Anatomy of Puerto Rico basketball's downward spiral

Carlos Arroyo celebrates Puerto Rico's 92-73 victory over the United States in the opening basketball game of the Athens 2004 Olympics. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Editors Note: Lea la versión original en español aquí.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Puerto Rican national basketball team's resounding victory over the United States at the Athens Olympic Games on Aug. 15, 2004, still resonates in every corner of the Caribbean island.

That first defeat of the so-called "Dream Team" in the opening game of the Olympic basketball tournament perhaps represents the most celebrated victory in Puerto Rican sports and the peak of the island's love and passion for the sport. On each anniversary since, the iconic photo of the former Utah Jazz point guard, Carlos Arroyo, displaying his shirt in triumph appears online and Puerto Ricans recall where they were and what they were doing on that summer Sunday afternoon.

Achievements of great international importance, such as fourth place at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and at the 1990 World Championships in Argentina and the gold medal at the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, had served as an appetizer for this main course, prepared to perfection by Arroyo and a stifling defense that unsettled a star-studded American quintet including NBA players Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson and a young Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, among others.

"It was a victory full of emotions. In my case, after 23 years with the national team, it brought an important chapter in my career to a close," recalled former Puerto Rican center, José ‘Piculín' Ortiz, who bid farewell to international competition after participating in four Olympics (1988, 1992, 1996 and 2004) and five World Championships (1986, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002).

"It was a great victory. But unfortunately it was just that: a victory. I would have liked it to have been a medal," he said.

In fact, Puerto Rico failed to build on that momentum from the start of the Olympic basketball tournament. It was defeated by Lithuania and Greece in the first round and later missed out on a place in the semifinals after losing to Italy in the quarters. The dream of an Olympic medal was extinguished with a sixth-place finish, a bitter taste masked by the great victory.

Worse still, from that moment on, Puerto Rican basketball has gradually lost its international standing. Puerto Rico found it increasingly difficult to qualify for world-class tournaments, and the few times they did qualify, the results were way below expectations.

A year after the Athens Games, Puerto Rico participated in the FIBA Americas Championship in the Dominican Republic and failed in their bid to qualify directly for the 2006 World Championships in Japan, although they received an invitation from the International Basketball Federation (FIBA).

In Japan, however, Puerto Rico was eliminated in the first round after posting a 2-3 record. It suffered the same fate in the next two World Championships, at Turkey 2010 (1-4) and Spain 2014 (1-4). The outcome was even worse in their Olympic endeavors. Following Athens, Puerto Rico has been absent from the last two Olympics (Beijing 2008 and London 2012) and, if it fails to qualify for Rio 2016, this will represent the longest period without making an Olympic Games since their debut in 1960.

The Caribbean side has found the going so tough in international basketball that one of its leading figures, J.J. Barea, has already won an NBA title but has not yet had a chance to play at the Olympics.

What happened to Puerto Rican basketball?

For ESPN Deportes basketball analyst, Carlos Morales, many factors have played a part since that epic victory on Greek soil.

"On the one hand, it spelled the end for a group of players who had played for the team for a long time. Piculín Ortiz, who had been a major player for the national team, had retired by 2005, as had Rolando Hourruitiner, among others," said Morales, who coached the Puerto Rican national team from 1993 to '98, achieving a sixth-place finish at the 1994 World Championships in Toronto.

"I think one of our weaknesses has been to try and link the fate of the team to one or two players. We are over-reliant on one or two names instead of being more compact, depending more on the group," he added.

Morales pointed out that international basketball has evolved since 2004 and teams now rely on versatile players. "It's not how it used to be, where it was enough to have three shooters and a big man," he said. "Nowadays, teams have four shooters who come out of the paint and make life difficult for the opposing defense."

However, perhaps the decline of Puerto Rican basketball on the international stage is related to two areas that go beyond individuals and concern the philosophy of work.

According to Morales, Puerto Rico has not been able to give its national team any long-term continuity due to constant changes in the coaching staff and the problems it has faced in developing local basketball players.

"Rubén Magnano has been coaching the Brazilian national team for five years," he said, referring to the coach who led Argentina to Olympic gold in 2004 and has coached Brazil since 2010. "And in the time he has been there, Puerto Rico has already gone through four ‘coaches (Manolo Cintrón, Flor Meléndez, Francisco "Paco" Olmos and Rick Pitino). In a recent interview, Magnano said he had been given the opportunity to establish a philosophy for his players and to work towards that, in spite of the fact that it had not always been successful. And that's important."

The ban on college players in Puerto Rico's top basketball league, Baloncesto Superior Nacional (BSN), has also been a factor, since the local tournament was the hotbed of talent for many young hopefuls who went on to wear the national jersey and who began to come into contact with international players and styles of play from an early age. After the BSN declared itself to be a professional league, no players could participate in it while they were eligible to play in American college basketball.

"To that you can add the fact that there are fewer teams in the league and, therefore, a smaller talent pool and that up to three reinforcements are allowed. Sometimes there are only two Puerto Rican players on a team's roster. At the end of the day, what do we have? A national team made up of players who are substitutes in the Puerto Rican league," said Morales, whose resumé includes two BSN titles with the Atléticos de San Germán (1991 and 1994).

The Puerto Rican Basketball Federation's current director of national teams, Georgie Rosario, agreed with Morales in that Puerto Rico failed to create a structure to address two main issues: the development of players with the characteristics for international basketball and the guarantee of a generational change.

"What happened for decades in Puerto Rican basketball? Neither of the two things happened," said Rosario, who also claimed, however, that Puerto Rico's victory over the United States is not necessarily the pinnacle of basketball on the island.

"It's wrong to use the victory over the ‘Dream Team as an indicator of anything. ... Sometimes victories and defeats are false indicators," he said. "You think that because you won a game, you're playing good basketball but that's not necessarily the case. For decades there was no organized system in the country to ensure the development of players and a generational change."

In the same vein, Ortiz said "nobody in Puerto Rico ever thought of the 'B' teams. We should put the development of talent first, but instead we always focus on the 'A' team and no specific adjustments have been made to bring us in line with the rest of the world, where the emphasis is on player development."

Light at the end of the tunnel

It's not all doom and gloom for Puerto Rican basketball.

Beginning in 2010, the Basketball Federation put a training project in place which aims to develop players with the characteristics for international basketball and ensure proper generational change.

Rosario explained the project consists of four main components: recruitment, enhancement, measurement and competition. The program identifies talented players from an early age, trains them in seven-month workshops before bringing them together to monitor their progress with the national team's coaching staff.

The project has already begun to bear fruit. The Under-17 team, whose members began this new project three years earlier, finished fifth in the 2014 World Basketball Championships in Dubai.

However, Rosario takes this and any other partial result with a grain of salt.

"As you inevitably win and lose in sport, people may think that it is an achievement if you win and a failure if you lose, but that would trivialize the project," the federation head said.

The focus is on the 2023 World Championships, where the Puerto Rican team will be made up of a group of mature players who will put what they have learned over the years into practice.

"From 2018, there will be a group of guys aged 20, 21 and 22, products of this project, who will be gradually integrated into the team. The 2023 World Championships will be the final exam," Rosario said.

Meanwhile, under the leadership of Pitino, and with Barea as the flag-bearer, Puerto Rico will aim to secure the much sought-after Olympic qualification and bring more joy to the country. A road that begins this Monday in Mexico.