Blackboard Jungle

Roberto Torres is rocking, ankles to unsure toes, on a concrete step high in the sweaty reaches of Guaynabo's municipal stadium. He is a small, round man squeezed into a mesh tank top and Day-Glo shorts. On his face is a look of sheer contempt, which he rivets on a congregation across the arena. The fans are here, supposedly, to exhort their basketball team, the Guayama Witches, in a semifinal game of Puerto Rico's Superior Basketball League play-offs. But Torres knows the real reason these maricones, these pendejos have driven the length of the island: to insult his dignity, derail his glory, and spit on the pride of suburban Guaynabo, the mighty -- if misnamed -- Metropolitans.

And so he sways. Listens in delighted disgust to the out-of-towners chant, "Guayama is here!" Bides his time. Breathes in the waft of pineapple and beer that percolates from below. Only as the chorus dwindles does Torres climb up onto his chair and, arms poised for a swan dive into madness, call the arena to attention. "Guayama," he roars, cupped hands guiding the crowd's attention to his genitals, "is here!" As the last syllable hits the rafters, Torres yanks his pelvis forward.

The place goes, in a word, apeshit. The band in the next section tumbles into a salsa and the hometown fans howl insults at the Guayamans, who respond with the rallying cry "Guaynabo, Guaynabo -- can't get it up!" It may be twenty minutes before the teams even lumber onto the hardwood floor below, but no tribute is too lewd, or too early.

Not in Puerto Rico, where a new faith is being founded on the divine choreography of the fast break, the singular purity of the swished jumper, and the raw power of the tomahawk jam. On this puny island, where 500 years of botched colonialism and 50 more of breakneck industrialization have left the natives with an identity crisis that stretches from San Juan to Spanish Harlem, at least one heroic truth has emerged.

Listen to Torres tell it: "We are Puerto Rico, yes. We are a little country, yes. But no one laughs when we take the court, sir. No one."

Surely no one will be laughing this week in Havana, where the Puerto Rican national team arrives as a favorite to win the gold medal at the Pan American Games. Nor in Barcelona, where the Olympic superpowers will have to contend with this most unlikely of spoilers. And while Miami fans are left to speculate about the fate of our inherently cold Heat, 1000 miles southeast fanaticos are watching not one but three different native leagues. Watching, though, is not quite the right word. Puerto Ricans don't simply watch basketball, they obsess over it. During the Superior League's steamy summer play-offs, arenas become playgrounds of primal expression.

And minefields.
Long-time fans still vividly recount the 1975 contest at which the mayor of Ponce, embroiled in a courtside argument with a foolhardy usher, took out a gun and shot the man. More recently, league officials were forced to impose a rule allowing referees to call a technical foul on fans for throwing debris onto the court. At big games phalanxes of armed SWAT teams have become stone-faced fixtures. And last year a match-up between the Morovis Pirates and the Quebradillas Titans degenerated into a melee, as fans busted courtside barricades and joined players already brawling on the floor. This and countless other episodes prompted island Fire Chief Jorge Callazo to threaten the league with a $10,000 fine for habitual overcrowding, leaving some observers to ponder whether turning away thousands of fans would provoke even nastier outbursts.

Near riots, however, are merely jags on a curve of intensity utterly beyond the mainland couch potato, a species prone to channel-surfing through 17,000 interchangeable sports options and often losing track of the distinction between commercials and games. Even in Guaynabo, which visiting players say is among the calmest of venues, housewives beat thunder out of steel exit signs and hobbled grandpas rally the troops by whacking railings with walking sticks. In this space no larger than a hefty high school gym, the sinking of a three-pointer elicits seismic response.

Lubricating this slide toward entropy is a river of booze, sold in every imaginable form. The court's main entrance is flanked by a pair of pina colada stands, where workers man massive blenders, dispatching drinks garnished with maraschino cherries. At concession stands, beer taps go head to head with ranks of bottled liquor, led by such revered mainlanders as Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Johnny Walker. Vendors wielding laundry baskets full of beer entice customers with a mesmerizing reptilian hiss: c-c-c-c-c-cervezas! And, of course, firewater consecrates the game's surprise winner: Guaynabo. The squad's tiny, mildewed locker room is quieted temporarily by intent guzzling and a short prayer -- until a band bursts in to lead the players in a final fight song.

Basketball's leap to the pinnacle of pop culture in Puerto Rico is something of an underdog saga itself. Back in the Fifties and Sixties, baseball was the state religion. In those days, underpaid big leaguers on the scale of Willie Mays flew down to play winter ball and drew thousands to the parks, while native sons like Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente became instant folk heroes. Ironically it was Clemente -- the brooding centerfielder turned saint by untimely death -- who foreshadowed the collapse of island baseball by sitting out the winter league to protect his million-dollar body. Irate fanaticos threw rocks through his windows, but within a decade, even promising minor leaguers were snubbing the league. The hyper-inflated mainland market that once sent down its greatest players began sucking up Puerto Rico's own talent. Today, while Puerto Ricans crow over this year's All-Star game -- where six islanders started -- winter ball struggles to weather the challenge posed by the decade-old Puerto Rican Basketball League.

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.)

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.

"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."

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.

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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