Pro Basketball in Puerto Rico

By Don Kelbick

I had the pleasure this week of spending time with the Arecibo Capitanes of the Baloncestro Superior National League (BSN) in Puerto Rico.

The BSN has long been known as a high caliber league that has been fertile ground for players and coaches trying to make a name for themselves. Before the advent of the NBA Summer League, this was the place to be if you wanted to get noticed. Because it is a spring/summer league, it has provided opportunity for college players to be seen before NBA training camps, free agent players trying to catch on and coaches to gain experience. It also gives players a chance to play a season, be seen and then go to a country that plays a traditional winter season.

The number of players that have come through this league is too long to list. In the league now are NBA vets, among others, Jelani McCoy (Sonics, Lakers Cavs, etc), Lee Nailon (Knicks, Cavs, Hawks, etc. and the only player to lead NCAA Div I in scoring and rebounding two years in a row), Shavlik Randolph (Heat, 6ers), Kevin Hamilton (Nets), Michael Sweetney (Knicks, Bulls) and, until his sudden and tragic death, Robert (Tractor) Tailor (Cavs).

Coaches who have been through the BSN include Hubie Brown, Phil Jackson (who was fired twice), Rollie Massimino and P. J. Carlesimo. At the present time, there are at least 4 coaches in the league who are also nation coaches in other countries.

Arecibo is a city about 1 1/2 hours SW of San Juan, on the north shore of the island. They are the defending BSN Champions. They have a strong roster with ex-NBA players and Puerto Rican players that have big reputations playing in the top leagues all around the world. Larry Ayuso, who led USC to their last Sweet Sixteen NCAA Tournament appearance, is their leading scorer and was one of the high scorers on the National Team that beat the USA in the 2004 Olympics.

I have said many times that pro players have something different inside of them that separate them from players that don’t make it. That was very evident here the first time I walked into the arena. They were playing a game scheduled for 8 pm. Practice was at 11 am. We arrived a little before 10 and already there was more than half of the roster was already on the floor working out. That is more common early in the season, but here they only have 4 games left before the playoffs.

The first player I ran into was Donald Copeland, whom I was familiar with from trying to recruit him when he played for the legendary coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s HS in Jersey City and his college career at Seton Hall. I asked how he was doing and how he liked it. He said he thought it was great. “There is an expectation of championship here… and you can’t beat that.” That is why so many players were out working long before practice. The coaches don’t say anything but the feeling is if you are not committed to winning a championship, you won’t be here. Since this is one of the best paying teams in the league, everyone wants to be here.

The game against Isabela was a little uneven. Isabela was at the bottom of the league and Arecibo was on top, but in the 3rd quarter Isabela was up 13. Arecibo played with great trust in each other. They defended through the end of the 3rd quarter, really ratcheted up in the 4th. Their offense kicked in, out scored Isabela 18-4 down the stretch and won by 6. I was impressed by the business-like fashion they went about their jobs. Never getting down on each other or upset. Everyone contributed and shared the load.

I was a little torn because playing for Isabela was one of my workout clients, Jesus Verdejo. Jesus played college ball at Arizona and University of South Florida. I researched him before he came to me and I notice he was a 53% foul shooter for his career. We worked on his whole game but I spent special attention to the mental side of his free throw shooting. Against Arecibo, he shot 8-10 from the floor and 3-3 from the foul line. His FT % is now over 73%. I was happy for what he has accomplished.

The “expectation of championship” was on display again the next day. Practice was called for 3 pm. We arrived shortly before 1 and there they were again. Players, on the floor, working on their games – 2 hours before practice the day after a game. After practice, I stayed on the court to work with some players. Copeland, Danilo Pinnock, who spent some time with the Lakers, and Guillermo Diaz, who played for the Clippers. I had known Guillermo since he was in high school, then University of Miami. We have been working together for a long time. The 4 of us stayed on the court for just over an hour. Given the situation (game the night before, full practice plus the extra work) I was really impressed by how hard they worked. Guillermo made it easier for me. He had told them how we worked out and, given that he is one of the best players in the league; it was easy for them to buy in.

The next day was a road game in Mayaguez, about 1 1/2 hours southwest of Arecibo. Because of the travel, there was no pre-game practice (even “expectation of championship” has its limits). But again, for an 8 pm game, we walked in the gym at 5 and most of the players were there working out. We got on the court and shot and dribbled until about 6:30 when they went in, and dressed for the game. I thought it was odd that the visiting team was on the floor at 5:00 but the first player for the home team didn’t appear on the floor until 6:45.

Once again “expectation of championship” was evident. The coaches did not tell the players to be early and work hard. The players decided that on their own. But the atmosphere that was created around the team made it easy for them to make that commitment.

If you are ever in Puerto Rico during the summer months and enjoy basketball, I highly recommend attending a game. There are 4 teams near San Juan so if you are vacationing in that area, there will always be a game. The atmosphere at the games is great, the style of play is exciting and the players are very good. The league usually runs from April thru June, with the playoffs stretching into August. Most of the games are on TV, so if you can’t make it, you can still enjoy it.

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