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July 29, 2005
It took 46 long years, but the Arecibo Capitanes franchise finally won a second Superior Basketball League title. Led by shooting guard Larry Ayuso, a member of Puerto Rico's Olympic team, the Capitanes swept the Bayamon Vaqueros in four games, and in the process, became the first small-market basketball team to win the title since 1997.
Ayuso scored 40 points in the crowning Game 4 victory, an 88-84 win over the Vaqueros in the Vaqueros' home court. It was a crowning moment for Ayuso, the young man Diane Taylor, of New Mexico, rescued from a troubled future in the South Bronx nearly 10 years ago and pushed through USC into pro basketball.
It had to be a frustrating moment for Bayamon franchise holder Francisco "Pancho" Padilla, who had sold the Capitanes two seasons earlier to buy into the big-market Vaqueros franchise. By contrast, Arecibo's rookie owners Regino Babilonia and former boxing promoter Yamil Chade were sitting pretty. They had reached deep into their pockets to steal coach Carlos Mario Rivera from Ponce (Rivera took the Leones to the SBL title in 2002), and the move paid off.
Rivera put a championship caliber squad together for the city that had not won an SBL title since 1959 and had only been to the finals once since then, finishing runners-up in 1992. The eccentric coach pirated Ayuso from San German, collected former University of Massachussetts standout point guard Edgar Padilla from Santurce and brought with him forward Keenan Jourdon from Ponce to assemble the 2005 edition of the Capitanes.
Rivera already knew Arecibo was close. The core of this team made it to the semifinals in 2002 and took a 3-0 lead over Bayamon before the Vaqueros battled back from the brink of elimination to win it in seven games. That same year, Rivera's Leones defeated Bayamon for the title.
"The letter A is at the top of the alphabet," were the words Rivera repeated, mantra-style, to anyone who would listen during the final series. "A for Arecibo comes before B for Bayamon, C for Cangrejeros and P for Ponce."
And so it came to pass. On their way to the final, the Capitanes eliminated Santurce in a six-game semifinal. It was turnabout for Padilla, who had been dropped by the Cangrejeros following the 2004 season for lackluster numbers.
Arecibo's victory marked the first year since 1997 that a team other than Santurce or Ponce won the SBL title. While the Capitanes were strictly small-market, the Vaqueros had won 13 SBL titles in their franchise history, the most recent coming back-to-back in 1995 and 1996.
"When I signed I had a gut feeling I could be celebrating a title as I am now," said Keenan Jourdon. "Just glancing at the mix of veteran players acquired like myself, Mario Butler and Edgar Padilla -- all of whom had won SBL titles before -- to a mix of hungry young guns like [Larry] Ayuso and 'Buster' Figueroa and there was a good nucleus for a championship. We worked very hard for this and we played the right way. We deserve this."
Capitanes shooting guard Larry Ayuso proved his worth as the leagues highest-paid player, scoring 40 points and hitting 7-for-9 (78 percent) from three-point range in the Game 4 victory.
"Ayuso proved he is a true star and can carry this team on his back," said Rivera. "However, I must also praise my quality supporting cast of Keenan Jourdon, Edgar Padilla, Josue Nieves, Mario Butler, Angel 'Buster" Figueroa, Osiris Ricardo, David Cortes, Dickey Simpkins and Richard Lugo. They all worked hard to accomplish this feat and win the title."
While Ayuso was clearly the teams go-to guy, the win was nothing less than a team effort. Padilla, Nieves, Cortes and Lugo (who scored 11 points Tuesday night) all showed their ability in the clutch during both the semifinals and finals.
"We knew that if we came out to play unselfishly, doing the dirty work required and playing strong defense every night this would be our compensation," said guard Edgar Padilla. "All of our hard work during the off season and the regular season paid off.
"Bayamon came out with great desire but when it was all said and done we were the better team," said Padilla. "This Vaqueros squad is very young and doesn't have the experienced players we have in Arecibo. They're good right now but will need to mature a bit more together to make a strong run at the title."
Arecibo recovered from a fourth-quarter Bayamon surge that drew the Vaqueros to within three points with 1:13 remaining. It was a tense moment that left Captains fans with deja vu all over again as they recalled the 2002 semifinals when Bayamon battled back from 0-3 to beat Arecibo in seven games and deprive the Capitanes of a finals berth.
"This championship is the culmination of our sacrifice, our total dedication and our excellence in execution," said Rivera. "I expect to be in Arecibo for many, many years and bring them as many championships and glorious celebrations as I can. I was born in Ponce but now I'm an adopted son of Arecibo."
Ayuso will now join the Puerto Rico team enroute to the World Championships Zone Qualifier in Santo Domingo Aug. 24-Sept. 4.
"We came to Bayamon focused on completing the sweep of the finals in four games. We didn't want to give life to a moribund team," said Ayuso. "The key to our success has been our constant effort on defense. Nobody played better defense than we did. We always came out to play with lots of intensity.
"This is very satisfying, particularly considering what I went through this past season," said Ayuso. "I had to cancel my participation in Europe [Russia] or attend NBA camps in order to have surgery on my finger. But it seemeds to be a blessing in disguise because it gave me the chance for the first time in a long time to start training with my SBL team from the very first day."
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 email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.