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Nuyorican Basketball in Puerto Rico: A Game-Changing Documentary

by Suset Laboy


Short version of the story: A group of Nuyoricans changed the history of Puerto Rican basketball forever. There’s now a movie about it. Longer version of the story: Of course we all know about the great migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States during the 40s and 50s. Even if we have never been to New York, we know of a Puerto Rican friend, cousin, great-grandparent who has visited or grew up there. The guagua aérea is not a new thing. And yet, the rich and textured details of the movement of Puerto Ricans to the United States remains an exciting terrain to uncover.

Such is the case of a motley crew of Nuyoricans who forever transformed basketball on the island when they played for Puerto Rico’s National team against Team USA for the gold in the 1979 Pan American games. This is the subject of a new documentary—Nuyorican Básquet, a movie that explores the dynamics around issues of migration, diaspora, and cultural identity as told through the lens of this historical basketball match (to watch the documentary's trailer click here). We had a chance to catch up with the movie’s co-director and screenwriter, Ricardo Olivero Lora to learn more about the project:

Suset: Tell us a bit about your background. How did you stumble on this subject and what led you to pursue this story?

Ricardo: I come from a family of athletes, where basketball has been as prevalent as rice and beans. One day, my brother, who works for the Programa de Desarrollo de Selecciones Nacionales de Baloncesto, came back from a trip to New York and shared many of the stories of how those Nuyorican basketball players we had grown up watching and idolized arrived to the island. And that’s how the idea to make the documentary started taking shape.

Suset: You’ve managed to assemble an amazing number of basketball legends for the documentary. What were the best and most challenging parts of securing interviews with them? Were you able to connect with the relatives of missing basketball player Angelo Cruz? Does the documentary presents new information on his case?

Ricardo: The players were always very helpful, and it has been amazing to work with them. Of all the people we interviewed, I’d say that the most challenging one was Angelo’s mom because of the emotional aspect of her son’s disappearance.

Suset: How did Nuyoricans change the game in Puerto Rico? Why was this moment so pivotal? What did they contribute to Puerto Rican basketball?

Ricardo: Nuyorican players filled a generational gap that catapulted basketball on the island when its level and development had been stagnant. They filled a void, and they played a key role in having basketball replace baseball as the island’s main sport. These players arrived with New York’s style of street basketball and radically changed the way the sport is played.

Raymond Dalmau guarded by Mario 'Quijote' Morales.

Suset: What can we expect from the soundtrack? How did the collaboration with José Furito Ríos (formerly of Cultura Profética) come about? Is there a specific music genre that will be used to represent this historical period given the variety of musics that were popular at the time in both NY and PR?

Ricardo: We just finished recording with the banda sonora early Friday morning. Right now, we are doing the mixing. I’m telling you, what’s coming is quite powerful. Furito Ríos did an extraordinary job, in his compositions, in his arrangements and his recruitment of musicians. He is an incredible musician! In terms of the genres, you will have to watch the documentary, but I can tell you that you won’t be able to stay sitting in the movie theaters.

Suset: During the making of the documentary, what did you learn about what it means to be a Puerto Rican from NY?

Ricardo: The most important thing I came to understand is how complex identity issues are. The traditional coordinates of what it means to be Puerto Rican do not conform to what has been our historical development as a people, of which the Puerto Rican diaspora is an integral part.

César Fantauzzi

Suset: Ultimately, what do you hope people will walk away knowing/thinking/learning from the documentary.

Ricardo: That during a historical period of basketball in Puerto Rico, it was Nuyoricans who lifted the game, turning it into what it is today on the island; that our basketball has Nuyorican basketball from the streets of New York as an important ingredient; that our diaspora has an African American influence; that you can have multiple complementary identities that are not mutually exclusive; and to thank Nuyoricans, and the diaspora, for its contributions to that entramado identitario that is to be Puerto Rican.

To learn more about the making of Nuyorican Básquet visit their website.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 20 November 2015.