CRAWFORD | Postcard from Puerto Rico, final dispatch - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Postcard from Puerto Rico, final dispatch

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Louisville players hold a game of volleyball in the pool. Photo via Kelly Dickey Periscope (@RealCardGame on Twitter) Louisville players hold a game of volleyball in the pool. Photo via Kelly Dickey Periscope (@RealCardGame on Twitter)
Mangok Mathiang interviews Damion Lee for WDRB Sports. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Mangok Mathiang interviews Damion Lee for WDRB Sports. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
Rain comes to Puerto Rico. View from our lunch table. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Rain comes to Puerto Rico. View from our lunch table. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
My view from the Ritz-Carlton as I wrote Saturday morning. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) My view from the Ritz-Carlton as I wrote Saturday morning. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

SAN JUAN, P.R. (WDRB) — Dear Louisville, this will be my last postcard. Part of it was written from the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Juan, and it was finished in my hotel room at the Courtyard Marriott.

I write this at the end of a stormy day. That may not seem like much to you folks back home, but here, it is a big deal. Puerto Rico has been stricken by a drought that stretches back six months. It has been the worst drought in the nation’s history. Severe water rationing went into place this week, allowing people just two days of water per week. Public schools have shortened their daily schedules, and are operating only four days per week.

When we got to the arena for the University of Louisville’s last Puerto Rican basketball game, in Trujillo Alto Saturday night, there was no water. The bus ride home probably wasn’t the most pleasant those players had ever taken. Now imagine being in a school all day with no water.

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It’s a political problem as well as a weather problem for this U.S. territory. The government is saddled with debt. The country is in the midst of an eight-year recession. It has petitioned the U.S. Department of Defense for assistance.

At a game the other night, I talked to Louisville coach Rick Pitino about the water problem, and about other issues. The crowds for Louisville’s games here were sparse, though always enthusiastic.

“They love the game,” Pitino said. “But the economy is not good. Coming to a basketball game is a lot of money for a lot of people.”

The U of L players got just one day off on this trip, and of course, it was the one day in the past six months it rained in Puerto Rico.

That didn’t stop them from getting in some pool time in the morning — and a rather large game of water volleyball. That is, until a booming thunderclap was heard and the players poured out of the water as if they were running a fast break.

Forget going down with the ship. Captain Mangok Mathiang said, “I will admit, I was the first one out of the water.”

Kelly Dickey, a U of L fan from the Atlanta area who traveled to watch the team in Puerto Rico, caught the reaction via Periscope.

WDRB sports director Tom Lane and I showed up shortly after, and talked to some players, and assistant coach Mike Balado.

I can tell you that this notion of team chemistry is not something they just talk about. These guys hung out together, in a little group, all in the same area of the pool. They joked around. Mathiang agreed to interview Damion Lee for our sportscast.

One thing several of the players referenced during the week, but I didn’t quite understand until Balado explained it, was how much some of the Puerto Rican players helped them on the court. They’ve been running the same offense as Louisville. So when Damion Lee didn’t set a hard screen on Angel Vassallo, Vassallo told him, “you’ve got to make contact with me or I’m not going into that screen.”

Renaldo Balkman was of immense help to Louisville’s big men, especially Chinanu Onuaku and Mathiang.

“It was great for our guys to hear from professional players who are running the same stuff,” Balado said. “And those guys were really good for our players.”

WRITTEN SATURDAY MORNING 

At the moment, I’m sitting on a wicker couch at the Ritz-Carlton, pounding out a postcard on my laptop. If you feel inclined to say “rough job” sarcastically, now would be the appropriate time.

Over on the tennis courts, Tom Lane and Drew Deener are playing a match that I would Periscope, but I think ESPN Classic bought the broadcast rights.

With Sunday’s games canceled, it’s the final day of competition here for the University of Louisville basketball team. The Puerto Rican National team finished its play with last night’s loss to Louisville — though it was hardly the real national team. Four of its top players were missing.

I got the feeling that Pitino saw what he needed to see in the Puerto Rican team’s 34-point blowout of Louisville. The rest was just evaluation for further cuts, and fine tuning.

People keep asking about Bompy. I guess the fascination with the Puerto Rico national team mascot is that he’s a walking meme. He looks like the Stay Puft Marshmallow man with dreadlocks. Louisville fans have taken a liking to him. U of L actually is hoping to bring him to a home game at the KFC Yum! Center early in the season. Anyway, Bompy, we await your presence.

THE LAST WORD

Tom got out the camera in the car this afternoon and asked me what I’d remember from the trip. I wasn’t quite ready with a good answer, and anyway, I’m a print guy. I need to think about things a little.

I suspect I’ll remember the drought, of arriving to an arena with no water, but at how excited the fans seemed anyway. These are desperate economic times, but so many people I encountered were happy and unfailingly helpful. Three guys waited for Tom and me to finish filing our stories in Trujillo Alto before turning off the lights and locking up the arena. There are places in the states where they might not do that. I’ll remember taking at least one wrong turn on every drive we made, no matter how simple the directions. I’ll remember walking into a mall that could’ve been in St. Matthews, for all the American stores it had, or turning onto streets only to see Burger King, Walmart, Walgreens and Ponderosa. They love Ponderosa here. And Chilis. Apparently. In San Juan, we are closer to Venezuela and Colombia than to Miami, but the American cultural influence is overwhelming. I was glad we got to drive out into the country later in the week. There’s a tree that grows here, called the Royal Poinciana or Flamboyant or Flame Tree. You can find it in about any tropical place, and I’m sure I saw them in Hawaii before, but in this country they stand out against the green landscape because of their bright red blooms. Most of all, I don’t suppose there’s ever been a beach I’ve been to that I don’t remember. The Caribbean Sea here is such a rich blue that it looks like a painting. I suppose those are a few things that will linger.

We’ve talked at some length about the value of such trips for these teams. What I haven’t talked about is the value for media. This trip hasn’t been like most. The team has been busier during this trip than teams usually are during summer trips. Lots of games and meetings. Pitino has been doubly busy, because he’s managing two teams, so there’s been little one-on-one time with him.

Even so, the chance to talk to players every night, to get to know them a little, these are things that are valuable as a reporter.

One problem today is that so much of sports reporting is done as if the players are just machines that wear a certain color uniform. The more we can see players outside their usual environment, the better it is for everybody. 

I asked Lee today if he’d ever gotten to take a trip like this. He said last season he got to go to China, though he didn’t get to play. Then he whipped out his phone and showed me a picture of him, standing, arms outstretched, on the Great Wall.

Mathiang looked and said, “When I was in China, I wanted to see the Great Wall in the worst way.”

There’s no real story there. You just don’t get to see those things unless you have a little time around these guys, and there are so many outlets now, that these guys wouldn’t have a life if schools didn’t take care to keep them from having media around all the time.

That’s why, if you get a chance to come on a trip like this, when almost no one else does, it’s a good thing, and a wise investment. It’s a lot of work. Tom Lane told me tonight we’d sent back probably 32 television pieces. I’ve probably sent back around that many for the web, if you include stories or photo galleries or video collections. I’m glad the folks at WDRB made that commitment. I think it was time well spent for us all.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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