Spanish version here.
Throughout history, there have been numerous unforgettable and historical achievements within the Latino community. Legendary stories of achievement and success which we eagerly share with future generations and will forever remain enshrined in our hearts and minds as having ultimately elevated our pride. In essence, moments and memories that undoubtedly remain with us until our final days.
The day of August 15, 2004 will forever be remembered by Puerto Ricans from every corner of the island, within the diaspora in the United States, and across the world as one of our proudest moments when our small island’s national basketball team achieved the unthinkable. That day Puerto Ricans from all local political affiliations and social economic backgrounds united and rejoiced over a truly astonishing and proud moment in Puerto Rico’s history.
That day was the day Puerto Rico became the first country in history to defeat the United States national basketball team in the Olympics since NBA players were permitted play in international competitions.
A United States team lead by NBA superstars Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony were the favorites to easily breeze their way through the 2004 Olympics. The team’s numerous pre-Olympic games all pointed in that direction. The United States has always dominated the world of international basketball, and 2004 was expected to be no different.
However, all of that changed during the opening game of the 2004 Olympics basketball tournament when the Puerto Rican national team, led by legendary FIBA Hall of Fame center José “Piculín” Ortiz, veteran sharpshooters Eddie Casiano and Larry Ayuso, and the young legs of Rolando Hourrutinier, Bobby Joe Hatton, and Carlos Arroyo shocked the entire basketball world by outplaying and humiliating the elite U.S. team. The final score was 92-73. CNN described the historic win as “one of the biggest upsets in Olympics history.”
There are two reasons why I wanted to write this article for Latino Rebels. First, with the 2019 FIBA World Cup taking place as we speak, it is important to remember this historical moment in international basketball history, as once again the U.S. is favored to win this year’s FIBA title. Second, a quick Google search of Puerto Rico’s 2004 victory renders a series of stories centered on both directly and/or indirectly attempting to justify the United States defeat rather than give that year’s Puerto Rican national team the credit it has always deserved.
In summary, it was time to set the record straight.
After all, how can you justify a defeat when Arroyo did this to Iverson?
“The players on the U.S. roster were too young” or “This American squad was not a real Dream Team” are just some of the most common positions exerted by many basketball pundits and sportswriters. I respectfully disagree.
It is unconscionable to conveniently fail to point out that the United States’ national team at the 2004 Olympics counted with the services of NBA stars at the peak of their careers. Duncan, arguably one of the best big men to ever play in the NBA, was a dominant superstar and had led the San Antonio Spurs to an NBA championship the year before facing Puerto Rico in Athens. Iverson was the NBA’s most dominant scorer at the time, nearly unstoppable on the open court. There’s a reason why AI is in the Hall of Fame. The addition of a young trio of young NBA prospects in Wade, Anthony, and a man who would later become known as the “King” (James), and there was no doubt that the United States national team was a clear favorite to totally dominate the 2004 Olympics in Greece.
So who better to recount what happened that historic night than some of the very players who played for Puerto Rico in that 2004? Latino Rebels had the chance to connect with three key members of that legendary team: Ortiz, Hourrutinier and Hatton. In the following interview conducted separately, they shared information never revealed before about that win.
Phillip Arroyo: At what moment of the game did you all realize that the team actually had a chance to come out with a win against the U.S., or did the team always feel like they had a shot to win going into the game?
Piculín Ortiz: Well, we had an exhibition game against them Jacksonville in preparation for the 2004 Olympics in Greece and Coach Julio Toro had decided for us to apply a zone defense on them in that game, and we noticed a certain vulnerability. At that moment Coach Toro realized this vulnerability and immediately took off with the zone. After that, the rest is history.
When we faced them again at the Olympics, we started to run the same zone defense while also double teaming within the inside post, and it was at that very moment that we realized that we would be able to dominate the game against them. Coach Toro basically said, “Let’s just pressure them and make them as uncomfortable as possible within the post and just let them take all the outside shots they want.”
Obviously, we played very well. It wasn’t necessarily a perfect game, but we played very well, and they just happened to have a bad night, so it is important to have both things in perspective. Of course, when they cut our lead to nine points, we started to get worried, but their poor play on the offensive end overwhelmed them.
Rolando Hourrutinier: We always went into games thinking we can win the game, you know. In this case, we had played various scrimmage games against them so we were able to get a feel for them and adjust to their style of play. So, going into the first game of the tournament, coach Toro decided to change the strategy where we would then start to apply pressure in the post. And that seemed to work throughout the game.
One thing that remains in my memory is when I looked up to the clock and it read that there were only eight or nine minutes left, and we were up by almost 20 points, but after a couple of plays by them they cut our lead to nine, and I remember feeling like the clock started to run very slow like a sand clock! (Laughs.) I remember thinking to myself, “Man, the time is going by real slow.” They made a final run, but then I believe Carlos Arroyo hit a jumper, Piculín hit a bank shot, and I hit a 3-pointer in the corner, so those were all daggers that put the game away, and at that moment I knew we had them. Near the end, I scored an uncontested layup and a lot of people asked me why I didn’t dunk the ball, but I was just very tired. I was physically and mentally tired. To play against a guy like Tim Duncan was not easy. I played like 33 minutes in the game and of those 33, I played like 30 against Tim, who by the way is just an all-around great guy.
I would say that at around halftime we knew that we were probably going to win the game if we kept doing what we were doing.
I will also never forget when we arrived at the Olympic teams’ cafeteria the next day after winning, where we were received with a standing ovation from the majority of countries there. It seemed like they were all proud of us, because in a sense many of the other countries have always been considered underdogs as well. That was great.
Bobby Joe Hatton: We knew the type of team they had. They had some young players, but when you face Team USA, it is always going to be hard. But we had played them various times including a game in Jacksonville and we always knew that we could beat them because we knew their game. Over the years as a player of the Puerto Rico National Team, I had never seen us play so perfect as we did that night. For us to have won that game we had to play an almost perfect game, and everyone contributed, the starting five and the bench. Eddie Casiano came off the bench and scored 18 and what Arroyo did in that game was priceless, and of course without Piculín’s epic game against Canada in the Olympics classification phase, we wouldn’t have even made it to the Olympics that year.
There were many factors that combined for us to come away with the win. We had a good balance of young players and veterans, and we prepared very well for that game. I had the ball in the final seconds of that game and threw the ball in the air when the clock concluded, and the feeling was indescribable. I would say it was similar to when Tito Trinidad defeated Oscar De la Hoya. You always dream of winning a gold medal, and even though we didn’t, handing Team USA its first defeat in the Olympics was is as if we did win the gold medal. In regards, to some allegations out there trying to justify Team USA’s defeat against us, I would say it’s just bullshit, you know, because that team every time we played with them in the past, they would beat us by 20 or 30 points. There is no excuse for them. We played well and executed, and they didn’t. Period. Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and the entire team was in their prime, the only ones who weren’t was Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony. There is no excuse.
Phillip Arroyo: Was there any trash talking or rivalry on the court that night among the players? We have heard rumors about alleged trash talking by Richard Jefferson and Dwayne Wade? Any truth to that?
Piculín Ortiz: There is always a rivalry or trash talking on the court, and there was trash talking between Dwayne Wade and Carlos Arroyo. In Richard Jefferson’s case, there was trash talking with Eddie Casiano, because every once in a while, Jefferson would throw a comment here and there. Also, that night, Carlos Arroyo was really dominating Wade, and that frustrated Dwayne and they almost went at it.
Bobby Joe Hatton: There was trash talking between Richard Jefferson and Eddie Casiano. As you know, Eddie Casiano is not afraid of anybody, he doesn’t care who you are. Of course, when you trash talk, you have to back it up, and Eddie really backed it up with his play that game. (Laughs.) I think one of the comments Jefferson told Casiano was something along the lines of “At least I make millions of dollars as opposed to you all” or something like that and Eddie wasn’t having it. And then Eddie shortly after made the infamous 30 footer shot from the volleyball line near half court at the end of the game. (Laughs.) In Dwayne Wade’s case, there was trash talking between Carlos Arroyo and Wade, but not too much. Carlos played very well against Wade that night, and at the end Carlos flashed his jersey to Wade, but I don’t think it was in a disrespectful way. He just flashed his Puerto Rico jersey to Wade as if to say, look what we accomplished as a country, you know.
Phillip Arroyo: Did you ever feel a conflict of identity considering Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States? How did it feel to wear the Team Puerto Rico jersey?
Piculín Ortiz: It has always been an honor and I have never felt a conflict of identity and I have always said it. I don’t consider myself part of the United States. I was born with a U.S. passport, of which I have always said I am not proud of as being a Puerto Rican walking around with a U.S. passport. And that’s just the way I am. That is my personal identity and if someone has a problem with that, well, sorry. But I have never felt American. I have always felt as being a Puerto Rican and I think that everybody should feel the same way. Of course, there are people that do not recognize Puerto Rico as a nation and see the United States as their nation and I respect that, but in my case, I have always been a Puerto Rican first. And when I would wear the Puerto Rico jersey, I was 1000 % Puerto Rican. There were some people in Puerto Rico that would say that we didn’t really beat the U.S. because Puerto Rico is an American jurisdiction, but what I have always said to that is how it shows the colonial mentality of some in Puerto Rico. As I have always said, if those people think that way, well, they should pick one of the 50 states and move there, but I am from here. I respect everyone’s ideals, but I consider we are not a part of the United States and those are just my thoughts.
Rolando Hourrutinier: I have never had a conflict of identity during my career as I have always been proud of being Puerto Rican and was proud of representing Puerto Rico in the Olympics. Obviously, the whole political status issue and the passport is something that must be solved because it is a very important issue in Puerto Rico, however, I never felt like I was confused or that I had an identity issue while representing our country, Puerto Rico.
Bobby Joe Hatton: For me, wearing the Puerto Rico jersey was wearing the jersey of my country, regardless of whether or not we are a colony or territory of whatever you want to call us, it is our island. I know we belong to the U.S., but in international competition its Puerto Rico vs. the USA, which reminds me how after winning that game I remember reading an article titled “The Colony Defeats the Empire.” (Laughs.) So when it comes to sports we are our own country. I have never seen myself as part of the United States when we played. Never.
Phillip Arroyo: At one point after the game, Allen Iverson stated to the media that he congratulated you all for the victory and that “Puerto Rico won because they played the game the way it was supposed to be played.” What are your thoughts in regard to this statement considering how such a prolific scorer like Iverson with such flashy play gave props to the fundamental style of basketball you all played that night?
Rolando Hourrutinier: I would say that Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan are two guys who we were able to develop a nice relationship with over the years. Allen is such a great human being and great guy and for him to say that really meant a lot because he recognized that we played the game it was supposed to be played and how because of that we were able to beat them.
Bobby Joe Hatton: We had the opportunity to hang out a lot with Iverson, especially at the Caribe Hilton during the 2003 Pre-Olympic tournament in San Juan, and he is a guy that when you meet him, you realize he is actually a really humble guy. I am still a fan of his. What he did in the NBA despite of his height is amazing. Not too many people have done what he has done. I believe he is the shortest player to ever win a scoring title. The guy is a just a great guy to be around with.
Phillip Arroyo: What’s your opinion of the current team PR playing in this year’s FIBA World Cup in China and their long-term prospects?
Piculín Ortiz: I think they are a good young team who rightfully deserved their classification for the World Cup. They won within their region, but the World Cup is going to be a lot harder and is a totally different story, but I think they have a good opportunity to gain a lot of experience at the World Cup this year, and whether they win or lose I am sure they will do a good job on the floor.
Rolando Hourrutinier: I think they are a good team, and one of the reasons they are good is because they know how to play together as a team which is very important. [National team coach] Eddie Casiano is doing a great job. Eddie and I were always roommates when we traveled to represent team Puerto Rico in international play and he always used to stress how important it was to play selflessly, share the ball and play together which is something he has instilled to this team in China. So, they are facing a good Iran and Tunisia team and of course Spain but I think this is the toughest Puerto Rican team there has been in a while because they play collectively and are not focused on individual stats.
Bobby Joe Hatton: The team that went to the Pan-American Games impressed me a lot. No one expected that team to get so far and they did, so my hats off to them. I would have liked for two or three players of that team to have been on this team at the World Cup. However, it wouldn’t have been right to add those players and take out the players who helped Puerto Rico get to this World Cup, and I wouldn’t have liked that happening to me, so I understand. The World Cup is going to be hard. Every time it gets harder and harder. The European teams just get better and better and they start playing more and more like NBA players. A lot of the guys on those teams are actually in the NBA now, so it will be tough. However, I don’t have the USA as the favorites to win the gold medal. The Serbia team is just a brutal team. Team USA does however have the best coach in basketball in Coach [Gregg] Popovich, so we will see.
Phillip Arroyo: Any words to the future generation of Puerto Rican players on the island and in the diaspora?
Piculín Ortiz: A lot of times, we don’t understand certain situations that life gives us along the way. I had the opportunity to play and study at Oregon State. I played in the NBA, although I did not last long because maybe I wasn’t a good fit with the team I played with, but I went to have a great international career. We all have many doors along the way, and the only basic thing to know is that you have to train hard. For those who live in the United States there will be opportunities, but just because they live over there doesn’t mean they will make it. It will not happen overnight, at the end of the day it depends on you. I say the same here in Puerto Rico. There is a journey you have to walk and if you want to get far, you have to train and prepare yourself. I always preach this because sometimes you have kids out there and even their parents saying, “No, my son is a great player,” to which I always respond that he is not a great player yet. He is just a prospect and he needs to train and prepare himself. From 16 years on, a player has to work hard for it on a daily basis.
Rolando Hourrutinier: My advice would be for them to focus on their goal and not let things that occur along the way in life to make them get distracted and be unable to reach their goals. Sometimes, you have a clear goal, but you let yourself become distracted during the journey to reach that goal. Not everyone will make it to the NBA, Euro League or national team, but if you have a goal and dream you have to focus on doing what has to be done to reach that goal and to do it the right way which requires discipline and dedication.
Bobby Joe Hatton: The message I would give them is that if they haven’t seen the video of Piculín Ortiz’s speech the other day during his induction ceremony into the FIBA Hall of Fame, they should watch it, so they can learn what it feels like to represent Puerto Rico, and the dedication required to succeed.
Phillip Arroyo is a writer, civil rights activist and political analyst who frequently appears on numerous national and international media outlets. Mr. Arroyo served both in the Puerto Rico Senate, the Puerto Rico Department of State and was selected as the only Puerto Rican to serve in the 2012 White House Internship, having worked in the office of the Vice President Joe Biden, where he analyzed domestic and economic issues while at the White House. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillipArroyo.