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August 20, 2004
So much for it just being a basketball game. So far this week, every major theme in literature and every political angle have been woven into Puerto Rico's 92-73 stunning defeat of the United States in its Olympic basketball opener last Sunday. Never mind that Puerto Rico subsequently dropped its second game, 98-90, to European powerhouse Lithuania and, as of this writing, has yet to qualify for the second round. Already by beating the United States, this tiny Caribbean island, a territory of its great neighbor to the north, has made history.
You've already read all the game stories, so this is just to recap. The defeat was the first for the United States in Olympic basketball since NBA players joined the mix in 1992. It wasn't just a victory, it was a salsa, as they say in Spanish. Puerto Rico led by 22 at the half, 49-27, and even after the United States closed the gap to eight points, 69-61, with 6:11 still to play, Puerto Rican point guard Carlos Arroyo drained a three as part of his 24-point repertoire for the night, to erase any doubts as to which team was in control. With 1:13 remaining and the victory well in Puerto Rico's hands, Carlos Arroyo pulled his uniform by the armholes, holding up its words "Puerto Rico" for all to see. The United States headed by Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and featuring a gaggle of young NBA stars, dragged its way through the 40 minutes, unable to score and came completely unraveled.
Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro did his homework. The United States was confused by the zone defense. Toro had Arroyo stop the transition game so the United States couldn't do what it does best, make dazzling dunks and quick passes and grab the momentum. With the ball safely in Arroyo's hands, Puerto Rico never lost control. It was the coming of age for the 25-year-old, 6-1 point guard, who will enter his fourth NBA season this fall after signing a $16 million, four-year deal with the Utah Jazz.
Basketball analysts will tell you they saw it coming, especially after a dismal, sixth-place performance at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, a near loss to Lithuania in Sydney and a marked lack of interest on the part of the NBA's marquee players for playing in Athens (Kobe Bryant was actually the only one with a really valid excuse). A total of 12 NBA players begged out of the Athens Games and it was clear even before they lost by 17 points to Italy in a tune-up, that this edition of the "Dream Team" isn't going to spark anyone's fantasy. Still, with NBA stars like Iverson and Duncan, a coach like Larry Brown and young hotshots like Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James and Emeka Okafor and a 109-3 record in Olympic play since 1936, no one really expected them to lose to Puerto Rico even if the island quintet was the most underestimated team in the 12-team lineup.
You can count the times Puerto Rico has slipped past the United States, with or without pros. Perhaps the biggest victory at the wire was in the 1991 Pan Am Games when Puerto Rico scored a 73-68 semifinal victory over a United States team that featured Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Clarence Weatherspoon, Thomas Hill and Eric Montross, the last collegiate team the U.S. would field in international play. Puerto Rico came up big once more in 1998 during the Goodwill Games with an 84-76 win over the United States and twice beat a largely CBA team twice in the 2003 Pan Am Games to knock the U.S. down to fourth place. In all, Puerto Rico has beaten the U.S. seven times in international tournaments since 1989, but Sunday's was the first win over an NBA star-studded squad.
Puerto Rico's former team coach, Carlos Morales, who is now an analyst for ESPN Deportes and a TV commentator for the Orlando Magic, summed up Puerto Rico's current situation (1-1 in first-round Olympic play) with his habitual dose of reality.
"Puerto Rico, winning or losing, has looked good so far," Morales said. "Against Lithuania they didn't play with the same intensity as they did against the United States but in all fairness, they are two completely different teams."
Morales, who has seen Arroyo move up the ranks, singled out the Fajardo native for his maturity.
"Carlos has the emotional and physical maturity to be the team's new leader," said Morales, who coached Puerto Rico to its 1993 Goodwill Games gold medal. "He still has the tremendous respect for Piculin [40-year-old center Jose Ortiz] but he has shown that he's the one in charge and the transition has been something that just happened normally, because Piculin has also accepted his new role with extreme grace."
Arroyo drew praise from unexpected sources following the team's win over the U.S., including this www.puertorico-herald.org reader, Herman Breughe, who wrote from Belgium.
"I'm a TV-fan of all kinds of sports, so these Olympic days are sacred for me. After a few days, I think I've already found my hero of the Athens Olympics. He's Puerto Rican, plays basketball, and his name is Arroyo. He led his team into an unforgettable win against the Dream-Team, and did so with such a cool, such a sportsmanship, leadership, incredible talent, that I believe he'll soon have a statue in Puerto-Rico.
"It was the first time I saw him at work, and he left an impression, as a sportsman, as well as a natural, mature leader of his team. If I were Puerto Rican, I'd already know whom to choose as sportsman of the year, and as an excellent ambassador for his country.
"Of course, he didn't play alone, but he simply was outstanding, in the true sense of the word."
Breughe's comments were found amid an e-mail inbox with eight requests for Carlos Arroyo's Puerto Rico jersey and two inquiries regarding Puerto Rico's political and sports status, perhaps brought on by TV sports commentator remarks that this win should cinch Puerto Rico's entry as the 51st state.
For the record, as far as I know the jerseys aren't for sale yet (Puerto Rico Basketball has no website and no marketing plan I'm aware of). Further, those who think the victory has no political ramifications are probably the same people who think the Olympics are just played for the glory of sport. Puerto Rico's victory sends a clear, albeit simple, message to USA Basketball. It took 12 years, but the rest of the world is finally beating you at your own game.
Gabrielle Paese is a sports reporter in San Juan. She was 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.