Over the 13 months leading up to the 2004 summer games, the U.S. had dispatched Puerto Rico five separate times. Julio Toro, then the head coach of the affectionately nicknamed ‘magnificent twelve’ christened the American squad ‘the colossal from the north.’ It had been 12 years since the Dream Team era began and still the United States had never lost a basketball game in the Olympics.
For 33 of 40 minutes Team USA trailed. At halftime Puerto Rico led by 22. Toro, coaching like a man playing with house money employed a zone defense that stymied the Americans athleticism and took away transition baskets, leaving the perimeter wide open. Team USA responded by shooting 3 of 24 from behind the arc. Twice Richard Jefferson put shots up off the side of the backboard. Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Starbury, and young Melo and LeBron were not enough. The final score was 92–73 in favor of the Caribbean Island.
The win made Carlos Arroyo a household name and ushered in a golden age of Puerto Rican basketball. 11 years later, things have changed. At the Olympic qualifying FIBA Americas Championship – currently underway in Mexico City, Puerto Rico has dropped three of their first four games. With the second round tipping off today, Puerto Rico fights to keep their Olympic hopes alive.
We caught up with Puerto Rican national team player and Boston University alum John Holland to talk FIBA Americas and hoops in Puerto Rico.
Noah Perkins: How did you originally end up on the national team? I think back in 2011 when you made your debut for Puerto Rico a lot of people were surprised to see you competing at the FIBA Americas Championship.
John Holland: At Boston University we went over to Puerto Rico to play in the Puerto Rico Tipoff. I forget who, but someone said something about me being Puerto Rican, that’s basically when I realized that I could play on the national team. After I graduated I was invited to try out.
In terms of heritage what is your connection to Puerto Rico?
My grandmother and my grandfather are from Puerto Rico.
How central was that lineage to your identity growing up?
I was very aware of my Puerto Rican side. I would tell people all the time I was Puerto Rican. Nobody really believed me, but it’s whatever. I used to come down here all the time with my mom when I was younger. Every summer, almost up until I was twelve. Growing up my mom would speak Spanish to my Grandparents.
Are you fluent?
No, that’s one thing I wish I was.
Does that influence your relationship at all with any of your teammates?
No, on the team there are a few a guys like myself that don’t really speak Spanish.
How has this experience impacted your identity?
It has really brought me closer to that part of my family. Just being able to go over there every summer, and just playing has brought a lot of pride to my mom and to all my family. It is a lot of pride for me to wear this jersey and represent a side of myself that maybe not a lot of people even know.
A few weeks ago I spoke with two players at Afrobasket. Both talked about how much more physical the style of play is in Africa in comparison to the American game. Interestingly, Kobe echoed those same sentiments earlier this week. How would you compare the level of competition and the style of play at FIBA Americas to say D1 ball, or NBA Summer League?
It’s definitely way more physical. You get away with a lot: A lot of pushing, a lot of hand checking, a lot of grabbing. To compare it to college, well there’s really no comparison. To compare it to NBA Summer League, they don’t let you get away with nearly as much as they do in FIBA and international play.
How tough of an adjustment was it for you in 2011 to go from the America East to the FIBA Americas Tournament?
Personally, I adjusted pretty quick. In 2011 I was young. I had no idea everything that was really going on. It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had. Playing against Argentina when they had Manu and Scola and everybody.
Do you think on the whole the field this year is a little weaker than it has been in years past?
On the whole? I don’t know about that. I know a lot of guys here in Puerto Rico have gotten hurt. Even me, I am a little injured right now. We were supposed to have more people come who for whatever reason didn’t.
If you look at the teams at the top. You have Canada they have nine NBA guys. Argentina has high-high level guys in Europe. Mexico has a lot of high level guys. I wouldn’t say the competition is down. It may not be as many household names on some of the teams, but the level of play is really high.
Coming into the opening round Puerto Rico was pegged with Mexico, Canada and Argentina as the elite teams of tourney. You guys have only won one game so far. How would you break down what happened over the first four games?
Man, this is a rough tournament. And we probably started out in the toughest bracket. Opened with an Argentina team we lost to by five. That was a tough loss. After that we played three games in a row. We still have a shot if we come out these next four games and win. We were actually in a similar situation in 2011. I know it’s possible. It’s just about us coming out focused and playing the type of game we have the potential to play.
It is what it is. It’s a grind. You need a full team. You need everyone to contribute. You can’t just go with a short roster. You need to use 10 to 12 guys every game. It’s difficult.
You mentioned Argentina. What is it like to be on the floor at the same time with a guy like Luis Scola?
Scola has dominated the post this competition. He is probably the best post player in this competition. It’s basketball, at the end of the day we are just competing. He’s another player, he is good, you gotta respect his skills. It’s fun, you play against guys who are good, they test you. It’s actually… it’s really fun. Playing against all the guys. Some people are more household name than others.
We played Canada the other day. They have a bunch of guys who play in the NBA. Argentina beat them with guys who are playing at a very high level over in Europe, who play together as a team. It’s not so much the names, it’s the teams. If you can come together and play hard you can beat anybody.
You mentioned Canada. Are they as good as they are made out to be?
They are a good team. They have a lot of skill and size.
Were you impressed by Andrew Wiggins?
I don’t know what you mean by impressed. He’s a decent ball player, he’s a good ballplayer. I respect everybody’s skills. We were competing. I’m not overly impressed by any one ball player, they are a good team, so are we.
Puerto Rico has two guys who are pretty familiar to an NBA audience. How would you describe Renaldo Balkman and Jose Juan Barea as both people and players?
They are great. Renaldo brings so much energy and passion to the game. J.J., you can see out there how offensively he can dominate a game. It is a pleasure to play with guys like that – all the guys. Off the court they are great guys.
J.J. went to Northeastern he is a Boston guy. He is a really down to earth personal guy, so is Renaldo, they are good guys. Those are my brothers, they are cool.
What was your reaction when you found out Rick Pitino would be coaching the Puerto Rican national team this year?
It was exciting. A chance to be coached by one of the best coaches in the history of the game. A hall of famer. It was an experience that I wanted to have. Last year I got a chance to be coached by Popovich for a little bit, and that was a great experience as well.
Having the experience of (Pitino’s) basketball mind, and how much knowledge he has of the game is great. It is only going to help me in my career. How he handles himself and how handles the team is what I really appreciate. He is a real leader. I see why he has been so successful over the years. He knows how to motivate. There is a lot I will take away from him that is going to be valuable in my life, not only in my career. Not a lot of people get to be coached by one of the best coaches in the history of game.
Has he talked at all about why he decided to do this?
He said that it’s a chance for him to get better as a coach. This experience would be a chance for him to learn about a different style of basketball – a side of basketball he hasn’t experienced before. A chance to possibly lead us to the Olympics – and that’s important, especially to Puerto Rico. We are going through some tough times as a country. It’s something worthwhile.
On a socio-cultural level, how does the national team impact Puerto Rico?
Basketball being the main sport in Puerto Rico – I think it lifts everybody’s spirits. In a time in Puerto Rico when there is a lot of debt, a lot of unemployment, if we were able to qualify for the Olympics it would bring so much joy, so much happiness and pride that Puerto Rico really needs. We are fighting to qualify, to hopefully give them that opportunity, that joy, that chance to have us represent them in the Olympics.