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Fifth, Sixth And Seventh -- Puerto Rico'’s Best Olympic Finishes

By Gabrielle Paese

September 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Just for the record, Puerto Rico's basketball team ended up in sixth place at the Athens Games after losing by 10 points to host Greece, 85-75, in the final game. For what it's worth, sixth place is Puerto Rico's best finish in Olympic basketball since 1972 in Munich.

The game also marked the end of an era for one of the island's greatest players of the past two decades, Jose "Piculin" Ortiz. The 40-year-old scored 13 points in his final international game and his storied 25-year career featured participation in four Olympics. Ortiz played seven years of pro basketball in Greece, so it was perhaps especially fitting that his last international game was played in Athens versus so many of his former league-mates.

"More than anything, I want to thank Greece and all the Greeks for organizing these Games. I feel especially proud to have had the opportunity to end my career here," said Ortiz, who played with Aris Salonica and PAOK Salonica. "I feel especially proud of my team for what we have accomplished."

So, even though for Puerto Rico the tournament may not have ended the way it began -- with a victory -- the island still has reasons to celebrate. The upset victory over the United States, which ended up with the bronze medal, will go down in history. In the coming years, no one will remember Puerto Rico's sixth-place Olympic finish. What they will remember is this: Carlos Arroyo holding out his jersey and the words Puerto Rico for the NBC cameras as his team handed Allen Iverson and company a 92-73 defeat.

Ortiz's retirement means the end of an era in Puerto Rican basketball. While his vertical leap may have diminished over the past four years, the veteran center's leadership was key. But Athens was the official passing of the baton from Ortiz to point guard Carlos Arroyo.

"It's something that happened naturally," said ESPN basketball analyst Carlos Morales, who was Puerto Rico's coach from 1993 through 1999. "The team still has the greatest respect for Piculin, but they have to look to the player who is leading them. Piculin accepted this new role with grace, even during the games in which he didn't even start."

Rolando Hourruitiner and Eddie Casiano also declared that Athens would be the end of their international careers. It's a fitting finish for Casiano, who turned heads as an 18-year-old at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when he dared to post up against Magic Johnson.

Hourruitiner (27) and Casiano (32) are technically too young to retire. However, over the next several months, Puerto Rico's basketball program will undergo some kind of leadership overhaul. The team's composition for the 2006 Worlds hinges on whether or not the coaching staff, including head coach Julio Toro and assistant coach Flor Melendez, stays or goes.

Melendez has to feel a certain satisfaction upon watching Argentina win Olympic basketball gold. The veteran coach spent years working in Argentina developing that country's junior program and many of his young stars played on this team in Athens.

The composition of Puerto Rico's 2006 team will be largely determined by its coaches. Should Toro and Melendez stay, expect to see the same core team for the next few years. No matter who ends up with the coaching job, all eyes will be on the island's Under-21 team, which qualified last month for the U-21 Worlds next year in Argentina. Peter John Ramos is that team's big man, but there's plenty of talent to pick from, including Jose Juan Barea and Ivan Lopez.

Diaz's fifth place taekwondo finish is Puerto Rico's best in Athens

The basketball team's sixth place was surpassed only by Dorado native Ineabelle Diaz, who ended up fifth in Olympic taekwondo on the final day of competition. In fact, Puerto Rico carded one other fifth place in Athens -- that of wrestler Mabel Fonseca. Fonseca, however, tested positive at the Games for the anabolic steroid stanozolol and her finish will not count.

According to Dr. Enrique Amy, president of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee's Doping Control Commission, the jury is still out on an appeal.

"We have to wait until the results of the second sample are in and then we have to hold a hearing. If we feel she has a chance at an appeal, we will do so," Amy said.

The director of the island's sports medicine federation didn't think Fonseca's appeal would amount to much.

"This is a synthetic substance the body does not produce," said Amy.

Amy publicly stated prior to the Olympics that she was having trouble losing weight to make the 55 kilo requirement. Amy said the steroid, in addition to helping athletes increase muscle mass and gain strength, is sometimes used to cut fat.

Diaz, meanwhile, said she does not yet plan to retire, but admitted she was disappointed after losing in the quarterfinal to eventual gold medallist Wei Luo.

After Diaz, Puerto Rico's other leading finishers were Tornado sailors Enrique Figueroa and Jorge Hernandez, who had a respectable seventh place showing and gymnast Luis Felipe "Tingui" Vargas, who was 15th in the all-around and the top Latin American finisher.

Coliseum opens its doors

Gov. Sila Calderon officially cut the ribbon on the new Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum last weekend. It was strictly a sneak preview, but guests were allowed to tour the place in small, supervised groups and even the ice was down with a couple of figure skaters on it so the media could marvel and just how magnificent the 18,000-seat arena is.

While salsa fans will be the first to spill soda and beer in the stands this weekend for the inaugural event with Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, sports fans will get their shot on Sept. 11 when Miguel Cotto fights for his first title versus Brazil's Kelson Pinto. Cotto (20-0-0, 16 KO) is vying for the vacant WBO super lightweight crown, and is coming off a tough decision over South African Lovemore N'Dou in May in Las Vegas. Pinto's record (20-0-0, 18 KO) is more or less the same as Cotto's, but Emanuel Augustus and Arturo Reyes are the biggest names the Brazilian has defeated. However, Pinto twice beat Cotto back when the two were both still amateur fighters.

Daniel Santos (28-2-1, 20 KO) and Mexican Antonio Margarito (30-3-0, 21 KO) also headline the bout.

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

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

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