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17 February, 2020
23 February, 2021
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Forget cancer – Emmy Andújar is an all-around hero

In April 2018, the doctor looked into Emmanuel "Emmy" Andújar's eyes and asked him to reconsider his professional career in basketball because of his cancer diagnosis. It's a moment that has haunted him since then. But a year and a half later, that same doctor can't believe that Andújar continues to play at the highest level and won a Pan American medal in Lima, as well as a championship in Puerto Rico in 2019.

Today, in a hotel in San Juan, Andújar gets ready for a photo session with the national team before the FIBA AmeriCup. He's surrounded by friends and people that – unbeknownst to him – he's impacted with his story. The 28-year-old small forward/shooting guard is low-key. He's not the type of person that wants to stand out – he only speaks when necessary and is well aware of his limits both in and out of the court.

In 2019, the Santeros de Aguada player was the last one to be cut out of the team that represented Puerto Rico at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China because – in words of coach Casiano – “logically, he wasn't at his best.” It was a tough moment for Andújar just months after his recovery, as he'd never gone through something like that since he started to represent the island in 2017. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop him.

So, as a prize for his persistence, Andújar started to get ready for his debut with the national team at home on Thursday at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. It was almost a year and a half after he got the news that he was able to debut. At the time, the small forward/shooting guard was part of the Puerto Rican squad that was trying to qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in the first two qualifying windows. He was contributing an average of 7.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game – a fairly significant quota.

"I feel brand new. I pray every day, I talk to my family every day, and I'm a better person in and off the court. Being in the national team is a privilege,” said Andújar while the camera flashed the number #22 on his jersey.

“I'm really waiting for the moment because I remember being at home, receiving treatment, lying in bed while I watched the game. The fans were so into it. It was exciting to play on the island, and I was never able to do it. I'm grateful for having the chance now, and I'm going to take it all in as best as I can to try to win this game,” added Andújar.

Surprisingly, cancer hasn't been the only battle that the player born in New York's Bronx borough has had to fight. His life has been a constant fight against his conditions, temptations, violence, and crime.

Almost as if he were an artist signing his work of art, Andújar always includes the hashtag #RIPJOSEANDUJAR in each one of his social media posts. It's not just another slogan – it's a constant reminder of how hard life has been and how many reasons he must carry on.

“My brother was two years older than me and died eight years ago when I was a freshman in college. He's my guardian angel,” said the Manhattan College alumni.

Those who know Emmy aren’t surprised at all by his journey. When you go through so much in your childhood, there's no other option than to be a warrior whose only mission is to survive.

"It's incredible, he's inspired so many people," said his national teammate, Devon Collier, who studied with Andújar since the sixth grade. "He has positively influenced so many of the friends that admire him. You never know how much time you’ll be in this world, which is why he made everyone change their mindset about how to live and set them on the right path. People that didn't go to school are now attending because they want to get an education and do things. He's connecting everyone, and that's a blessing."

Andújar's commitment to this team is complete. One day before the first game, he's one of the only six players that come to a voluntary practice session of the group. With a solid muscle build and tattoos that are exposed thanks to his sleeveless "Puerto Rico Basketball" shirt, Emmy's there, warming up his muscles with a massage gun in front of 10,500 empty seats that overlook his training session. He looks up, breathes in the dense air of the Roberto Clemente Cathedral. This is real.

"I can't wait," says Andújar on a bench in the coliseum in San Juan. "This is my first time playing in Puerto Rico with the national team. I couldn't play before, but God is good, and I'm here now. Let's get to work!”

Emmy’s attitude and compassion evidence his humility. Even with everything that's going on in his life, his empathy dominates his discourse.

“I feel fine, but it's always hard to see someone get cut because I've been there before. I know how it feels, and I don't underestimate no one's hard work," Andújar commented.

One of those players left behind in this edition is one of his childhood best friends, José "Money" Rodríguez. He's another Bronx native with Puerto Rican roots and has shared much more than a high school classroom with Andújar.

“Emmy and I have gone through similar things in life. We've both lost brothers," said Rodríguez, who's younger sibling was also a victim of crime. "A lot of people can't understand that pain. We come from dangerous places, which is why we can relate on a lot of levels. When I'm down, I always call him, and he keeps me positive, with my mind in line."

For the Puerto Rican Basketball Federation's president, Yum Ramos, Andújar’s recovery is absolutely astounding and an asset for him and the entire team. "Emmy's a warrior. He's an extremely valuable person that has never given up and who's going to fight 'till the end. That's why he's here. He's kept working despite going through his sickness and look how strong he is. Look at the attitude he has. He's a human being that truly has all my respect.”

And then, we get to Thursday, February 20. It's 8:00 PM. It’s time for Andújar’s debut. Puerto Rico starts mildly in front of almost 10,000 fans that seek any excuse to cheer. With the scoreboard at 19-4 and with 4:38 left until the first quarter ends, coach Eddie Casiano has already seen enough. He needs a reaction and calls number 22 from the bench.

Andújar stands up and a minute later receives a beautiful pass by his friend, Collier, and dunks to leave the public in full ecstasy. This is real. This is happening.

Although the Puerto Ricans have been on the downside by 27 points, sometimes Andújar is the only one standing up and cheering from the bench. Like this, the small forward gains his coach’s trust and comes back to the game in the third quarter, starring with Gian Clavell in Puerto Rico's best advance, until they place the difference at seven.

Regardless of his team's defeat, Andújar had a great game where he impacted the defensive area with his positions and discipline. Four points, two rebounds, two assists, and two steals in 24 minutes. This has sufficed Casiano to praise the player after the encounter and for everyone to know that Emmy is back.

"He's already in sync; he gets the game. He's extremely intelligent, an intellectual guy that understands all rotations. He knows how to get there in time and then keep on the attack,” said Casiano in the press conference after the game. “Emmy is a very stable player in the court. He’s very intelligent. He knows what the defense is and to position himself. If you look at the video, each time there's a movement, he moves with the ball and is at the right place all the time. That's why he's there on time. Few players do that, and few people take note of those details.”

Minutes after the game, Andújar embraces his family and takes pictures with fans that have waited for hours to get a beautiful souvenir of the match.

When asked about Casiano's expressions, the player at the Mexican League's Capitanes doesn't seem surprised. They get each other after working together in Puerto Rico's Santeros de Aguada for several years.

“I'm a basketball player. He knows that I'm a warrior and that I'm not going to try to do too much out there,” said Andújar. “I know what I can do, but I'm trying to win for the team and not be the star of the game. He knows what he's going to get from me.”

At a personal level, he's happy, but not satisfied.

“It stinks because I can't remember the last time that we lost here,” said Andújar, remembering that Puerto Rico was undefeated while playing at home in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Qualifiers, overcoming Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Argentina, and Uruguay. “Now I'm part of that defeat, but I won't give up. We'll have another chance to recover. A victory covers a defeat, and we simply need to stay positive."

That day, Puerto Rico lost the game, but Emmanuel “Emmy” Andújar won another life battle.

Emmanuel Márquez