Davíd Versus Goliath : Code Switch Summer, 2004. The Olympics in Athens. The event? Men's basketball: U.S. versus Puerto Rico. And the whole world knows that Puerto Rico doesn't stand a chance. After all, the bigger, richer, imperial power always wins — right?
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Davíd Versus Goliath

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Davíd Versus Goliath

Davíd Versus Goliath

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: From NPR.

DEMBY: So Shereen, I hear you have a story for me.

MERAJI: I have so many stories for you all the time, but this is a particularly important story in my life.

DEMBY: They always are important, though. They're always important. Don't sell your other stories short.

MERAJI: OK. Well, true. But this one is, like, one of the most important. It was a Sunday in 2004, and I was visiting my Titi Ida (ph) and my Uncle Ralph (ph).

DEMBY: Were you were wearing, like, all-velour everything? Like...

MERAJI: (Laughter) No, I wasn't 'cause it was hot. I was definitely...

DEMBY: Oh, yeah.

MERAJI: ...Wearing a tank top and probably some shorts. I'm in cookie-cutter suburbia - you know, not that many trees, lots of concrete, just outside of Los Angeles.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And I had just recently moved here to LA and was trying to reconnect with members of my family who lived in Southern California, my Puerto Rican side, just in case I have to make that clear. My Uncle Ralph grew up in Vieques, and my Titi Ida was a Nuyorican all the way, had that thick New York accent, which I absolutely love.

DEMBY: It's one of the best accents in America.

MERAJI: Oh, yes.

DEMBY: It's such a dope accent. I love it so much.

MERAJI: And Gene, an important part of the story is that there was a basketball game on TV.

DEMBY: OK, OK.

MERAJI: And the United States was playing Puerto Rico in the Summer Olympics.

DEMBY: I remember this game very, very clearly.

MERAJI: I am so glad that you remember this game.

DEMBY: OK, OK.

MERAJI: OK. I remember three things about the game. No. 1, the point guard was really cute (laughter), so it kept me...

DEMBY: So...

MERAJI: ...Very invested in watching the game. I mean, there are very - there are a number of things that kept me invested in watching the game, but that was one of them. No. 2, the second thing I remember about that game is that my Titi Ida was always trying to start s***, and she started this ridiculous debate over who we should be rooting for, whether we should be cheering for the U.S. or Puerto Rico, which is ridiculous because this was a house full of Puerto Ricans. So isn't it obvious? But my Titi Ida was like, you guys aren't even Puerto Rican. You never lived in Puerto Rico. You're American. You can barely speak Spanish (laughter). And we were like, what? Come on. And the third thing...

DEMBY: We should - but we should talk about - can we at least just pause there to acknowledge how, like, the arrangement by which Puerto Rico is part of United States but has a separate Olympic situation happening? Just figured I'd just acknowledge that that's strange.

MERAJI: Yes, let us acknowledge that - 'cause it is. And so yeah. So yeah, we were just like, no, obviously we're rooting for Puerto Rico. And Gene, you have to remind everybody, like, who was on that U.S. basketball team?

DEMBY: LeBron James was on that team - a very young LeBron James - Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson. I mean, it was a...

MERAJI: Philly represent.

DEMBY: Always, always - shout out to Bubba Chuck. But that team was ridiculous, which is very important context for what I imagine the rest of the story is going to be about.

MERAJI: Wait. Who were you rooting for?

DEMBY: Oh, I mean, come on. I was rooting for Allen - I mean, it's not even a (laughter)...

MERAJI: Oh, you were rooting for Allen Iverson...

DEMBY: Of course, of course.

MERAJI: ...And the United States.

DEMBY: Of course, always. I mean, the only time I feel any sort of patriotic fervor is, like, in international competition. Plus, you're like - we plug on (ph) basketball. Come on, man. Had we been watching that game, we'd have been on opposite sides. I'm sorry.

MERAJI: We are on opposite sides. I had no idea. All right.

DEMBY: Why would I - OK.

MERAJI: All right, Gene we need to stop here because, actually, I'm not the one telling this whole story. I'm going to get some help from the "La Brega" podcast, which is hosted by Alana Casanova-Burgess.

DEMBY: OK, OK.

MERAJI: And she's got the rest of the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LA BREGA")

ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: In the summer of 1979, journalist Julio Ricardo Varela was 10 years old, and he was spending the summer with his dad in Río Piedras in San Juan.

JULIO RICARDO VARELA: And it was the same year that the 1979 Pan American Games were happening and were being hosted in Puerto Rico. It felt like it was our little mini Olympics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: For the opening ceremony, they commissioned this big Hollywood-style musical number.

VARELA: And it was so exciting 'cause here they were. Here were all these athletes. And when you're 10 and you're a sports freak like I am, that's all you were thinking about. I mean, I was obsessed with it. I loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Especially, he loved the Puerto Rican national basketball team, la selección nacional.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: It was just like - it was like watching your heroes, and here were your heroes ready to represent your homeland in basketball.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Julio was born in Puerto Rico and grew up there. But when he was in first grade, he moved with his mom to the Bronx and would go back and forth to the island over the years. But he never had any doubt as to who his team was. It was always Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And in 1979, at the Pan American Games, it was easy to root for Puerto Rico...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: ...Because they were kicking butt. The other top team was the United States. But midway into the tournament, the U.S. squad got into a scandal. The scandal surrounded their coach, the infamously hot tempered Bobby Knight, known for his outrageous outbursts and angry locker room speeches, like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBBY KNIGHT: Now I'm going to f****** guarantee you that if we don't play up there Monday night, you aren't going to believe the next four f****** days.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: One day during the Pan Am games, Bobby Knight got into a scuffle with a Puerto Rican policeman during which he allegedly hit the officer. According to the officer, Knight also called him the N-word. He was arrested, and charges were pressed. It was all over the news. And it just so happens that Puerto Rico and the United States were set to face off in the final.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: It was a hard-fought, close game, but the U.S. side, led by a young Isiah Thomas, ultimately won and took home the gold. After the game, Bobby Knight told the press that the only thing Puerto Ricans were good at was, quote, "growing bananas."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And there was something else.

VARELA: As they were leaving Puerto Rico, this is - you know, this is what is reported.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: I feel like you're going to tell me that he spat in some mofongo or something.

VARELA: No (laughter). He dropped his pants, and he mooned Puerto Rico. He put his, you know, put his ass against the window.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: No.

VARELA: And he mooned Puerto Rico as they flew off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Like, the ugly American, here you go again, thinking you're better than us.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Julio remembers the incident was the only thing the grown-ups around him could talk about for weeks.

VARELA: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: "That freakin' a-hole, the way he mistreated us."

VARELA: So throughout this history - right? - to me, it's always about beating the Americans. And luckily for Puerto Rico, there have been chances to take revenge.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: From WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios, I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess, and this is "La Brega."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ÌFÉ: (Vocalizing).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: In this episode, David and Goliath play basketball in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ÌFÉ: (Vocalizing).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Without a doubt, there is a deep connection between being Puerto Rican and rooting for our sports teams. And yes, people all over the world love sports and are proud of their athletes. But in Puerto Rico, the stakes are just higher because Puerto Rico, despite being a U.S. colony, competes in international sporting events like the Olympics on its own, under its own flag, as if we were an independent country. Journalist Noel Algarín, who has covered sports in Puerto Rico for many years, put it this way.

NOEL ALGARÍN: The only place where we can call ourselves sovereign is in sports. In sports, we get this opportunity to be Puerto Rico, the country from the Caribbean. We get to be someone. And then we get chances in a more symbolic way to face the country that owns you in some way.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Today, we're going to tell a story about one of those chances. You could say a chance for revenge against Bobby Knight, a time when Puerto Rico faced off against the United States in basketball on the sporting world's largest stage. Julio Ricardo Varela, a journalist with Futuro Media, takes the story from here.

VARELA: So at the time I was watching the 1979 game on TV, this guy was actually watching courtside.

FLOR MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: Flor Meléndez was a coach of the team that year, and he was a legend in Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A STEP AWAY")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: In a documentary about the 1979 games, you can see him screaming at players and gesturing wildly. He's looking really sharp with this thick black mustache and fro.

Flor went on to become one of the national team's all-time most decorated coaches, and his story kind of runs parallel to the story of Puerto Rican basketball. So Flor grew up in a big family.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: The oldest of 11 siblings, they lived in public housing.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: We're talking 1960.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Flor started playing basketball at his local YMCA. Then, as a teenager, he played in the Puerto Rican league. And pretty early on, Flor figured he had a talent for coaching.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: He described his coaching style as...

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: "Tough."

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: "Discipline-heavy."

And Flor got into coaching right around this kind of magic moment for Puerto Rican basketball. Coaches like Flor and league officials, they started visiting New York City and scouring the courts where Nuyoricans were playing street ball. And they started convincing these players to leave their lives behind to come play professionally in Puerto Rico. Here are these amazing Afro Puerto Ricans who learned the craft in the mecca of the sport who brought it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #5: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: It was a different kind of basketball than people were used to in Puerto Rico. It was a faster rhythm of play with big dunks. And it was fun. Like, that type of basketball is fun.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: These were the boom years for Puerto Rican baseball.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #6: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #7: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #8: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #9: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: And as the team kept winning and becoming better, basketball in Puerto Rico became the sport. Fans filled the stadiums.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED BASKETBALL PLAYER #1: (Rapping in Spanish).

VARELA: This, by the way, is a promotional rap song recorded by the team in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED BASKETBALL PLAYER #2: (Rapping in Spanish).

VARELA: By the '90s, many from that generation of great Nuyorican players had retired, but they had inspired a new wave of Puerto Rican-born players. And those players, they took the team to even greater heights.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #10: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #11: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #12: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Gold in the 1991 Pan American Games, gold in the 1993 Central American Games. And maybe the biggest accomplishment of all - fourth place in the 1990 world championships. Puerto Rico, the fourth-best team in the world - that's pretty good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: With Puerto Rico having made a name for itself on the international stage, Flor Meléndez got opportunities to coach in Argentina and Panama. But it was always clear to him that coaching the Puerto Rican national team, that was a different kind of responsibility.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He has this saying...

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He thinks about it like this. Puerto Rico doesn't have an army. So we, the national basketball team, we are the ones that have to represent the country. He says that the basketball is a weapon and the basketball jersey is actually a soldier's uniform. And it's this reverence, right? You - it's like you respect it like you respect a flag.

He told me he had this ritual he would do with the national team that at the season's first practice where they would put on their national team jerseys for the first time...

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He'd go down the line and hand out little Puerto Rican flag pins to all the players.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He says the players would get so emotional about it. And whenever they'd face United States in international play, those games had a special kind of weight. It was the chance for his soldiers to go to war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: The war we haven't been able to have to win our independence, he says.

MELÉNDEZ: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Puerto Rico is generally pretty outgunned in this war. The U.S., after all, was and is the global superpower of basketball, especially after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. What happened was a few years before, the International Basketball Federation made a change to their rules to allow NBA players in international competitions. And that change was huge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #13: This summer, the U.S. Olympic basketball team will make history - the Dream Team of Jordan Bird, Ewing, Robinson, Pippen, Drexler, Mullin, Barkley and Magic.

VARELA: That first Dream Team that went to Barcelona in 1992 was legendary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #14: This collection of superstars has been unselfishly magnificent.

VARELA: It wasn't just a sports team, it was a cultural phenomenon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCDONALD'S AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #15: You've got yourself the Gold Medal Meal.

MICHAEL JORDAN: What you want is what you get.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) At McDonald's today.

PATRICK EWING: Gold medal?

CHRIS MULLEN: It's in the bag.

VARELA: And they kicked everybody's ass. It wasn't even close. It wasn't even fun to watch. They were that good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #16: And there it is. And the Dream Team win gold.

VARELA: And from then on, the players change, but the Dream Team was here to stay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VARELA: The U.S. won gold again in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #17: The United States has won the gold.

VARELA: In 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, same story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #18: And it's all smiles now from Dream Team 4.

VARELA: And then you get to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and the U.S. team was an institution at that point. And the first game they were going to play that Olympics was with Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: The 2004 team was stacked - Allen Iverson, AI; Dwyane Wade, D-Wade; Tim Duncan, one of my favorite players of all time. I mean, the team even had LeBron James in his early days - LeBron James. The U.S. had the best basketball teams in the world when they were using amateur players. But when the NBA showed up, these guys were invincible in the Olympics. I mean that literally. Since NBA players were allowed to play, they had never lost an Olympic game. They were the Death Star. And if the U.S. team was the Death Star, the Puerto Rico team was definitely the ragtag Rebel Alliance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: The players were mostly local stars from the Baloncesto Superior Nacional, the league in Puerto Rico. You had Jose Ortiz, also known as Piculin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #19: (Non-English language spoken).

JULIO CESAR TORRES: Oh, that's the leader, the rock, the legend.

VARELA: That's Julio Cesar Torres. He's the filmmaker behind a great Puerto Rican basketball documentary called "Nuyorican Básquet." You had Eddie Casiano.

TORRES: Eddie, man - Eddie was the firecracker. He would go toe to toe with you. If he had to fight, he would fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #20: McGrady and Casiano going nose to nose.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Rolando Hourruitiner.

TORRES: He was all about the craft, very disciplined and a great defender.

VARELA: And a lot of other really talented guys - Larry Ayuso, Bobby Joe Hatton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: And then there was Carlos Arroyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TORRES: Carlos Arroyo was the young gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #21: (Speaking Spanish).

TORRES: Anxious to prove himself, with a lot of talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #22: Arroyo knocks down that jumper.

VARELA: Carlos was in the NBA. He was a starting point guard with the Utah Jazz that season and was on a path to becoming a legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #23: Arroyo to the angle, right, gets around Tag (ph), shaking and baking. They double him up. Now he goes right to the hoop. Reverses right side. Bank it up and in. Count it. He's fouled.

VARELA: At 6'2", he was a lot shorter than most other NBA guys. But Carlos was fast, and he played with energy, and he played with heart. And we all loved him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: So a few weeks before the Olympics, the Puerto Rican team goes to Florida for a week of practice and a series of warm-up games against the U.S. team. This is strangely standard practice leading up to these big international competitions, and it was an opportunity to get to know the enemy. And at these games, they're playing man-to-man defense, which is what it sounds like. Each player follows a player on the other team and sticks to them.

And Puerto Rico, because of their size or lack of it - you know, the Americans are bigger; they were faster - they wanted to play zone defense, where you literally stay in a zone, and you defend a set area of the court. During one of those games, the American coach went up to the Puerto Rican coaches and asked for a favor.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He said, can you please not play zone during this game? And it was one of those, like, Flor Melendez moments to be like, hm, insert mysterious discovery music. Hm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Interesting. They don't want to play against a zone.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He says they kept quiet and pulled a classic jibaro move.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He says whenever city people visit the mountains, they think the jibaros, the country people, are simpletons.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: But secretly, they always have something up their sleeve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: We'll be right back. This is La Brega.

We're back. This is La Brega. It's the summer of 2004, and the Puerto Rican national basketball team arrives in Athens to compete in the Olympics. Their first rival is the United States dream team, who, by the way, aren't staying at the Olympic Village with the rest of the delegations, but in a luxury cruise ship in Athens Harbor. Julio Ricardo Varela picks the story back up.

VARELA: On the morning of the game in Athens, the Puerto Rican team is expecting the worst. Rolando Hourruitiner was in his dorm room in the Olympic Village when one of the coaches on the staff, Julio Toro, barged in the room.

ROLANDO HOURRUITINER: Early in the morning, Julio comes in. He's on his, you know, jockey underwears or whatever it was. No shirt, no nothing, just barefoot. He's like, hey. Hey, you guys. What's going on, Julio? It's too early, man. So I want you guys to know that we're going to do something different today. I said, what are you talking about? He's like, well, you have to wait and see.

VARELA: A few hours later, the players are gathered in the locker room. And the coaches bust out their plan. They thought maybe they had found the weakness in the Death Star. They're going to do a variation on the zone defense that the Americans didn't want to play against back in Florida - for all you basketball nerds out there, a variation known as a triangle and two defense - with the goal of forcing the U.S. team to take outside shots.

HOURRUITINER: So we looked at each other like, hey, you know, never, done it. We lose by 30 every time, so might as well try it.

VARELA: The game was set to start at 8 p.m. Athens time, 1 p.m. in Puerto Rico. I remember I was at my home in the Boston area that day watching the game in my bedroom all by myself, all alone. I had a Puerto Rico shirt. I do remember that, my old Puerto Rico T-shirt. And I had really low expectations, to be honest. To jog my memory for this story, I recently re-watched the game. I'm excited. This is the first time I've put this on since 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

VARELA: You can see in the broadcast that the arena in Athens was pretty full. Everybody wanted to see the debut of the U.S. team. Before they started playing, both teams lined up for a group picture. Every single photographer turned to photograph the U.S. team. And the Puerto Rican team, they just stood there. The whistle blows. The start of the game, it was pretty tight back and forth.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #24: United States leading early by two.

VARELA: Puerto Rico didn't really start off strong. They just played enough to keep it close.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #24: An impressive start for Puerto Rico.

VARELA: I was like, OK. All right. How long is this going to last? This will be entertaining until the U.S. scores, like, 80 points in a row, and then we're down by 60.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #24: And there's the buzzer, ending the first quarter.

VARELA: But for me, things really kicked off in the second quarter when Carlos Arroyo found Piculin with a super cool pass.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNGLE FIRE'S "JAMBU")

VARELA: Here it comes. Here it comes. Look at this pass. Hello. Hello.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #24: Carlos Arroyo. Oh, what a ball fake.

VARELA: And then it begins. Something just clicks. And Puerto Rico has this sequence of amazing plays.

(CHEERING)

VARELA: Little by little in the broadcast, you start to notice that most of the people in the arena were rooting for Puerto Rico. And how could you not root for Carlos Arroyo that day? He had these super flashy passes. He was making incredible shots, just dominating the court.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #24: Excellent ballhandling from Carlos Arroyo. Bodies flying all over the place - Arroyo with the steal.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: Flor watched Puerto Rico nail shot after shot.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He says he noticed the U.S. players in a bad mood, frustrated. And it was probably because the Puerto Rican strategy seemed to be working. Here's Rolando Hourruitiner.

HOURRUITINER: You know, we were pretty physical. And we were really giving it to them, you know? And then it's something that they were not used to it. And it was our turn to talk trash. Go ahead and shoot it. You don't want to shoot it, right? Go ahead, shoot it. Let me see it. Let me see your shot, right?

VARELA: As the second quarter ticked down, Puerto Rico's lead just kept growing.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #24: Hard to believe I'm saying this, but the United States trails by 20. And there's the buzzer ending the first half, a disastrous first half for the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNGLE FIRE'S "JAMBU")

VARELA: At halftime, the score was 49 to 27, 22-point lead for Puerto Rico. And you could see it on the faces of the American coaches. They looked so dejected. Meanwhile, at 1 p.m. in Puerto Rico, Hiram Martinez, then a sports editor at El Nuevo Dia, was getting ready to turn on the game when his wife asked him to go to the mall with her to pick something up.

HIRAM MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: Reluctantly, Hiram goes to the mall and finds a store window with the televisions turned to the game.

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: About a hundred people were crowded around doing the same thing. And to Hiram's surprise, Puerto Rico's doing pretty well in the first minutes. But he thinks, who cares?

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: They're just going to come back and slam us. So he heads back home in the car when he gets a call from his daughter.

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: Are you watching the game, she asks?

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Hiram's like, no. Why bother? And she says, we're winning. Soon, Hiram is getting frantic calls from the newspaper.

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: Where are you? Get over here. We're beating the U.S. And we're beating them good.

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Even the Puerto Rican players in the locker room at halftime were surprised at the score. Here's Rolando.

HOURRUITINER: First of all, my first thought was, are we really beating this team by 19? That was my first thought - right? - go walk into the locker room. And second was like, wow, I have more pressure now than I did at the beginning of the game because this is a brand-new game, twenty brand-new minutes. And you know they're going to come back stronger.

VARELA: You thought, the Americans were going to make a run eventually and come back and beat us. They had to.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #25: (Unintelligible).

VARELA: The third quarter is also really back and forth. The U.S. makes points...

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #26: Good drive to the basket, pretty move from Allen Iverson.

VARELA: But Puerto Rico maintains its lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #26: Arroyo inside and the lead back up to 21.

VARELA: The quarter closes 65-48. Puerto Rico's still leading by 17 points. And then the fourth quarter starts, and that's when things get scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: It starts with about nine minutes left on the clock. Puerto Rico's up by 15. And LeBron James...

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #27: James, wide open and hits the 3. LeBron James from downtown, and it's a 12-point game.

VARELA: It was the first 3 for the United States in a long time, and then they just keep making baskets.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #27: Lamar Odom cuts the lead to 12.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #26: Iverson for 3.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #27: Boy, that's a huge bucket as we go into the five-minute mark.

VARELA: On the court, Rolando watched as Puerto Rico's hard-fought lead disappeared from 22 at halftime to just 8 points.

HOURRUITINER: I would look up at the clock. I'm like - to me, it's like hurry up and finish, right? I just want to end this game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Suddenly, it looked like the U.S. could turn the tide in the final minutes. But then...

(CHEERING)

VARELA: Right here, baby. Right here, Carlos - Carlitos.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #27: Fight for the rebound, here comes Arroyo.

VARELA: Carlitos.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #27: Arroyo draws the foul and 1.

VARELA: That was awesome - up by 11.

Puerto Rico answers the charge. Suddenly, only one minute remains. Puerto Rico is back to leading by 20, and it's clear the U.S. has run out of time to catch up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: Back in San Juan at the offices of El Nuevo Dia, at that very moment, Hiram finally exhaled.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: With victory near, the coach takes Carlos Arroyo out of the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #26: Carlos Arroyo, the game of his life - 24 points - as he comes out.

VARELA: As he walks off the court, cocky as all hell, he looks at the stands and grabs his jersey and pulls forward the part where it says Puerto Rico, as if to show everybody watching the name of the place he's from.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Oh, that was awesome when he did that.

In part, it was a gesture of defiance to a U.S. player who had fouled him a few moments ago. But to many in the audience watching, the message was way bigger than that.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: Flor says that it was like Carlos was telling the Americans...

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: "Look. We're the powerful ones."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: In the newsroom in San Juan, people started hugging each other. Tears were falling.

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: Hiram was so shaken up with joy that he says he felt like a brand-new journalist at a loss for how to do his job.

The final score, 92-73.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS TELECAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #26: It's finally happened. The United States loses an Olympic play with NBA players. And they showed some signs in the second half, but dug themselves too big a hole. And an experienced team led by a brilliant performance in Carlos Arroyo put the game away.

VARELA: On the court at Athens, Rolando remembers that final moment as having this dream-like, out-of-body quality.

HOURRUITINER: You come off the court celebrating. But at the same time, you're not still believing what happened. And then you're being interviewed in Italian by the Italian press. It's a lot of things happening at the same time that you are - you know, you are consumed by all this, and you don't even know how to react. You are kind of numb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: Back at the offices of El Nuevo Dia, everyone was buzzing to get the paper ready for the morning. They had already decided on the cover when Hiram saw a photo come in that instantly caught his eye. It's of Carlos Arroyo from that moment he walked off the court showing off his Puerto Rico jersey. It was this quick moment on the court. If you blinked, you could have missed it. But here, captured by the camera, there's something special about that image. And Hiram says....

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: "This is the photo."

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: The layout designer was like, no way, we already have the cover. But Hiram's like, this is the photo. This is the photo we're going to be talking about 50, 100 years from now. This needs to be the cover.

MARTÍNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: All night long, the island celebrates the win. The next morning, the team wakes up and heads, mostly together, to the cafeteria for breakfast. And as they walked through the Olympic Village...

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: ...All the delegations of athletes from around the world were there.

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: And as they walked into the cafeteria...

VARELA: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARELA: ...Flor says you'd think it was a Puerto Rican party. Everybody from the Germans, the Iraqis - all of them stood up, stopped eating and clapped for Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELÉNDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARELA: He says it's something one never imagined could happen. They were getting a standing ovation from the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, Shereen. So the things you said you remember most about that game were, you know, Carlos Arroyo was really cute.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yes.

DEMBY: You were with your family, your Puerto Rican family. And there was this whole...

MERAJI: I was.

DEMBY: ...You know, back-and-forth - very heated back-and-forth over who y'all should be rooting for. And I'm assuming three is that against all the odds against - I mean, they were, like...

MERAJI: All the odds.

DEMBY: ...Major underdogs. They should have got blown out by 30 - Puerto Rico won.

MERAJI: And they didn't just win by, like, 2 points.

DEMBY: Yeah, they stomped. They stomped.

MERAJI: They jumped your boy Allen Iverson.

DEMBY: To the point where, like, U.S. basketball had to do some soul searching. Like, they are literally like we are - they literally reorganized the entire U.S. basketball operation because of this loss. Like, that was how bad it was. Like, it was humiliation. Oh, my God.

MERAJI: Everybody in my Titi Ida and Uncle Ralph's house was happy, elated.

DEMBY: Oh, even the people who were rooting for U.S.? Interesting, interesting.

MERAJI: Nobody was really rooting for the United States. Come on. The U.S. did not beat us on August 15, 2004. And it is a day that I will never forget.

DEMBY: Oh, wow. That's so sweet.

MERAJI: It was actually the last time I saw my Titi Ida and my Uncle Ralph alive, not to bring it down. But yeah, it was the last time I saw them alive. It was an amazing game. It was an amazing memory - really, really special for me.

And I know so many Puerto Ricans have their own memories of that win - where they were in their lives, what was going on, what it meant to them, whether you were born and raised in Puerto Rico, whether you can speak perfect Spanish or not, you know, whether you grew up stateside with a Puerto Rican mom and, dare I say it, an Iranian dad - because that's how I have to end every episode.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Just in - that's - you're talking about you.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that is our show. Big thanks to the "La Brega" podcast, hosted by Alana Casanova-Burgess, and to Julio Ricardo Varela, who reported on the episode. He co-hosts the podcast "In The Thick."

MERAJI: Julio Ricardo Varela.

DEMBY: You showing off. We are back next week with more CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace. And here's Alana with the rest of the credits.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: "La Brega" is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios. This episode was produced by Marlon Bishop, Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino and Mark Pagán. The story was edited by Luis Trelles, fact-checking by Gabriel Aviles Aponte (ph). Engineering is by Stephanie LeBeau (ph). Original music for "La Brega" was composed by Balún, and our theme song is by ÌFÉ. Art for this piece was done by Mya Pagán.

Leadership support for "La Brega" is provided by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support provided by Amy Liss. Special thanks to Marga Pabon, Noel Algarín and to Julio Cesar Torres, who made a great documentary about basketball in Puerto Rico called "Nuyorican Básquet," and you should seriously go see it. Oh - and Julio has one last part of the story to tell you.

VARELA: There's another happy ending for this story. For Rolando Hourruitíner, Athens changed his life in more ways than one. He met his wife in Athens.

HOURRUITINER: She did synchronized swimming for Puerto Rico.

VARELA: He met her on his way to the cafeteria the morning after the game.

HOURRUITINER: I came with more than what I thought I was going to come back with, right?

VARELA: Question - do you think you winning, beating the United States kind of added, you know, it's like high school in the cafeteria. You're like, oh, my God...

HOURRUITINER: No, I don't think so. I don't think so 'cause I really had to battle, right? I really had to bring my A game.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ÌFÉ: (Vocalizing).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And coming up next episode, the people standing on the long line of Puerto Rico's debt and their struggle to collect what the government owes them. (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ÌFÉ: (Vocalizing).

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