Nerf Balls and Olympic Dreams


There's not much to do on a rainy, summer afternoon in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

My cousin Omar and I, with a nerf ball and a wire hanger, turn those rainy, summer afternoons into international basketball tournaments.

We use the empty room in our grandmother's house as our basketball court. We bend the wire hanger and lodge it on top of a closed door. After making sure that the hanger is firmly placed, we begin to warm up for the afternoon's tough international schedule.

Omar is always the Puerto Rican national basketball team. I am the rest of the world.

My cousin is nine years old, but looks more like Moses Malone, compared to myself, an eight-year old Mugsy Bogues.

On those rainy afternoons in San Juan, Puerto Rico wins more international championships than any other country in the world. More than the Soviets, more than the Yugoslavians, and yes, more championships than the Americans.

Seoul, September 25, 1988, the Summer Olympics. The Puerto Rican national basketball team stuns Yugoslavia, 74-72. It is probably the greatest victory in the history of Puerto Rican basketball.

The win earns the Puerto Ricans a trip to the quarterfinals against the United States. Despite having a history of playing tough against the Americans, Puerto Rico has yet to defeat the U.S. in international play. Seoul could be a different story.

Playing perhaps the most lopsided basketball game in the history of international play, the Puerto Rican basketball team defeats Belize by more than 150 points in the 1978 Central American Games.

The next rainy afternoon in San Juan, I, little Mugsy Bogues, am the Belize national team. Omar wins another world title.

Before Puerto Rico plays the United States at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, my father tells me, "Watch out for Butch Lee."

Lee, who with Coach Al McGuire and the rest of Marquette basketball team would capture the NCAA Championship in 1977, plays for Puerto Rico because his grandparents are of Puerto Rican descent. The 1976 Puerto Rican squad is one of the strongest at the Olympics.

The islanders give the mainlanders a scare, but still lose by one point. The island of Puerto Rico treats the loss as a win. Lee is a hero.

I wonder who the hero will be in Seoul.

Down by more than 10 points at the half, the Puerto Rican team captures the 1978 Central American title with a second-half comeback that stuns defending champion Cuba.

My father and I hear the game on the radio. Since the game is not televised, the regular television announcer (I still can't remember his name) is yelling over the radio.

"Ma-a-a-rio "Quijote" Morales!" Puerto Rico has a new basketball hero.

Madrid, 1986, the World Championships. The Puerto Ricans once again face the Americans. The U.S. can't hit the free throw but still manages to squeak out a two-point victory.

Mario "Quijote" Morales plays another great game.

San Juan, 1979, the Pan American Games. Bobby Knight, coach of the U.S. team, publicly insults the host country of Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican team is mad, mad enough to reach the finals against the Americans.

Knight and his boys win. He also manages to leave San Juan unhurt.

Seoul could be different for the Puerto Ricans.

It is raining again in San Juan. Omar, for some reason or another, lets me be the Puerto Ricans for a day. After easily defeating the Brazilians, little Mugsy Bogues takes on the Russians.

Puerto Rico wins its 50th world title.

Seoul, September 27, 1988, the Summer Olympics. It is probably raining in San Juan. The United States easily defeats Puerto Rico, 94-57, to advance to the semi-finals.

Mario "Quijote" Morales, not the youth he once was, scores two points.

Puerto Rico, after shocking Yugoslavia, gets slapped in the face with a hard dose of reality. The Puerto Ricans once again lose to the Americans. There is no Butch Lee, no one-point losses, no celebrations on the island.

Just hopes of what could be.