Blackboard Jungle

"You can't find a better breeding ground for coaches," says Rick Shore, the latest import and current coach of the Guayama Witches. "The level of competition is more intense here than anywhere in the world, and I'd rank the play second only to the NBA and maybe the CBA [Continental Basketball Association]."

Of course, Shore says, there are drawbacks: a town full of back-seat drivers, torrid arenas where you sweat off five to ten pounds per game, and that ever-irksome language barrier. But none of these bother Shore so much as the job-security issue. This season ten of sixteen Superior League teams fired their coaches, often at the rabid bidding of fans. Shore himself replaced a coach who was forced to resign after leading the Witches to the league's second-best record. The reason for his pink slip? Three late-season losses. In fact, virtually every American coach brought down has been sent packing by at least one club, most recently Phil Jackson, late of the NBA champion Chicago Bulls.

In addition to improved coaching, some believe imported U.S. health standards have helped breed a taller strain of Puerto Rican, and the raw data is hard to dispute. Superior League players, once an average height of barely six feet, now stand just a few inches shorter than their NBA counterparts.

Even officiating has climbed a notch, thanks to folks like Jack Nies, a veteran NBA ref who spends his summer days on the tourist beaches of Isla Verde and his nights stalking the courts like a whistle-tweeting John Wayne. "If I could live down here and commute to my NBA games, I would," says Nies. "Sure, I've had to leave a few games in a police car. And there are people who say things to you on the street. But it doesn't bother me. I don't speak Spanish. Except the swear words. I know all of them."

By far the biggest boost has been the repatriation of players from New York. A product of the ongoing diaspora that has brought 900,000 Puerto Ricans to the boroughs, these so-called Newyo Ricans began returning in the Seventies and spurred a hoops renaissance by injecting the flashy, street style of New York into Puerto Rican ball. "When I came here you didn't see people putting the ball through their legs or dunking," says Ray Dalmou, a Superior League star for fifteen years and now coach of the national team. "I went to college for two years in the States and never left here after that. I knew I could play for years down here in Puerto Rico. I had much more going for me. That's why a lot of these Newyo Ricans stay here -- because they come down here and everybody loves them, they're idols, they're heroes in their own country."

And at times, strangers. Dalmou says few people realize that Newyo Ricans are more black than Latin, at least culturally. "We grew up in Harlem and the Bronx," Dalmou recalls. "Our parents taught us Hispanic culture at home, but once you're out on the street, you learn another culture, black culture." The key distinction isn't so much skin color -- both Newyo Ricans and native players span a spectrum of beige -- as music, language, and basketball polish.

But while the injection of those influences may have helped to popularize basketball among the island's poorer -- and darker -- masses (previously it had been a luxury pastime dominated by fair-skinned blanquitos), the influx of Newyo Ricans has also engendered some resentment. Georgie Torres, a Bronx-reared guard for Guaynabo and the Superior League's all-time leading scorer, believes there is a bias against Newyo Rican players, which he links to island pride. "The league likes to promote the guys who grew up here," he notes, "but without Newyo Ricans, there wouldn't be no league."

PART THREE

In fact, the issue of just who can or should play in the Superior Basketball League is quite the hot potato these days. The man at the center of the controversy is Hetin Reyes, and he looks like the sort who's had plenty of experience with hot potatoes. Half Sidney Greenstreet, half Buddy Hackett, and all PR man, the jolly president of the National Basketball Federation faces the daunting task of trying to keep Puerto Rico's basketball juggernaut on track. "You know, I was a player once," he says with a grin as he rises to his full height of five-feet-seven-inches. Waddling across the expanse of his office -- an office kept at subarctic temperatures by a merciless cooling unit -- he presents his wall of memory. And sure enough, there he is in uniform with the Bayamon Cowboys, that same baby face, minus tinted sunglasses and the tan of prosperity.

In his day, of course, the sport was a different animal. Players suited up for a pittance, played on outdoor courts dragged onto baseball fields, and used sawdust to stanch rain showers. He remembers when the Superior League opened its first indoor arena, a converted airport hangar that still serves the faithful of San German. "When I saw that, I was in the sky with God," he says, adding urgently, "Basketball is the one thing the politicians don't argue over. It is the backbone, the heart of our country."

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