SANTA CRUZ de TENERIFE, Spain – Everything was falling into the Puerto Rican national women’s basketball team’s favor. The team just upset powerful Brazil to claim the bronze medal at the 2017 FIBA Women’s AmeriCup in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to punch its first-ever ticket to the FIBA World Cup. Then, just weeks later, unavoidable reality came crashing in.
Hurricane Maria would cause unimaginable amounts of destruction to the island, more than $90 billion worth, and leave many without power a year later. Still, the team found its way to the FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Michelle Gonzalez, a 5-foot-6 point guard, played collegiately at Florida International University and is from San Juan. Luckily, she didn’t lose any family members, but she paints a vivid first-hand account.
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“The whole world saw what happened on the island,” Gonzalez told High Post Hoops. “It’s a very small island with a big hurricane. It hurts a lot, my family and everybody there. For basketball, it’s our first time in history to make it to the World Cup, and right after that, we were hit by the hurricane. Before the hurricane, it was hard for us to get a lot of sponsors and help for us to be one of the top 16 teams in the world to be here. So you can imagine after the hurricane, it was a crisis for the island and the government. We lost a lot of basketball courts and a lot of people who could help us with sponsoring and helping.”
The 29-year-old Gonzalez said less than two hours after the storm hit, she left her house, which was still in good structure, but everything in the surrounding neighborhood was in devastation. She found her brother, got on her bike and searched for people to help.
“It was really hard to see what happened on the island,” she said. “There was no communication with the whole family, just the five people in my house, so we didn’t know what was happening with my family or friends or anyone else.”
Dayshalee Salaman averaged 20 points per game for Division II Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., earlier in her career. The 28-year-old guard is from Carolina, just east of San Juan, on the north coast.
“It was a lot of emotion,” Salaman said. “I am just blessed that a lot of my family is OK. But to come out and see what happened to the island, it was sad and frustrating. It is a blessing to be alive, a lot of people cannot say that right now, and a lot of people still have not recovered from that, and it is sad.”
At the time, basketball was the last thing on the players’ minds. Many were without food and water on the island that has roughly the same population as Los Angeles.
“We lost a lot of places to work out,” Gonzalez said, “so it was hard to recover from what happened. I think even though we know it’s good for us to be here, even though we went through all of that, it was hard. We found help from a lot of organizations in order to get here. It was hard for us to get together and find a place to practice. Some people, like the mayor and federation, knew it was a dream for Puerto Rican basketball to have this experience. So I think they understood what that means, and they tried their best for us to be here, so I think it’s a miracle for us that after everything that happened what the world saw, in less than a year, we’re here.”
The Puerto Rican women’s team won gold at the 2011 Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, but has not enjoyed the same type of historical success as the men’s team, which has been to nine Olympics and 13 World Cups. FIBA Americas is also based in San Juan.
Gonzalez graduated from law school around the time of the AmeriCup last summer and passed her licensing exam in March, while studying in an environment with no electricity. Now, her and her teammates can embrace the achievement of the World Cup and reminisce about how far they have come.
“Just two days ago it was the one-year anniversary,” she added, “and it hurt because everyone was remembering everything that happened. It gets to us because most of the girls were there when it happened. Now we think about it, and it’s crazy. It was hard, and it took a lot of work to make it here. I think we should be so proud of being here.”