Edgardo J. Ortiz had been working alone, searching for players for the Puerto Rican senior and youth national basketball teams, when he contacted Carlos Martínez Olmo. Martínez Olmo had been, according to Ortiz and his friend Marcos R. Carlo Figueroa, “the best in the business at searching for players with Puerto Rican roots.”
But Ortiz and Carlo had a vision for Puerto Rican basketball that transcended what we had seen up to that point in 2017, shortly after Hurricane María, which was enough to pull Martinez Olmo out of retirement.
“Martínez Olmo is the father of this,” Carlo tells Latino Rebels. “He’s the father of the Nuyoricans for Puerto Rican basketball’s modern history right now, in my opinion. This all started like 20 years ago, with him. He had retired from searching for the Nuyoricans, and we got him out of retirement.”
??Shabazz Napier Velásquez demostrando su puertorriqueñidad luego de la clasificación. Napier Velasquez es hijo de Carmen Velásquez de padres puertorriqueños. Identificado en el 2010 por Carlos Martínez Olmo, pilar del grupo PURBASKET. #SELLOPURBASKET pic.twitter.com/bBHjnIRvQg
— PURBASKET (@purbasket1) February 21, 2021
If a Puerto Rican basketball player is playing, you know that PURBASKET is watching. And they’ll almost certainly showcase them on their page, whether they’ve had a game-high 25 points or just logged five minutes of play, accumulating one rebound and one assist. The 24/7 revolutionary recruiting group based in Puerto Rico, consisting of Ortiz, Carlo, Martínez Olmo, Jean C. Pérez Torres, and Elvin González, have made it their mission to document the journey of Puerto Rican basketball.
With that comes narrating the rise of the next generation as the current one evolves, and by doing so, they highlight countless players from youth to senior levels who are of Puerto Rican descent.
“This is a hobby for us,” Carlo, who works in customer services on the island, tells Latino Rebels. “We love this, and we’re passionate. We don’t earn any money for the things that we do. I can say that it’s 100,000 hours of work. It’s not just going to the internet and searching for a Latin American last name; it’s many things all-around. You need to search for the cities, the hometown, the grandfather, the father, the mother.”
Along with connecting with families of Puerto Rican heritage, the goal for PURBASKET initially was to find players who could play in Baloncesto Superior Nacional (BSN) and Baloncesto Superior Nacional Femenino (BSNF), Puerto Rico’s top men’s and women’s professional basketball leagues. The reason, Carlo says, is so players of Puerto Rican descent could be identified by Puerto Ricans on the island. Thus, it would make playing in Puerto Rico via the BSN or BSNF a worthwhile professional option for a player that doesn’t make it into the NBA or WNBA. It would establish an early fanbase for that player in the event they arrived in Puerto Rico as a pro to a support system in waiting.”
“They could come to play in Puerto Rico, and the fans here would know them from before,” Carlo says. “This way, when they come, it’s not like, ‘who is that guy?’ It’s easier for the fans to get to know the players right now.”
BSN is considered one of the top professional basketball leagues globally, regularly acquiring elite players from around the world, including former NBA standouts, like Kenneth Faried and Mario Chalmers this past season. The BSNF was notably sponsored by famous Puerto Rican trap and reggaetón artist Anuel AA, also this past season.
Another purpose behind PURBASKET was to identify players who may qualify for the national teams.
“We were searching for guys for the Puerto Rican basketball league, but we continued searching and found hundreds of players over the years,” Ortiz, a teacher in Puerto Rico, tells Latino Rebels. “(We thought), ‘Woah, we are making a lot of progress here. We are discovering too many people! Maybe some players won’t play in the BSN or on the national team, but we’re finding them!'”
Ortiz and Carlo say that witnessing the rise of certain players identified early by the group helped them realize their advancements in real-time. Some would even go on to have success at the international youth levels, such as current pro Phillip Wheeler, who starred alongside University of Illinois point guard Andre Curbelo on Puerto Rico’s bronze medal-winning under-17 team in the 2018 FIBA World Cup. Or the trio of Jada Stinson, Sabrina Lozada-Cabbage, and Jackie Benitez, all of whom played on the first-ever Olympic-qualifying Puerto Rico women’s basketball team that competed in Japan last summer.
— FBPUR ??? (@fbpur) February 9, 2020
Ortiz also noted a connection PURBASKET has established with Julian Strawther, who currently starts and averages 12.8 points per game for Gonzaga, the No. 1 ranked college basketball team in America. Strawther notably had a 40-point game for Puerto Rico’s team in the U19 World Cup in 2019.
Then there’s Iowa State starting center George Conditt IV, averaging 5.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in just 18.9 minutes per contest. Conditt IV made his debut with the senior Puerto Rican national team in Olympic qualifying last summer.
— FIBA (@FIBA) July 7, 2019
“Those are the two for me where it’s like, ‘Wow, that guy is very good, we are making contact with the families all the time, and they’re asking when Puerto Rico will play,'” Ortiz notes. “These guys could be in the NBA sometime. And the family—they were very interested for them to represent Puerto Rico. That’s big.”
Even with social media, tracking down basketball players who may have Puerto Rican roots is a tiring but enriching exercise. Many of these athletes are from among the most diverse cities throughout an increasingly interracial United States, so it takes a striking combination of research, care, and connection with countless families. Other times, someone will just have a Puerto Rican flag on their Twitter name or “WEPA!” in their Instagram bio—key indicators, for sure.
“When you search in New Jersey, as an example, there are a lot of Puerto Ricans that have Italian last names, so it’s very difficult. But an Italian guy doesn’t say ‘Wepa!’ in New Jersey,” Ortiz acknowledges with a laugh.
???Illinois 73 vs 66 NWestern?
?Alfonso Plummer(6’1-G): 19p-1r-33min @AlfonsoPlummer9
?RJ Meléndez(6’7-G/F): 14p-6r-2stl-1blk-17m @MelendezRamses
?Trent Frazier(6’2-G): 7p-6a-2r-1stl-33m @trentfrazier
?Andre Curbelo(6’1-G): 4p-3r-2a-16m @papicurbelo11
— PURBASKET (@purbasket1) February 13, 2022
You could go so far as to say that the group’s work now has an influence on the direction of Puerto Rican basketball, especially by identifying talent in the future generation. PURBASKET does not have a contractual relationship with the Puerto Rican Basketball Federation, but they’re in communication, hoping they can improve the state of Puerto Rican basketball—and it would be unwise for the Federation not to be keeping tabs on this movement.
“When we saw that we can impact and improve the senior national team and youth national team, in the beginning, I didn’t think we could do that,” Ortiz says.
“PURBBASKET is breaking all the barriers,” he adds. “We’re making a bridge from all the Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and all parts of the world for Puerto Ricans in the island. Right now, our main goal is to improve both women’s and men’s national teams, and the Puerto Rico professional league, the BSN.”
Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY