Blackboard Jungle

All the flag waving and street-corner rhetoric aside, what it comes down to -- as more candid politicians will concede -- is that Puerto Rico's fate still depends on imperial whim. Even if the commonwealth could mount a plebescite on the issue of statehood versus "enhanced" commonwealth status -- which Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon has pushed for, unsuccessfully -- the U.S. Congress holds the final word. And while independentistas like Fufi Santori speak eloquently of a Puerto Rican nation, the crushing dependence built into the economy over 100 years of shabbily camouflaged colonialism all but rules out the possibility.

But at least in this impotent limbo there is basketball, and while the July 25 holiday played itself out in a series of sweltering traffic jams, nighttime held the promise of unassailable drama: game seven of the Ponce/San German series. Sixteen thousand fans -- including about a third of San German's population -- have filled Bayamon's mammoth stadium, the designated neutral site. Despite the crowd, this spacious, thermostat-controlled arena seems oddly inappropriate to the event, allowing too much space for hysterical intent to diffuse. And so for the first 35 minutes of the game, all is unnaturally quiet.

But as Ponce mounts a last charge, the beast finally wakes. Cherry bombs blast and fans stand on tiptoe as Ponce ties it with 1:11 left. Piculin Ortiz puts St. German two points up, with an emphatic stuff. Then Ponce pulls ahead on a three-point play. Ortiz staggers to the sideline for a time-out. From the Ponce bench, the villainous Diego Melendez smiles. And why not? With six seconds left, San German will be lucky to get a shot off. The final in-bound pass goes to Oscar Santiago, a San German forward who's been ice cold all night. Unable to find an outlet pass, he scampers past two defenders and throws up a 25-foot prayer. It hits net as the buzzer sounds.

Fans hurdle the barricades, piling onto the court, hoisting players onto shoulders, climbing backboards to snip nets destined for legend. A crazed radio announcer jumps on the scorer's table and leads the cheer, "San German ate the lion's ass!" Two congueros slap out a manic back beat. A thousand fans wander the court in a milieu that calls to mind New Year's eve: strangers hugging, kissing, crying unexplained tears. From his perch beneath the scoreboard, Hetin Reyes surveys the scene. "I never imagined the league would get this big," he says wistfully. "For me it is like a dream." Down below the revelry twirls on. The air conditioning has long been shut off and the San German players scuttled into the locker room.

Later, perhaps, San German will lose the finals to Guayama's Witches. And next year, or next decade, perhaps, basketball will yield to the full-court press of some new escapist passion. Perhaps Piculin Ortiz will head back to the NBA and forsake his San German faithful. And perhaps Puerto Rico will remain a lost island forever, floating between false hope and disaster. Perhaps. But for this moment, a sweaty haze protects the scene, a flawless resolution no one will ever take away.

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