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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Puerto Rico Still In The Hunt For 2004 Olympic Basketball Berth
By Gabrielle Paese
August 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
"You know you're addicted to basketball..." if you can name the three top shooters on the Brazilian national basketball team (Marcelinho Machado, Alex Ribeiro and Guilherme Giovannoni) and know by how many points the United States beat the Argentinean national team earlier this week during Tournament of the Americas Olympic qualifying second-round action (U.S. 94, Argentina 86).
The average Puerto Rican sports fan has a basketball jones the size of the NBA and knows these answers, as well as much more trivia having to do with the island's chances at earning one of three available spots for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Going into Sunday's final, Puerto Rico has an excellent shot at being one of those three teams. One will most definitely be the United States, which is here in San Juan this week with a team of NBA stars. Puerto Rico, Argentina and Canada will be dueling it out for the remaining two positions.
Puerto Rico earned a semifinals berth here at Roberto Clemente Coliseum after sneaking out a two-point victory over perennial rival Brazil (72-70) Wednesday night. It was a game Puerto Rico's team had to win in this lose-and-you-go-home second round. It was also an important psychological victory for the Julio Toro-coached squad: Puerto Rico is just 14-28 versus Brazil in their head-to-head history.
In the nine times Puerto Rico has played Brazil in Olympic Qualifying, the island quintet has emerged victorious just three times, including Wednesday night. Historically, Brazil has been a tough riddle for Puerto Rico to solve.
Even Argentina, which finished second at last year's World Championships has not fared as well against Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's record against the Argentineans is 18-9 overall and 5-3 in Olympic qualifying. Puerto Rico already lost to Argentina once in the first round here (85-80). Depending upon the outcome of the final day of the second round, Puerto Rico will play either Canada or Argentina for the last remaining ticket to Athens.
Veteran big man Jose "Piculin" Ortiz described this Olympic qualifying as a "huge struggle." In 1999, FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) allotted just two Olympic berths to the Americas, and Puerto Rico (which hosted that qualifier as well) finished out of the money, third behind the United States and Canada. The island team has not been to the Olympics since 1996.
"I missed the opportunity to qualify for the Olympics in 1999, so I hope to make up for that here," said Ortiz, who is looking to represent Puerto Rico at his third Olympics. "This victory means so much. There's so much emotion for me. I really don't have any words to describe how I feel."
The victory over Brazil Wednesday was a huge confidence-booster to the team that finished a disappointing third at the recent Pan Am Games and lost two big first-round games here against Argentina and Canada (89-79). Puerto Rico's players argued among themselves in the first round and struggled to play together. But following those two hard losses, the 39-year-old Ortiz gave the players a pep talk that seemed to light a fire underneath them. In the second round they scored convincing victories over Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
"This game speaks enormously of this group," said Puerto Rico coach Toro of the victory over Brazil. "It was a strong collective effort defensively. Brazil has a lot of options offensively and we had to give our best to shut them down."
Spurs sign Larry Ayuso
Puerto Rican forward Larry Ayuso got the chance of a lifetime this week as the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs signed him to a one-year contract. Initially, the Spurs had planned only to invite the 26-year-old to training camp, but on the basis of his performance here at the Americas Olympic Qualifier, decided to extend him a contract offer. It's not guaranteed: Ayuso still has to make the team and remain with them through January of next year, but the opportunity puts the ball in Ayuso's court.
"I couldn't sleep last night, I was so excited to finally to get the opportunity that was given," said Ayuso, a 26-year-old who played at USC under former Superior Basketball League coach Henry Bibby. "It has been a road and the road is still going. I still have a lot to learn. Now it's showtime."
Ayuso hopes to follow the path taken in recent years by Carlos Arroyo (Utah Jazz) and Daniel Santiago (Milwaukee Bucks), both of whom are his teammates on the Puerto Rican team.
"I still have work to do," said Ayuso. "But I've already talked to [San Antonio coach Greg] Popovich. He's the one who liked me from the beginning. If the coach likes you, you have an advantage. So, I've got a big advantage."
It's a positive attitude for a young man whose life has been a battle against adversity so challenging that few would have expected him to be alive today. When Ayuso was 7, his mom moved the family to the South Bronx. Street life meant dealing drugs and Ayuso knew he needed to get help after his brother and three close friends were gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Ayuso took refuge in basketball and through an organization called S.A.F.E. (Student Athletes for Education), Ayuso was placed with a middle-class family in New Mexico for his high school years.
At first it was a disaster, but Diane and Dick Taylor, his new guardians, taught Ayuso to work hard and believe in himself. He got a scholarship to play at USC and through Bibby, then-Quebradillas coach Raymond Dalmau found Ayuso and took him under his wing in the Superior Basketball League. He was invited to the Puerto Rican team in 2001 and has honed his basketball skills thanks to two years playing in Europe in the Greek and Italian leagues.
"Larry has the talent and the desire," said former Puerto Rico team coach Carlos Morales, who now does color commentary for ESPN in Spanish and the Orlando Magic."He's now the kind of player that can come off the screen and put the ball on the floor. It used to be that he would catch the ball and shoot. That growth is what has turned him into an NBA player."
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.