Blackboard Jungle

Roberto Torres is rocking, ankles to unsure toes, on a concrete step high in the sweaty reaches of Guaynabo's municipal stadium. He is a small, round man squeezed into a mesh tank top and Day-Glo shorts. On his face is a look of sheer contempt, which he rivets on a congregation across the arena. The fans are here, supposedly, to exhort their basketball team, the Guayama Witches, in a semifinal game of Puerto Rico's Superior Basketball League play-offs. But Torres knows the real reason these maricones, these pendejos have driven the length of the island: to insult his dignity, derail his glory, and spit on the pride of suburban Guaynabo, the mighty -- if misnamed -- Metropolitans.

And so he sways. Listens in delighted disgust to the out-of-towners chant, "Guayama is here!" Bides his time. Breathes in the waft of pineapple and beer that percolates from below. Only as the chorus dwindles does Torres climb up onto his chair and, arms poised for a swan dive into madness, call the arena to attention. "Guayama," he roars, cupped hands guiding the crowd's attention to his genitals, "is here!" As the last syllable hits the rafters, Torres yanks his pelvis forward.

The place goes, in a word, apeshit. The band in the next section tumbles into a salsa and the hometown fans howl insults at the Guayamans, who respond with the rallying cry "Guaynabo, Guaynabo -- can't get it up!" It may be twenty minutes before the teams even lumber onto the hardwood floor below, but no tribute is too lewd, or too early.

Not in Puerto Rico, where a new faith is being founded on the divine choreography of the fast break, the singular purity of the swished jumper, and the raw power of the tomahawk jam. On this puny island, where 500 years of botched colonialism and 50 more of breakneck industrialization have left the natives with an identity crisis that stretches from San Juan to Spanish Harlem, at least one heroic truth has emerged.

Listen to Torres tell it: "We are Puerto Rico, yes. We are a little country, yes. But no one laughs when we take the court, sir. No one."

Surely no one will be laughing this week in Havana, where the Puerto Rican national team arrives as a favorite to win the gold medal at the Pan American Games. Nor in Barcelona, where the Olympic superpowers will have to contend with this most unlikely of spoilers. And while Miami fans are left to speculate about the fate of our inherently cold Heat, 1000 miles southeast fanaticos are watching not one but three different native leagues. Watching, though, is not quite the right word. Puerto Ricans don't simply watch basketball, they obsess over it. During the Superior League's steamy summer play-offs, arenas become playgrounds of primal expression.

And minefields.
Long-time fans still vividly recount the 1975 contest at which the mayor of Ponce, embroiled in a courtside argument with a foolhardy usher, took out a gun and shot the man. More recently, league officials were forced to impose a rule allowing referees to call a technical foul on fans for throwing debris onto the court. At big games phalanxes of armed SWAT teams have become stone-faced fixtures. And last year a match-up between the Morovis Pirates and the Quebradillas Titans degenerated into a melee, as fans busted courtside barricades and joined players already brawling on the floor. This and countless other episodes prompted island Fire Chief Jorge Callazo to threaten the league with a $10,000 fine for habitual overcrowding, leaving some observers to ponder whether turning away thousands of fans would provoke even nastier outbursts.

Near riots, however, are merely jags on a curve of intensity utterly beyond the mainland couch potato, a species prone to channel-surfing through 17,000 interchangeable sports options and often losing track of the distinction between commercials and games. Even in Guaynabo, which visiting players say is among the calmest of venues, housewives beat thunder out of steel exit signs and hobbled grandpas rally the troops by whacking railings with walking sticks. In this space no larger than a hefty high school gym, the sinking of a three-pointer elicits seismic response.

Lubricating this slide toward entropy is a river of booze, sold in every imaginable form. The court's main entrance is flanked by a pair of pina colada stands, where workers man massive blenders, dispatching drinks garnished with maraschino cherries. At concession stands, beer taps go head to head with ranks of bottled liquor, led by such revered mainlanders as Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Johnny Walker. Vendors wielding laundry baskets full of beer entice customers with a mesmerizing reptilian hiss: c-c-c-c-c-cervezas! And, of course, firewater consecrates the game's surprise winner: Guaynabo. The squad's tiny, mildewed locker room is quieted temporarily by intent guzzling and a short prayer -- until a band bursts in to lead the players in a final fight song.

Basketball's leap to the pinnacle of pop culture in Puerto Rico is something of an underdog saga itself. Back in the Fifties and Sixties, baseball was the state religion. In those days, underpaid big leaguers on the scale of Willie Mays flew down to play winter ball and drew thousands to the parks, while native sons like Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente became instant folk heroes. Ironically it was Clemente -- the brooding centerfielder turned saint by untimely death -- who foreshadowed the collapse of island baseball by sitting out the winter league to protect his million-dollar body. Irate fanaticos threw rocks through his windows, but within a decade, even promising minor leaguers were snubbing the league. The hyper-inflated mainland market that once sent down its greatest players began sucking up Puerto Rico's own talent. Today, while Puerto Ricans crow over this year's All-Star game -- where six islanders started -- winter ball struggles to weather the challenge posed by the decade-old Puerto Rican Basketball League.

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