By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
In the end, Cesar Bocachica couldn't bear the silence. The six-foot-five-inch sharp-shooting forward left Florida International University last year, after just one stellar season, returning to Puerto Rico's Superior Basketball League (SBL). "It was tough for me to get up for games in Miami," recalls Bocachica, who, despite his stature, bears an eerie resemblance to Zeppo Marx. "You'd come out of the locker room and see, like, 30 fans in the stands, most of them your friends. I think it caused my game to go downhill. Here on the island you got fans that come up to you in the street and do all kinds of crazy shit at games. They make you want to play better."
If Miami fans ever develop the required fanaticism, Bocachica maintains the city could bust open a recruiting gold mine: "Without a doubt! What Miami should have done from the beginning was recruit Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speaking athletes. It's the perfect place. Everywhere I went in Miami I heard Spanish. Even the weather was the same. It was just like being in Puerto Rico."
Sergio Rouco tends to agree. Rouco, who recruited both Bocachica and former FIU standout Ruben Colon, envisions Miami as the nascent pipeline for Puerto Rico's crop of budding stars. "We as Americans are ignorant of the fact that Puerto Ricans are Americans. They don't need any passport to come here. They can even receive college financial aid. We're foolish not to recruit down there," says Rouco, an assistant coach at Miami's Norland High School and a former recruiter at FIU. "I go down and look at their youth leagues and it blows me away -- 180 teams from all over the island. And these kids are just twelve years old."
Rouco, though, is a maverick in the emerging field of international recruiting. While pro scouts look toward Eastern Europe, he predicts Latin America and the Caribbean will be the next hotbed of NBA imports. "Basketball is exploding down there. And with my [Cuban] background, I figured I'd do better recruiting there than Terre Haute, Indiana."
He made the Puerto Rico connection through Robert Munoz, a Hialeah mailman who has followed island basketball since his youth in Bayamon. These days Munozhas good reason to keep up with the scene. His eldest son, Robert Jr., played three seasons in the island's Superior Basketball League before pursuing a pitching career with the New York Yankees. His younger son Marcelo is weighing the option of heading down after high school. "Back when I watched, it was a much different game," says Munoz, who came to the United States thirteen years ago. "It was played on cement courts and games were free. Now you have the TV stations coming in and all the players looking to the U.S."
A case in point: Erik Rivera, an all-city guard who piled in 25 points per game last year for Miami's Edison High and led the team to a 22-7 record. "His parents wanted him to come here from Puerto Rico to get more exposure and learn the language," explains Charles Hankerson, Edison's fortuitous coach. "They moved him in with his aunt and uncle, who happen to be in our district. It was a good move. Erik's a major Division I college player, there's no question about that. He's got the talent, instincts, and size."
But Rivera has yet to prove himself as Miami's most renowned Puerto Rican hoops recruit. For now that honor belongs to Maria Rivera, better known as "Cusa" to those who watched her shatter the all-time University of Miami scoring record in four seasons with the female Hurricanes.
For all her accolades, however, Cusa's move to the States flung her into a tangle of confused regulations and national allegiances. She spent three years fighting for the right to play on the U.S. Olympic team, and when she was finally allowed to play for America's 1987 Pan American team, she faced the resentment of fellow islanders. "It's a big deal to go off to the U.S.," says the five-foot-five-inch guard, who now lives in Miami Lakes. "People actually will not look at you in the face, and they call you everything up to a traitor. In their eyes, you're hurting the leagues down there and the national team."
The tension, she says, will only worsen as mainland coaches start dipping deeper into Puerto Rico's talent pool. Rouco says that's already happening on the college level (Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlissimo is the most notable example), and Edison Coach Hankerson sees the talent hunt trickling down to the high school level. "I know that colleges are going to Puerto Rico and enrolling kids in prep schools right now, getting them adjusted so they can do the academic work in college. If it wasn't against the rules to recruit outside my district, I might head down there myself to find kids."
Considering Puerto Rico's troubled educational system and economy, a young prospect is not likely to resist the opportunity. Still, Roberto Munoz frets that intensive recruiting will deprive the island of its own sports heroes, as happened with baseball during the Seventies. "Puerto Rican fans like to see their heroes in person," he says, standing beneath the shrine to Roberto Clemente that dominates his living room. "They like to be able to touch them.