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Puerto Rican 7-Footers Show Talent In Shoot Out
By Emily Badger | Sentinel Staff Writer
December 19, 2003
KISSIMMEE -- They found him in, of all places, a big 'n tall store.
Peter Ramos was only 14 at the time, but at nearly 7 feet tall, he was attracting attention even in rooms full of tall men. He was trying to pick out a suit in the Brooklyn store when a man from Puerto Rico approached him and asked if he played basketball.
This part is a minor point: Ramos at the time couldn't win a game of H-O-R-S-E to save his life. But he was 7 feet tall and, as it turned out, Puerto Rican. He had moved to New York as a 5-year-old, and now this stranger wanted to know if he'd like to move back.
Around the same time in Cauguas, Puerto Rico, Felix Rivera was at a middle school game scouting another kid who surely was built for the purpose of playing basketball. Ricky Sanchez was 13 years old, 6-foot-10, and came with the added bonus that his father had already taught him to play.
Within a year, Ramos and Sanchez -- who both continued to grow -- were playing for Colegio Bautista de Cauguas, a private Baptist school 20 miles south of San Juan. Rivera had landed the recruiting coup of his life: a pair of
7-footers on the same team!
"To have two kids like that on the same school would be a dream for any coach of any high school in the U.S.," Rivera said. "And it's a big country."
Rivera calls it a blessing, but an equally appropriate term might be luck. How else to describe all the events -- including the phone call from a friend in a Brooklyn big 'n tall -- that led Ramos and Sanchez into Rivera's hands?
Today Ramos is a 7-4 senior and Sanchez a 7-foot junior, both returning starters on a team that went 32-4 last season and won Puerto Rico's equivalent of the state championship. Since the two arrived, Cauguas has won just about everything on the island involving a trophy, which explains what the whole team is doing in Kissimmee this weekend.
For the first time in the school's history, Cauguas left Puerto Rico to test the competition in the United States. The Hawks entered the Great Florida Shootout Thursday night as the wild card of the tournament and the team that turned the most heads. All anyone knew was that they had two 7-footers no one had ever seen before.
Was this team even legitimate? (John Beall, the chairman of the tournament selection committee, said he made sure Cauguas was sanctioned by its state high school association).
"Everyone thinks, 'Oh, Puerto Rico, they can't play,'" Sanchez said. "So we have to come in here and show them."
Cauguas started that run Thursday night, defeating Huntsville (Ala.) Butler 68-61. Ramos had 34 points, including several dunks that pulled the Civic Center crowd out of the stands.
"When they see him, there's going to be a psychological impact on the other team," Cauguas Coach Leonel Arill said of Ramos. "And when they see that he can play, the rest of the week the word is going to be spread about our team."
Arill has been developing Ramos and Sanchez ever since Rivera turned them over to him. Rivera's role in it all is a little tougher to explain -- scout and sponsor, perhaps.
He owns the Criollos de Cauguas, the local semi-pro team that also is coached by Arill. Through the years, Criollos has developed a relationship with the high school that has turned the program into something a minor-league feeder system. Rivera's team contributes to the school's charities and fund-raisers and pays the $2,500 tuition for many of the basketball players.
In turn, the best high school players eventually will play for the Criollos. But Rivera knows he has outdone himself with his two best catches: Ramos and Sanchez will soon outgrow the system in favor of a college in the States, or even the NBA.
"Obviously [I'm disappointed], but we expect that to happen with these two kids," Rivera said. "We think that they have the potential to have a long career over here [in the U.S.], but that's part of the deal. They will become too good for the league down there."
Rivera saw that coming when his friend found the 14-year-old kid living in Brooklyn who didn't even know how to hold a basketball.
"He knew almost nothing. We'd tell him to shoot the ball, and he would just shoot the ball," Arill said, yanking both his hands awkwardly behind his head.
Ramos picked up the proper technique immediately. Then he learned to play defense. And then added a hook shot.
Sanchez presented a different challenge. Even at 7 feet, he played like a natural shooting guard.
"On another team that doesn't have a 7-4 guy at center, he would be put in the paint," Arill said. "We want our big guys where they're going to play at the next level. Ricky is a guard, and if I put him at forward, I would be punishing him."
Every move now is made with an eye toward that future. That's part of the reason the team came to Kissimmee, where the Civic Center is playing host to not only some of the best high school teams in the nation, but also numerous college scouts, another dozen from the NBA and maybe even an agent or two.
Ramos likes the idea of playing for the University of Illinois, although he's never been anywhere near there. He has also thought about playing in Europe or entering the NBA draft right out of high school.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do next year, play pro or play in college," he said. "I'm not ready yet to make that choice."
Sanchez said he has been getting mail from Florida, Indiana and Kansas. He won't worry about college yet -- he's planning now to leave Puerto Rico for his senior year of high school, something four Cauguas players did last year.
"I just want to find a high school where me and my family can be comfortable," Sanchez said. "My mom can't go to places like New York, cold places."
Sanchez is only 16, but because of his height and his basketball talent, his family is willing to leave Puerto Rico just as Ramos' family moved back four years ago.
When that happens, at the end of the school year, Ramos and Sanchez will be just as far apart as they were when Rivera found them, having been together just long enough to be that mythical team with the two 7-footers.