekend, with the participation of WTA pro Kristina Brandi and the NCAA’s top-ranked player Vilmarie Castellví, Puerto Rico looks like a veritable Goliath versus nine other teams of juniors, many of them made up of players under the age of 16. On Wednesday, Puerto Rico swept the Dominican Republic squad, 3-0, losing only two games the first day.

"We brought three juniors with us," said Ecuador team captain Manuel Balda. "Two or three years down the road, these three players are going to be a force in Fed Cup. We have older players studying in college, but in reality, these players could beat them."

Fernandez, who officially took over as Puerto Rico’s Fed Cup coach in 1999, has to be pleased to finally have Castellví and Brandi on board. Brandi, daughter of Puerto Rican tennis player Joe Brandi and a resident of Florida, is making her Fed Cup debut. Formerly ranked among the top 50 on the women’s tour, Brandi lost some speed recently due to a wrist injury. The 26-year-old has played for 10 years on the WTA tour. At the 2002 Australian Open, she won seven games against Venus Williams in a 6-3, 6-4 second-round loss.

Brandi represented Puerto Rico for the first time last December, winning gold medals in singles and mixed doubles at the 2002 Central American-Caribbean Games.

Castellví, meanwhile, last played Fed Cup in 1999. The University of Tennessee student is currently ranked No. 1 in NCAA play. She was a silver medallist in singles at last year’s CAC Games.

Teamed up with doubles specialist Tania Rivera and junior María Calbetó, Puerto Rico has a team that should easily dominate this week and in future Fed Cup play. Castellví has a promising professional career ahead of her and teamed with Brandi, the two could put Puerto Rican women’s tennis on the map in a way that hasn’t been seen since Fernández’s competitive days.

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

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

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