Blackboard Jungle

More telling, a 1990 study at San Juan's American University revealed that nearly three times as many Puerto Ricans play hoops as baseball, a stat borne out by the basketball courts that appear to constitute San Juan's leading land use, after fast-food joints and high-rise condos. Kiddie leagues -- the incubators of future stars and fanaticos -- run from age seven up, engaging a third of the island's youth in what can seem, at times, mortal combat. The hoops may be only eight feet high, but the coaches are no less histrionic, the refs no less rigorous, and the makeshift minibleachers no less filled. And with the blossoming of women's leagues, even macho tradition is bowing to the cult.

For highbrow pundits the trend fits snugly into the grand (and nauseating) tradition of sport-as-history metaphors. They see the move from baseball's timeless rusticity to basketball's smoggy playgrounds as emblematic of the island's transformation from agrarian subsistence to urban industry.

But Jose Santori ain't no highbrow. Puerto Rico's foremost basketball historian, Fufi -- as he is known to the thousands who read his daily column in El Nuevo Dia and listen to him call televised games -- proposes a simpler explanation. "Basketball is a better game," he says. "I don't give a shit what anybody says, baseball is boring. It's a slow fucking game. A bunch of guys studying stats, taking the kids to the game to buy them hot dogs. Latins like a fast game, some speed." Fufi nods toward the court where the San German Athletics are set to play the hometown Ponce Lions. "You watch how they play."

Indeed, the game is a paragon of run-and-gun pizzazz, conducted before 10,000 fans wedged into the architectural monstrosity known as Pachin Vicens Coliseum. From a distance the edifice appears to be a spaceship set for takeoff, its peaked roof dropped like a concrete handkerchief on antennae struts. But the rumble of its fans is louder than any rocket. Famed for sports fanaticism, Ponceros are the bane of the league's meeker fans, who they have a tendency to pummel at frequent intervals.

History books record the southern boom town of Ponce -- now Puerto Rico's second largest -- as the site of 1937's infamous Palm Sunday Massacre, during which guards killed seventeen unarmed nationalists and wounded another 100. The long, bitter basketball rivalry between Ponce and nearby San German dates back nearly as far, to a notorious 1953 contest that saw each team's star player booted from the series for trying to redesign the other's face. After the game, politicians from both towns lobbied to reverse the decision in their favor, triggering a rash of infighting that led then-Governor Luis Munoz Marin to turn over the government-run league to private hands.

Today the feud has swelled to allegorical proportions, the Lions billed as Detroit Piston-like thugs, the Athletics as earnest young scrappers. The morality play is at its most dramatic in its star match up: Ponce's Diego Melendez, a bruiser whose shark eyes beam hatred from beneath a Neanderthal brow, versus Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, an impossibly handsome San German scoring machine whose swanlike ten-footers have made him the league's darling. Piculin, one of several Puerto Ricans to serve short notice in the NBA, is the kind of guy prone to kissing babies before games. Melendez, by popular consensus, is more likely to bite their heads off.

It is no surprise, then, that the Ponce Lions' den is roaring an hour before tipoff. Nor that the crowd rises with mechanical precision to salute every Ponce basket, issuing an expectant aaaaaahhhhh as a shot goes up, a deafening whhooooosshh! if it finds net. Here in Ponce it is the sound of sanity being flushed out of the arena, of a crowd degenerating into a mob. As many as 2000 San German fans have made the 35-mile drive to the game, but they sound not a peep. The only trace of their presence is a series of fights that apparently signal an isolated discovery -- and hasty extermination -- by Ponce vigilantes.

PART TWO

On the court, Ponce is staging a second-half rally. With two minutes left they pull within six, then three after a twenty-footer sinks, roiling the fans into a frenzy. The air horn announcing San German's time-out is as inaudible as a stifled burp. Fufi watches it all unfold like a proud papa, narrating the play in florid spurts for the TV broadcast an estimated third of the island is watching. As San German pulls out the win to avoid elimination, a wave of debris pours down on the Athletics, who exit the court stooped beneath equipment bags. While Piculin Ortiz leaves the arena under police escort, Fufi waves off talk of fan hostility.

"Our fans are disciplined," he explains as a hurled battery skitters across the floor. "You see that seat? Our governor was sitting there the whole game. He's a Ponce man. Big fan. You didn't see any security guards around him, no secret service. We're a hell of a civilized society. We don't shoot our presidents. You guys shot Lincoln and those Kennedys and King. You guys shoot all the fuckin' guys over there." (For the moment, apparently, Fufi has let slip from his mind the militant Puerto Rican nationalists who attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman in 1950 and four years later turned the House of Representatives into a shooting gallery.)

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