5. Basketball Warriors
ALANA: In the summer of 1979, journalist Julio Ricardo Varela was 10 years old and he was spending the summer with his dad in Rio Piedras in San Juan.
JULIO: And it was the same year that the 1979 Pan-American games were happening and were being hosted in Puerto Rico.
It felt like it was our little mini Olympics.
MUSIC : Cancion Oficial de los Juegos Panamericanos San Juan 1979
ALANA: For the opening ceremony, they commissioned this big Hollywood-style musical number
JULIO: And it was so exciting. Because here they were, here were all these athletes. And when you are 10 and you are a sports freak like I am, that’s all you were thinking about. I mean I was obsessed with it. I loved it.
ALANA: Especially - he loved the Puerto Rican national basketball team. La selección nacional.
JULIO: It was just like watching your heroes, and here were your heroes ready to represent your homeland in basketball.
Julio was born in Puerto Rico and grew up there, but when he was in first grade he moved with his mom to the Bronx, and would go back and forth to the island over the years. But he never had any doubt as to who his team was. [It was always Puerto Rico.]
And in 1979, at the Panamerican games, it was easy to root for Puerto Rico...
PAN-AM GAMES TV BROADCAST- “Y tira...falla. Falta uno. ¡Se acabó! ¡Gana Puerto Rico, 103 a.. (fades out and overlaps) Puuuuertooooo Riiiiiicooooo….¡empató!”
ALANA: Because they were kicking butt.
The other top team was the United States. But mid-way into the tournament, the US squad got into a scandal.
The scandal surrounded their coach —the infamously hot-tempered Bobby Knight, known for his outrageous outbursts and angry locker-room speeches, like this one.
BOBBY KNIGHT (leaked tape): Now I’m gonna fucking guarantee you, that if we don’t play up there Monday night you’re [??] the next motherfucking day.
ALANA: One day, during the Pan-Am games, Bobby Knight got into a scuffle with a Puerto Rican policeman… during which he allegedly hit the officer. According to the officer, Knight also called him the n-word. He was arrested and charges were pressed. It was all over the news.
And it just so happens that Puerto Rico and the United States were set to face off in the final.
PAN-AM GAMES TV BROADCAST- “Todo preparado la escena puesta señoras y señores...(fades under)”
It was a hard-fought, close game, but the US side, led by a young Isiah Thomas, ultimately won... and took home the gold.
PAN-AM GAMES TV BROADCAST- (slightly under) “...gana Estados Unidos...”
After the game, Bobby Knight told the press that the only thing Puerto Ricans were good at was “growing bananas.”
And there was something else.
JULIO: As they were leaving Puerto Rico… this is, you know, this is what is reported…
ALANA: I feel like you’re going to tell me he spat in some mofongo or something.
JULIO: No (laughs). He dropped his pants and he mooned Puerto Rico - he put his ass against the window, and he mooned Puerto Rico as they flew off.
JULIO: Like the ugly American, here you are again… thinking you’re better than us.
Julio remembers the incident was the only thing the grown-ups around him could talk about for weeks.
JULIO: It was like. “Ese Bobby Knight ....¡Que pendejo cabrón, aaa, egoísta americano! Maltratando a nosotros.
“That freaking a-hole… the way he mistreated us..”
JULIO: So throughout this history, right, to me--- it’s always about beating the Americans.
And luckily for Puerto Rico-- there have been a-- there have been chances to take revenge.
THEME MUSIC by IFÉ
ALANA: From WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios, I’m Alana Casanova Burgess, and this is La Brega.
In this episode: David and Goliath, play basketball in Athens.
THEME MUSIC by IFÉ ENDS
ALANA: Without a doubt — there is a deep connection between being Puerto Rican -- and rooting for our sports teams.
And yes, people all over the world love sports and are proud of their athletes. But in Puerto Rico the stakes are just… higher. Because Puerto Rico, despite being a US colony, competes in international sporting events like the Olympics on its own, under its own flag — as if we were an independent country.
Journalist Noel Algarin, who has covered sports in Puerto Rico for many years, put it this way:
NOEL: the only place where we can call ourselves sovereign. Is in sports. In sports, we get this opportunity to be Puerto Rico, the country from the Caribbean. We get to be someone.
And then we get chances. In a more symbolic way. To face the country. that owns you in some way,
ALANA: Today we’re going to tell a story about one of those chances. You could say a chance for revenge against Bobby Knight.
A time when Puerto Rico faced off against the United States in basketball, on the sporting world’s largest stage.
Julio Ricardo Varela, a journalist with Futuro Media, takes the story from here.
JULIO: So at the time I was watching the 1979 game on TV … This guy was actually watching courtside.
FLOR: Bueno, mi nombre es Flor Meléndez.
Estoy en Bayamón, en mi casa, en el pueblo de Bayamón, en Puerto Rico
JULIO: Flor Melendez was the coach of the team that year. And he was a legend in Puerto Rico.
ARCHIVAL TAPE FROM “A STEP AWAY”- “No podemos ir a jugar la bola a lo loco, piensen en lo que tenemos que hacer..”
JULIO: In a documentary about the 1979 Games you can see him screaming at players and gesturing wildly. He’s looking really sharp with a thick black mustache and ‘fro.
JULIO: Flor went one to become one of the national team’s all-time most decorated coaches — and his story kind of runs parallel to the story of Puerto Rican basketball..
So, Flor grew up in a big family.
FLOR: 11 hermanos
JULIO: The oldest of 11 siblings. They lived in public housing.
FLOR: Caserio publicó
JULIO: We’re talking 1960s.
JULIO: Flor started playing basketball at his local YMCA. Then, as a teenager he played in the Puerto Rican league.
And pretty early on, Flor figured out he had a talent for coaching. He describes his coaching style as….
FLOR: Yo soy una persona que me gusta la disciplina.
And Flor got into coaching right around this kind of magic moment for Puerto Rican basketball. Coaches like Flor and league officials had started visiting New York, and scouting the courts where Nuyoricans were playing street ball — and they started convincing these players to leave their lives behind to come play professionally in Puerto Rico.
Here were these amazing Afro- Puerto Ricans who learned the craft in the mecca of the sport, and brought it back.
BSN TV BROADCAST- “...favorece a Raymond Dalmau, que lo empató, la jugada última al lograr canasto y elevar el marcador a 46...”
FLOR: Los jugadores tenían otro ritmo de juego, más rápido, uno a uno, saltarines extraordinarios,
JULIO: It was a different kind of basketball than people were used to in Puerto Rico. It was a faster rhythm of play…with big dunks.
And it was fun… that type of basketball is fun.
FLOR: Ya allí fue un… un boom.
JULIO: These were boom years for Puerto Rican basketball.
LA GUIRITA BORICUA RAP SONG
VARIOUS TV BROADCAST- “...con el pase para Jimmy Thordsen adelantado para Willie Quiñones...”-- “....se acabó Puerto Rico a derrotado a Cuba...” --- “3, 2, 1, ganó Puerto Rico, ¡GANÓ PUERTO RRIIICOO!”
JULIO: And as the team kept winning and becoming better, basketball in Puerto Rico became THE sport. Fans filled the stadiums.
FLOR: de jugar todos los días a cancha llena y convertirse en el primer deporte del país,
LA GUIRITA BORICUA RAP SONG- “...Escuchame amigo te lo vas a gufear, esto que vamos a rapear...”
JULIO: (This, by the way, is a promotional rap song recorded by the team in 1986)
LA GUIRITA BORICUA RAP SONG- “..tenemos un equipo nacional, que entre los mejores se puede contar...”
JULIO: By the 90s, many from that generation of great Newyorican players had retired, but they had inspired a new wave of Puerto Rican-born players… and THOSE players… took the team to even greater heights…
TV BROADCAST- 1988 PR vs. Yugoslavia- “¡Está ganando Puerto Rico!”
TV BROADCAST- 1993 PR vs Cuba- “Cargando con la victoria final 87 por 77”
TV BROADCAST- 1991 PR vs Mexico- “..Puerto Rico campeón Panamericano, medalla de oro en estos undecimos juegos Panamericanos...”
LA GUIRITA BORICUA RAP SONG INSTRUMENTAL SECTION-
JULIO: Gold in the 1991 PanAmerican games… Gold in the 1993 Central American Games…. And maybe the biggest accomplishment of all: fourth place in the 1990 World Championships. Puerto Rico: the fourth best team in the world...that’s pretty good!
LA GUIRITA BORICUA RAP SONG (ENDS)
JULIO: With Puerto Rico having made a name for itself on the international stage — Flor Melendez got opportunities to coach in Argentina and Panama. But it was always clear to him that coaching the Puerto Rico national team…. That was a different kind of responsibility.
FLOR: Yo tengo un dicho que...
JULIO: He has this saying….
FLOR: La bola de baloncesto es el arma...nosotros no tenemos ejército, Puerto Rico no tenemos ejército, pero pa’ nosotros ese era el arma que nos daban para representar a nuestro país, que la camiseta era un uniforme de guerra de nosotros. y lo tomé así
JULIO: He thinks about it like this: Puerto Rico doesn't have an army, so “we, the national basketball team-- WE are the ones that have to represent the country.”
He says that the basketball is a weapon. And the basketball jersey is actually a soldier’s uniform.
And it’s this reverence - right? It's like you respect it like you respect a flag.
He told me he had this ritual he would do with the team — that at the season’s first practice, where they would put on their national team jerseys for the first time//
FLOR: pues yo-- yo le entregaba a ellos un pin de Puerto Rico, de la bandera de Puerto Rico.
JULIO: He’d go down the line and hand out little Puerto Rican flag pins to all the players.
FLOR: ...eso a los muchachos los emocionaba mucho, vité.
JULIO: He says the players would get really emotional about it.
And whenever they’d face the United States in international play, those games had a special kind of weight. It was the chance for his soldiers to go to war.
FLOR: Es la guerra, es una guerra, es la guerra, es la guerra,--es la guerra que no hemos podido ganar pa’ independizarnos.
JULIO: “The war we haven’t been able to have to win our independence” He says
JULIO: Puerto Rico was generally pretty outgunned in this war — the US, after all, was and is the global superpower of basketball.
Especially after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
What happened was, a few years before, the International Basketball Federation made a change to their rules to allow NBA players in international competitions.
And that change was HUGE.
ARCHIVAL:” This summer, the US olympic basketball team will make history, the Dream Team of Jordan, Bird, Ewing, Robinson, PIppen, Drexler,Mullin, Barkley and Magic..”
JULIO: That first dream team that went to Barcelona in 92... was legendary.
ARCHIVAL: This collection of superstars has been unselfishly magnificent.
JULIO: It wasn’t just a sports team… it was was a cultural phenomenon.
MC DONALDS COMMERCIAL: You've got yourself the gold medal meal. At McDonald’s Today! Gold medal it’s in the bag.
JULIO: And they kicked everyone's ass. It wasn’t even close. It wasn't even fun to watch. They were that good.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: And there it is, the Dream Team win gold!
JULIO: And from then on, the players changed, but the Dream Team was here to stay.
The US won gold again at the Atlanta Olympics in 96…
ACTY: (Archival) The United States has won the gold!
JULIO: ... the Sydney Olympics in ‘00, same story.
ACTY: (archival) It's all smiles now from Dream Team Four
JULIO: And then you get to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and the US team was an institution at that point. And the first game they were going to play that Olympics was with Puerto Rico.
The 2004 team was stacked — Alan Iverson - AI. Dwyane Wade. Tim Duncan, one of my favorite players all time. I mean - the team even had Lebron James in his early days. Lebron James!
The US had the best basketball teams in the world when they were using amateur players… but when the NBA guys showed up, these guys were invincible in the Olympics.
I mean that literally — since NBA players were allowed to play, they never had lost an Olympic game. They were the Death Star.
And If the US team was the Death Star, the Puerto Rico team was definitely the rag-tag rebel alliance.
JULIO: The players were mostly local stars from the Baloncesto Superior Nacional, the league in PR.
You had Jose Ortiz - also knowns as Piculín
ARCHIVAL: ¡Alli esta apuntalo para Piculín!
Julio: Oh, that's their leader. The rock, the legend.
JULIO: That’s Julio Cesar Torres — he’s the filmmaker behind a great PR basketball doc called Nuyorican basket.
You had Eddie Cassiano…
JULIO CESAR: Eddie man, Eddie was the firecracker. He’ll go toe to toe with you, and if he had to fight he would fight.
ARCHIVAL: McGrady and Cassino going nose to nose
JULIO: Rolando Hourruitíner
JULIO CESAR: He was all about the craft, very disciplined and a great defender.
JULIO: And a lot of other really talented guys… Larry Ayuso, Bobby Joe Hatton...
And then - there was Carlos Arroyo.
JULIO CESAR: Carlos Arroyo was the young gun
ACHIVAL: Arroyo por el cristal… con el primer canasto de la noche.
. JULIO CESAR: Anxious to prove himself. With a lot of talent.
ARCHIVAL: Arroyo! Knocks down that jumper
JULIO: Carlos was in the NBA - he was a starting point guard with the Utah Jazz that season… and was on a path to becoming a legend..
ARCHIVAL: Arroyo… to the angle right , gets behind....shakin and bakin!
JULIO: At 6’ 2’’ he was a lot shorter than most other NBA guys, but Carlos was fast...and he played with energy, and he played with heart, and we all loved him.
JULIO: So - a few weeks before the Olympics, the Puerto Rican team goes to Florida for a week of practice and a series of warm-up games against the US team.
This is, strangely, standard practice leading up to these big international competitions. And - it was an opportunity to get to know the enemy.
At these games, they're playing man-to-man defense… which is what it sounds like, each player follows a player on the other team and sticks to them.
And Puerto Rico, because of their size, or lack of it — you know the Americans were bigger, they were faster— they wanted to play zone defense... where you literally stay in a “zone”, and you defend a set area of the court.
During one of these games — the American coach went up to the Puerto Rican coaches and asked for a favor…
FLOR: “Que por favor, que no le jugáramos zona durante el juego, que jugáramos hombre a hombre, que era donde ellos nos dominaban a nosotros siempre..”
JULIO: He said, “Can you please not play zone during this game.” And it was one of those, like, Flor Melendez moments to be like, hmmm… (insert mysterious discovery music).
JULIO: Hmmm, Interesting! They don’t want to play against a zone…
FLOR: y después nosotros pues nos quedamos callados.
JULIO: He says they kept quiet, and pulled a classic jibaro move —
FLOR: Del jíbaro puertorriqueño, el hombre del campo que siempre tiene algo, cuando uno sube pa’ allá y creen que uno no sabe nada...
JULIO ...He says whenever city people visit the mountains… they think the jibaros, the country people, are simpletons…
FLOR: ...pues, siempre el jibaro tiene algo guardado.
JULIO: but secretly they always have something up their sleeve.
ALANA: We’ll be right back. This is La Brega.
Alana: We’re back. This is La Brega.
It’s the summer of 2004, and the Puerto Rican national basketball team arrives in Athens to compete in the Olympics.
Their first rival is the United States Dream Team — who, by the way, aren’t staying at the Olympic Village with the rest of the delegations, but in a luxury cruise ship in Athens Harbor.
Julio Ricardo Varela picks the story back up.
JULIO: On the morning of the game in Athens, the Puerto Rican team is expecting the worst. Rolando Houritiner was in his dorm room in the Olympic village when one of the coaches on the staff, Julio Toro barged in the room.
ROLANDO: Early in the morning… Julio comes in… He's on his, you know, jockey underwear. Or whatever it was. No shirt, no nothing. Just barefoot. He is like: “Hey, hey you guys” “What’s going on Julio?, it’s too early man.”
“So I want you guys to know that we're going to do something different today.” “So what are you talking about?” He is like “Well, you have to wait and see.”
JULIO: A few hours later, the players are gathered in the locker room. And the coaches bust out their plan — they thought maybe they had found the weakness in the Death Star. They’re going to do a variation on the zone defense that the Americans didn’t want to play-against back in Florida. (For all you basketball nerds out there: a variation known as a “Triangle and two” defense…) with the goal of forcing the US team to take outside shots.
ROLANDO: So, we looked at each other like, “Hey, you know! We never done it. We lose by 30 every time. So. Might as well try it.”
JULIO: The game was set to start at 8pm, Athens time. 1pm in Puerto Rico.
I remember I was at my home in the Boston area that day, watching the game in my bedroom, all by myself. All alone. I had a Puerto Rico shirt, I do remember that, my old Puerto Rico t-shirt. And I had really low expectations, to be honest.
To jog my memory for this story - I recently re-watched the game.
FILTERED JULIO: I’m excited, this is the first time I’ve put this on since 2004!
JULIO: You can see in the broadcast that the arena in Athens was pretty full — everybody wanted to see the debut of the US team.
Before they started playing, both teams lined up for a group picture.. Every single photographer turned to photograph the US team… and the Puerto Rican team just stood there.
The whistle blows — the start of the game, it was pretty tight back and forth.
USA BROADCAST: “The United States leading early by two”
JULIO: Puerto Rico didn't really start off strong. They just played good enough to keep it close.
USA BROADCAST: “An impressive start for Puerto Rico..”
JULIO: I was like Ok — Ok. Alright. How long is this going to last? This will be entertaining until the U.S. scores like 80 points in a row and then we're down by 60
USA BROADCAST: And there’s the buzzer ending the first quarter.
JULIO: But for me, things really kicked off in the second quarter... when Carlos Arroyo found Piculín with a super cool pass.
FILTERED JULIO: And then… here it comes... look at this pass. Hello. Hello!
ANNOUNCER: Carlos Arroyo… oh what a ball fake!
JULIO: And then it begins.
Something just clicks — and Puerto Rico has this sequence of amazing plays.
ARCHIVAL and MUSIC of scoring points
JULIO: Little by little, in the broadcast, you start to notice that most of the people in the arena were rooting for Puerto Rico — and how could you not root for Carlos Arroyo that day? He had these super flashy passes… he was making incredible shots, just dominating the court.
USA BROADCAST :Excellent ball handling from Carlos Arroyo
USA BROADCAST: Bodies flying all over the place, Arroyo with the steal!
FLOR: se nos daban las cosas, las cosas se nos daban. O sea, ellos decían pero “¿qué, qué pasa aquí, que estos tipos no fallan”?
JULIO: Flor watched Puerto Rico nail shot after shot…
FLOR: Lo que notamos en ellos era el mal humor, los jugadores como frustrados.
JULIO: He says he noticed the US players in a bad mood. Frustrated. And it was probably because the Puerto Rican strategy… seemed to be working.
Here’s Rolando Houritiner.
ROLANDO: You know, we were pretty physical and we were really giving it to them, you know, and it's something that they were not used to it. And it was our time, our turn to talk trash.
“Go ahead and shoot it.. You don’t want to shoot it… go ahead… let me see your shot.” Right?
JULIO: As the 2nd quarter ticked down — Puerto Rico’s lead just kept growing
USA BROADCAST- “ It’s hard to believe I’m saying this, but the United States trails by 20...”
“And there’s the buzzer ending the first half, a disastrous first half for the United States.”
JULIO: At half-time, the score was 49 to 27. 22 point lead for Puerto Rico
And you could see it on the faces of the American coaches — they looked so dejected.
Meanwhile, at 1pm in Puerto Rico— Hiram Martinez — then a sports editor at El Nuevo Dia — was getting ready to turn on the game… when his wife asked him to go to the mall with her to pick something up.
HIRAM: Mi esposa quería que fuéramos a comprar algo a Plaza Las Américas y yo, pero ‘perate (laughs),
JULIO: Reluctantly, Hiram goes to the mall… and finds a store window with the televisions turned to the game…
HIRAM: Como habían 100 personas haciendo lo mismo.
JULIO:...about 100 people were crowded around doing the same thing.
And to Hiram’s surprise… Puerto Rico is doing pretty well in the first minutes. But he thinks, who cares…
HIRAM: Yo dije bueno, total---- nos van a dar una pela.
JULIO: they’re going to come back and slam us. So he heads back home in the car, when he gets a call from his daughter.
HIRAM: Y me dice ¿estás viendo el juego?
JULIO: Are you watching the game,” she asks.
HIRAM: Y yo “Nooo. ¡Si qué diablos! Ni lo estoy oyendo por radio”. Y me dice: “¡Estamos ganando!”
JULIO: Hiram’s like “noo, why bother,…” and she says “we’re winning!”
Soon Hiram is getting frantic calls from the newspaper
HIRAM: Y me dicen “¿donde tu estas? Porque están ganando. Puerto Rico, le está ganando a Estados Unidos-- y ganándole bien.
JULIO: “Where are you? Get over here… we’re beating the US... and we are beating them good….”
HIRAM: Y yo. No. ¡No puede ser!”…. [46.7s]
JULIO: Even the Puerto Rican players in the locker room at half-time were surprised at the score. Here’s Rolando.
Rolando: First of all my first thought was, are we really beating this team by 19? That was my first thought. Right. Go walk into the locker room. And second was like, “Wow, I have more pressure now than I did at the beginning of the game.” Because it’s a brand new game. Twenty brand new minutes. And, you know, they're going to come back stronger.
JULIO: You thought — The Americans were going to make a run eventually and come back and beat us.
They had to.
The third quarter is also really back and forth… the US makes points,
USA BROADCAST- ARCHIVAL: Good drive to the basket, pretty move from Allen Iverson.
JULIO: But Puerto Rico maintains its lead.
USA BROADCAST- ARCHIVAL: Arroyo inside! And the lead back to 21.
JULIO: The quarter closes 65-48, Puerto Rico still leading by 17 points
And then the 4th quarter stars….
And that’s when things get… scary.
JULIO: It starts with about 9 minutes left on the clock…. Puerto Rico is up by 15. And LeBron James….
USA BROADCAST- ARCHIVAL: James wide open… and hits the 3, Lebron James from downtown and it's a 12 point game
JULIO: It was the first three for the US in a long time. And then they just... keep making baskets.
ARCHIVAL: Lamar Odom cuts the lead to 12!
Iverson for 3 boy that’s a huge bucket as we go to the 5 minute mark.
JULIO: On the court, Rolando watched as Puerto Rico’s hard-fought lead disappeared — from 22 at half time… to just 8 points.
ROLANDO: I will look up at the clock. Am like, to me it’s like, hurry up and , you know, finish. Right? I just want to end this game!
JULIO: Suddenly it looked like the US could turn the tide in the final minutes... but then...
FILTERED JULIO: Right here, baby. Right here. Carlos. Carlitos. Oh.
BROADCAST- Right with the rebound here comes Arroyo!
FILTERED JULIO: Carliitoossss
Broadcast- Arroyo draws the foul and 1!
FILTERED JULIO:: That was awesome. Up by 11.
JULIO: Puerto Rico answers the charge….Suddenly, only 1 minute remains, Puerto Rico is back to leading by 20 and it’s clear: The US has run out of time to catch up.
HIRAM: Ahí yo dije Ah, ya, aquí, ya, aquí ganamos, no podemos perder.
JULIO: Back in San Juan at the offices of El Nuevo Dia, at that very moment... Hiram finally exhaled.
With victory near, the coach takes Carlos Arroyo out of the game…
ARCHIVAL: Carlos Arroyo, playing the game of his life...24 points, as he comes out.
JULIO: As he walks off the court, cocky as all hell, he looks at the stands — and grabs his jersey and pulls forward the part where it says “Puerto Rico,” as if to show everybody watching the name of the place he’s from.
FILTERED JULIO: Oh that was awesome, when he did that.
JULIO: In part, it was a gesture of defiance to a US player who had fouled him a few moments ago. But to many in the audience watching, the message was way bigger than that.
FLOR: Fue como decirle a los tipos
JULIO: Flor says that it was like Carlos was telling the Americans...
FLOR: nosotros somos los poderosos, vité..o sea....
JULIO: “Look. We’re the powerful ones.”
HIRAM: Y ahi empezamos a abrazarnos y empezaron... lágrimas y todo... eso fue como una cosa...
JULIO: In the newsroom in San Juan, People started hugging each other... Tears were falling.
HIRAM: Yo estaba como si fuera un editor novato. “¿Qué hago ahora? ¿Cómo lo hago?”
JULIO: Hiram was so shaken up with joy, that he says he felt like a brand-new journalist, at a loss for how to do his job.
The final score was 92 to 73.
ARCHIVAL It’s finally happened… the United States loses in Olympic play with NBA players… They showed some signs in the 2nd half, but dug themselves too big a hole, and an experienced team led by a brilliant performance from Carlos Arroyo, put the game away.
JULIO: On the court in Athens, Rolando remembers that last moment having this dream like out of body quality.
ROLANDO: You come off the court celebrating, but at the same time you’re not still believing what happened, and then you’re being interviewed in Italian by the Italian Press… it’s a lot of things happening at the same time that you are consumed by all this and don’t even know how to react, you’re kind of numb.
JULIO: Back at the offices of El Nuevo Dia, everyone was buzzing to get the paper ready for the morning. They had already decided on the cover, when Hiram saw a photo come in that instantly caught his eye. It’s of Carlos Arroyo, from that moment he walked off the court, showing off his “Puerto Rico” jersey.
JULIO: It was this quick moment on the court, if you blinked you could have missed it. But here, captured by the camera… There's something special about that image.
And Hiram says…
HIRAM: ¡Esta es la foto!
JULIO: This is the photo.
HIRAM: Entonces voy donde el artista y me dice “Pues sí, ya estamos cerrados con esto”. Y Yo: “No, no, no, no, no, no. Esta es la foto. O sea, esta es la foto de la que vamos a estar hablando en los próximos 50, 100 años”,
JULIO: The layout designer was like, no way, we already have the cover. But Hiram’s like - this is the photo we’re going to be talking about 50, 100 years from now… this needs to be the cover…
HIRAM: Cuando hablemos de ese juego. Esta es la foto que siempre va a tener la gente en la mente.
JULIO: All night long the island celebrates the win.
The next morning, the team wakes up, and heads mostly together to the cafeteria for Breakfast. And as they walk through the Olympic Village…
FLOR: Eran todas las delegaciones.
JULIO: All the delegations of athletes from around the world were there.
FLOR: Y perdona que me emocioné un poco, tu sabes...
JULIO: And as they walked into the cafeteria…
FLOR: Parecía una fiesta de Puerto Rico allí, porque eran los alemanes o los de Irak. Todo, todo, todo lo países parado. Dejaron de almorzar para aplaudir al equipo Puerto Rico.
JULIO: Flor says you’d think it was a Puerto Rican party… everybody, from the Germans to the Iraquis. All of them, stood up, stopped eating. And clapped for Puerto Rico.
FLOR: Imagínate... eso uno no se lo imagina nunca, que eso pueda pasar.
JULIO: He says it’s something one never imagined could happen.
They were getting a standing ovation… from the world.
JULIO: And it's just a fleeting moment. That's the thing that just is so bittersweet about it. It's 24 hours of joy. And then that's it. The team doesn’t perform nearly as well for the rest of the tournament — they were eliminated in the quarter-finals in a game against Italy.
But when Puerto Ricans remember Athens, they don’t remember losing to Italy. They remember beating the United States. Rolando Hourruitiner, says people on the island still come up to him and thank him.
ROLANDO: It was very, very emotional for the island. And up until today, people remember the date… it’s like, you know, like one of those Presidents Day or whatever. Is the day that we beat the USA... is like David beat Goliath.
JULIO: It hasn’t been 50 or 100 years yet… but the image of Carlos Arroyo grabbing the jersey, HAS become an enduring symbol of Puerto Rican power.. and pride. Everybody knows that image. It was even painted as a mural in Viejo San Juan.
JULIO: I think it means more than ever now.
To me, 2004 was before the hard times hit Puerto Rico… the debt, hurricanes, people leaving, political failures.
This creeping feeling of failure, of no hope, because everywhere around you, you know, you’re not winning.
So I think there’s something special about looking back at what happened in Athens, about these sports victories.
They aren’t permanent. But that moment when the game is over and Puerto Rico is on top…. It tells people that yes, you can win.
So that’s why, you gotta hold up that jersey, and show it off a little bit.
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