Blackboard Jungle

But coming from Fufi, it sounds like gospel. He is the sort of man who speaks in illicit truths, a racetrack rat tendering inside tips from around some unseen corner. "The main thing is, basketball is a television sport," he says. "You watch baseball, you can't even see the players' faces. With basketball, a guy in the middle of the island can turn on his TV and he's right in the middle of the fucking court." Fufi should know, as a television commentator his potential workload has doubled in the last three years. This year one station televised an unheard-of 70 Superior League games during the three-month season, paying $800,000 for exclusive broadcast rights. At renegotiation time the price tag is expected to break a million. "That's big time, baby," says Fufi, "that's NBA."

And with the ying of TV, has come the yang of advertising. Desperate to associate generally useless products with the island's hottest ticket, companies have refashioned arenas into consumer thunderdomes. Floors are stenciled with a jigsaw puzzle of slogans. Players' uniforms tout banks and beer. At some arenas the barricades used to restrain fans have been converted into mechanized billboards that rotate advertising messages at five-minute intervals. TV sponsors vie for a dozen mandatory time-out slots, and local stations manage to ticker tape extra plugs across the bottom of the screen. In the past year alone, ad revenues have jumped 25 per cent, and the big boys, like AT&T, are staking out multiyear contracts. Even refs have an official, if somewhat dimwitted, sponsor: Jox athletic shoes. Hotshot players earn well over $1000 per week in the Superior League, not including food, housing, and transportation -- for the whole family if necessary -- and would bag more were it not for a $25,000 salary cap required to maintain amateur status and play in international tourneys.

For Fufi, though, the current financial boom represents the harvest of a long and noble seeding. A veteran of three Olympic teams, he insists island basketball's mass appeal is rooted in the rise of the national team. And like every other loyalist on the island, he recounts a litany of shining moments with encyclopedic fervor: the against-the-odds fourth place finish at 1959's World Basketball Championships, the Pan Am Games silver medal won at home in 1979, the gold medal at 1988's World Championships, and sweetest of all, two recent victories over the United States team.

"Every time we beat the States," says Fufi, "the island goes crazy, because the basketball court is the only place America respects Puerto Rico. They don't respect us in Congress or in the White House. Basketball is the most intense expression of nationalism Puerto Rico has. It used to be sugar cane. It used to be coffee. I remember in the parade for the Rome Olympics in 1960 all the Greeks said, `Puerto Rico -- coffee.' Now they say, `Puerto Rico -- basketball.' People don't understand how we can do it, but lemme tell you, this is a basketball nation."

If that summation seems superficial, consider Puerto Rico's history. Christopher Columbus discovered the island on his second voyage, in 1493, and eventually sent eager-beaver imperialist Juan Ponce De Leon to secure the territory. Setting a precedent for conquistadores to come, the man who later bumped into Florida quickly subdued (read: enslaved) 30,000 Arawak Indians with the aid of 50 men. Within a few decades, Spanish-style discipline and disease exterminated the only indigenous people the island would ever know.

With its strategic position at the mouth of the Caribbean, the 35-by-100-mile island -- the smallest of the Greater Antilles -- became a Spanish military outpost for the next four centuries, fending off a series of half-hearted attacks by the English and Dutch. African slaves were imported to do the grunt work. After 400 years under Spain's colonial yoke, natives greeted the U.S. invasion of 1898 as a short cut to sovereignty. But the yoke, predictably, was on them. Four months from securing autonomy under Spanish rule, the island now found itself the property of Uncle Sam and his martial-law troopers.

Cosmetically at least, old Uncle Sam wasn't such a bad landlord. He fixed the place up, put in phones and roads, upgraded education and health care. Then he invited the cash-crop barons to have at it, a move that tossed subsistence farmers into the fold of U.S. dependence. Unemployment promptly soared, hitting a record high of 65 per cent in 1933, and the natives started making revolutionary noises. With social unrest bubbling, leaders launched "Operation Bootstrap" after World War II, which amounted to a massive ad campaign to lure mainland industrialists. The pitch -- make heaps of money, tax-free, then hit the beach -- worked, and Puerto Rico's coastal lowlands were quickly ripped up and scabbed over in asphalt. The proliferation of factories, jobs, and money transformed the poorhouse of the Caribbean into a twentieth-century imperial jewel. But for all the influence Puerto Rico gained in Washington (it still has no vote), the scheme might have been subtitled "Operation Bootlick."

The relationship, in short, is a case study in capitalist hegemony -- until you consider basketball, a sport America introduced to the island and inadvertently helped build into a thriving native industry. It all started with Red Holtzman, the cranky Boston Celtics legend who landed in San Juan three decades ago to hone his coaching skills. On his honored heels came a dazzling cast of future NBA coaches -- Bernie Bickerstaff, K.C. Jones, Paul Westphal, Gene Bartow, Jimmy Lyman, Doug Moe -- whose expertise raised island coaching standards to a level not seen outside the mainland.

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