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2004’s Greatest Sports Moment: Puerto Rico’s Defeat Of U.S. In Olympic Basketball

By Gabrielle Paese

December 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The biggest thing to happen to Puerto Rican sports in 2004 wasn’t an athlete, a team or a championship – it was a mere moment. It was 40 minutes of regulation play in a preliminary qualifier that meant almost nothing for the outcome of the tournament in question, yet at the same time, summed up island sports and even took a jab at Puerto Rican political status in a final score, Puerto Rico 92, United States 73.

Puerto Rico’s first-round victory over the United States "Dream Team" at the Athens Olympics this past August was, without a doubt, the island’s biggest sports happening in 2004. Carlos Beltran’s spectacular post-season with the Houston Astros, Tito Trinidad’s triumphant comeback to boxing, Miguel Cotto’s WBO super welterweight title and John Velazquez’s advances in horse racing were all proud accomplishments, but nothing crossed over from the sports world into everyday Puerto Rican life like that basketball game.

It will be impossible to forget the look on Utah Jazz point guard Carlos Arroyo’s face as he ran up the court with 1:13 remaining and held out his jersey so fans could better read the words "Puerto Rico" emblazoned on it. The defeat was the first for USA Basketball at an Olympics since NBA players joined the mix in 1992. Puerto Rico gave Allen Iverson and company a "salsa," as they say in Spanish, going up 22 at the half, 49-27. Even when the United States closed the gap to eight points, 69-61, with 6:11 still remaining, Arroyo remained calm, draining a three-pointer that was part of his 24-point performance for the night, and erasing any doubts as to which team was in control. Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro confused the United States with a 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 is now in his fourth NBA season with the Jazz.


The win, on a certain sports level, was a feeling of vindication for an island team that has only beaten the U.S. seven times in international tournaments since 1989, but had never previously beaten an NBA star-studded squad. On a much larger scale, it was a triumph for the underdog, with tiny Puerto Rico, a mere territory of its great neighbor to the north, beating the hulking and talented sports Goliath. The win made even Puerto Rico’s eventual sixth-place finish palatable.

That sixth place, coupled with a fifth-place showing from taekwondo athlete and Dorado native Ineabelle Diaz, ended up being Puerto Rico’s best Olympic finishes in 2004 as the island came home from its second straight Games without a medal.

While amateur boxing was the great disappointment for Puerto Rico in Athens, the sport provided plenty of excitement in the pro ranks in 2004. Most of the hullabaloo was due to Felix "Tito" Trinidad’s return to the squared circle. The former three-time world champion made easy work of Nicaraguan Ricardo Mayorga on Oct. 2 at New York’s Madison Square Garden with a TKO in the eighth round. Trinidad (42-1, 35 KO) waited patiently through Mayorga’s early round taunts, until finally burying Mayorga in an avalanche of punches in the eighth round, which saw Mayorga fall three times before the fight was stopped.

"I was strong in the ring, and I felt very comfortable, I expected a tough fight and Mayorga did not prove me wrong. He has an incredible chin and great power," the former three-time world champion said after the fight. "The moment I started working the body I knew I was going to take off and dominate the fight. Mayorga is a hard fighter and he takes a good punch. This fight, he took a lot of them."

Trinidad, on the other hand, demonstrated that his reflexes improved after a near two-year layoff, and his fans welcomed him back to the sport as thousands lined the highways of San Juan to salute his caravan upon its return home.

While Cotto basked in the glory of a comeback, Miguel Cotto (22-0, 18 KO) served up notice that he is the future of the junior welterweight division (140 pounds) in 2004. Cotto made the most of his first title opportunity, winning the WBO belt on Sept. 11 with a convincing sixth-round TKO over Brazil’s Kelson Pinto. Cotto fought four times in 2004, the final bout coming Dec. 11 in Las Vegas, when he successfully defended his title for the first time versus Randall Bailey.

Perhaps less dramatic, but just as hard-working, were the island’s lightest weight fighters in 2004. Calderon (21-0, 4 KO), the WBO minimum weight champ, made two successful title defenses in 2004, the last one coming in late November with a 12-round decision over Carlos Fajardo. Calderon also decisioned Roberto Leyva on July 31. On March 20, he beat Edgar Cardenas in Guaynabo in a fight that was not for Calderon’s title after Cardenas failed to make weight.

Also doing his job in 2004 was WBO 108-pound champ Nelson Dieppa, who knocked out Kermin Guardia in the first round of their March fight and defended his belt once more before the year was up in July when he scored a 12-round decision over Ulises Solis.

John Ruiz (41-5-1, 28 KO) continued to win ugly in 2004, holding on to his WBA heavyweight belt with two victories, the first a TKO in the 11th round back on April 17 over countrymate Fres Oquendo and the second this past Nov. 11 with a unanimous decision over Andrew Golota on Don King’s night of the heavyweights card.

Daniel Santos (29-2-1, 20 KO) twice defended his WBO light middleweight title this year. On April 17 he won an unanimous decision over Michael Lerma while on Sept. 11 he held on to his title via technical decision versus Antonio Margarito after the judges stopped the fight in the ninth after a headbutt opened a cut over Margarito’s eye.

Finally, Manny Siaca (18-5, 16 KO) gave Puerto Rico its sixth world title in 2004, albeit a short-lived celebration. Siaca defeated Australia’s Anthony Mundine for the WBA super middleweight belt on May 5 in Australia, only to lose it in his first defense to Mikkel Kessler on Nov. 12 via TKO in the eighth round.

While basketball and boxing captured most of the Puerto Rican sports fans’ attention in 2004, Houston Astros centerfielder Carlos Beltran and jockey John Velazquez also turned in spectacular individual performances.

Beltran, who is currently negotiating his 2005 major league contract with his agent, Scott Boras, was a huge contributor to Houston’s postseason series. After being traded from Kansas City midseason, Beltran lit a fire under his new team. The Manati native hit .435 in the playoffs with a record-tying eight playoff home runs, 14 RBI and 21 runs scored in 12 games.

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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