Blackboard Jungle

But will it sell its soul? Purists contend the league already has started. They lament the new breed of for-profit players who switch teams annually and flunk drug tests, owners who fire coaches with impunity, and endless TV time-outs that ruin any semblance of game flow. Most of all they fear the import barrier on American players may come tumbling down. Current league rules allow only native Puerto Ricans or first- or second-generation islanders to play. But a few owners would like to expand the market to include nonnative mainland players in the hopes of building a lucrative, winning franchise. In 1984, when the Ponce Lions sneaked an American ringer into the Superior League, officials aborted the season and raced into a legal brawl that upheld the league's rules only after an appeal in federal court.

"Our league survives on its Puerto Ricanness. Otherwise we'd just get sucked up by the NBA," insists Fufi, who winsomely recalls the days when buying a team was considered noblesse oblige. "Back then you were supposed to lose money on a team. You bought a team out of a sense of social responsibility to your town. Now you got guys who want a quick win. They don't want to work with a kid from our youth league. They say, `Give me an Americano from Indiana.'"

Hetin Reyes says he plans to hold steady on the import ban. But a return to the misty-eyed salad days is impossible. "We are a big industry, now," he stresses. "Five thousand people live off us -- with the vendors and police and everyone. You don't take that lightly."

As unholy as the notion may seem, in Puerto Rico sport is regarded as one of the few integral paths to economic salvation. Already the island's mightiest financial players are mobilizing for a bid to host the 2004 Olympics. "We're discussing massive transportation and facility work," says Jose Coss, president of Deportes Latinos, a growing sports-marketing empire. "This proposal is being viewed as a way to improve the quality of life here, because sports is the only objective that unites the people of Puerto Rico."

All the civic cheerleading, though, sounds a little dissonant out in what is left of Puerto Rico's hinterland. Here, where roosters peck at corn across the road from Church's Chicken franchises, and pineapple stands nudge up against pharmaceutical plants, images of progress carry a nasty undertow. Along the northern coast, where industrial zones abut beach resorts, the ocean turns from sickly brown to Club-Med teal then back again. On Las Americas expressway, the four-lane road that cleaves the island north to south, blooming flamboyans and highland conifers are leveled for runaway-truck ramps. On this isle of enchantment, where the race into modernity has bypassed environmental consciousness, flipping cigarette butts out car windows is the new national pastime, with four-wheel beach cruising a close second.

San Juan natives call these outlying areas "the island" -- as if the sprawling San Juan metro area were part of the mainland -- but no one denies that small towns keep Puerto Rico's sporting glory alive, pueblos such as tiny Quebradillas and Aibonito, where triumph over a rival still fires the communal kiln. In the last decade, all three San Juan basketball franchises have relocated to island towns.

And so tonight the action shifts to coastal Guayama, where Puerto Rico's national team plays an exhibition match against Cuba. The ride is courtesy of the brothers Maymi, Gilo and Javier, two fanaticos whose passion for basketball lore is exceeded only by their capacity for native-brewed Medalla beer (slogan: "Beer, beer and nothing more").

"When the [Bayamon] Cowboys used to win a championship, all the players would walk out of the stadium and lead a parade to the town plaza," recounts Gilo, a 26-year-old lawyer and former youth-league star. "Then the whole town would have a party until the morning and none of the kids would have to go to school the next day." The memories carry us over the knuckly Cordillera mountains and past the Olympic training village, which sits like a prefab Parthenon on a mesa in the town of Salinas. Further south the factories of Guayama belch smoke at a jaundiced moon. They are U.S.-owned, of course, drawn here by tax incentives and cheap labor.

Puerto Rico's self-proclaimed point of reference -- for business, basketball, and everything else -- is America. And as consumers, islanders have bought the U.S. bill of goods hook, line, and Whopper. Fed a steady diet of U.S. expectations, without a pay scale to match, Puerto Ricans have raised personal debt to a high art. But for all its aspirations, the island remains firmly straddled between Latin and North America, geographically and economically. With the unemployment rate at a dreary 15.7 per cent and per capita income holding at $6000 per annum, more than 43 per cent of the population depends on food stamps. Having barely arrived in the industrial era, Puerto Rico now faces a soaring crime rate, widening class divisions, and the tenuous transition to a post-industrial economy.

Complicating all these issues is the rancorous and endless debate over the island's status as a U.S. commonwealth, which comes to a head every July 25, when Puerto Ricans commemorate the ratification of their 1952 constitution. Because the pro-commonwealth party is in power, as it has been for most of the last 40 years, the government threw a huge, ridiculously expensive bash featuring a host of bands and the required political grandstanding. Recent polls show statehood favored by a slim majority over continued commonwealth status -- despite the fact that a merger would abolish Puerto Rico's beloved national sports teams.

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