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.