Nearly two decades later, Arroyo still asked about Puerto Rico win over USA

    SAN JUAN (Puerto Rico) - Carlos Arroyo could fly to the moon, win a grammy for his reggaeton music or even scoop an Oscar. His fame is already secure, though, after leading Puerto Rico past USA in Athens.

    SAN JUAN (Puerto Rico) - Carlos Arroyo could fly to the moon, win a grammy for his wonderful reggaeton music or maybe even scoop an Oscar after dabbling in film.

    Arroyo made an appearance in the movie, the Greatest Beer Run Ever.

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    A post shared by Carlos Arroyo (@carroyopr)

    None of that would make him more popular than he already is in Puerto Rico, however, because of what he did for his country one afternoon at the 2004 Olympics.

    He led the Boricuas to a 92-73 upset of the USA on opening day in the Helliniko Olympic Indoor Arena.

    This has become more than a game in Puerto Rico, more than a defining moment in the country's sports history. It's become a badge of courage, or a symbol for everyone on the island that they can never be pushed around. 

    It's why Arroyo is still asked about the day he played the starring role when David slayed Goliath.

    Former NBA players Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles asked Arroyo about it on their Knuckleads podcast.

    "It was beautiful," Arroyo said. "It was crazy."

    The game has definitely become the defining moment in Arroyo's career.


    He had total control of the game against the Americans. He not only poured in 24 points but dazzled spectators with his passing. He finished with seven assists.

    When the American players jawed at him, he jawed right back.

    With 1:13 remaining in the game and Puerto Rico leading, 87-68, coach Julio Toro decided to take Arroyo out of the game.

    Before walking to the bench,  Arroyo looked at the crowd, grabbed the front of his jersey with both hands at mid court and tugged so the crowd could see the words P-U-E-R-T-O and R-I-C-O.

    Photographers snapped that image, which has become the most well known in Puerto Rico basketball history.

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    A post shared by Carlos Arroyo (@carroyopr)

    Dwyane Wade of the USA, a future teammate of Arroyo in Miami, was nearby. Some believed that Arroyo was celebrating too much in front of him and the Americans.

    "I meant no disrespect," he said on the podcast. "It was a moment of pride. The camera catches me fronting to D-Wade. It wasn't the action that I was trying to show at that moment. It was just a moment of pride."

    Everyone else  in the Puerto Rico team was terrific that day. Eddie Casiano, who had to guard Michael Jordan when the team played at the 1992 Olympics, made all four of his shots from deep and scored 18 points.

    FIBA Hall of Fame center José 'Piculín' Ortiz had eight points and six rebounds and shooting guard Larry Ayuso weighed in with 15 points. Everyone contributed. The Puerto Rico fans in the arena and those watching back home were delirious.

    Arroyo had served as flag bearer in the Opening Ceremony yet the photo of him celebrating after the victory over the USA is what everyone remembers.


    The photo of Arroyo at mid court, proudly showing off the Puerto Rico on his chest?

    "It's a picture that lives forever," he said. "I'm in the social studies books for kids in Puerto Rico. I feel blessed. I was surprised by how much impact that photo had."

    After that surprise, Puerto Rico's confidence was sky high. 

    "We thought we were going to win the Olympics," Arroyo said. "We beat USA, nobody has a chance with us. But the next day, Slovenia (actually it was Lithuania) brought us to reality. (But) It was amazing."

    Arroyo became the face of Puerto Rican basketball, and also one of the faces of international hoops due to the win over the USA.

    "It opened the doors for me with sponsorships in Puerto Rico, and it just allowed all of us to grow from there and be recognized, to be able to do it at that stage," he said.

    "It was truly an honor. To this day, people still celebrate that day like it's a birthday. It's truly an anniversary for us, you know, beating the US in the Olympics and one of the first to do it."

    That game showed that the USA, no matter how many Olympic gold medals they had won and no matter how star-studded their roster was (Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Lamar Odom, Richard Jefferson, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Stephon Marbury, Wade, Carlos Boozer, Carmelo Anthony,  LeBron James and Emeka Okafor) were not unbeatable.

    Arroyo celebrated on the bench in the closing seconds of the win over the USA

    Lithuania, led by Sarunas Jasikevicius, beat the Americans soon after and then Argentina defeated them.

    The Puerto Rico win set the tone for a wild, unpredictable tournament.

    New Zealand, Argentina and China upset Serbia and Montenegro, preventing Zeljko Obradovic's team from advancing to the Quarter-Finals. Just two years earlier, many of those Serbia and Montenegro players had lifted the Naismith Trophy after winning the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Indianapolis.

    Italy had a magical run, knocking off Puerto Rico in the Quarter-Finals and then Lithuania in the Semi-Finals to reach the Gold Medal Game where they fell to Argentina.

    Arroyo had a solid NBA career, playing with several teams and making the Finals, with Detroit, in 2005. He also featured with clubs in Puerto Rico and Europe.

    Most of his compatriots will always identify Arroyo with Puerto Rico, though, because of that day against the USA.

    Arroyo, who is now the general manager of the national team, always wanted to play for his country.

    "Your role changes (when going from NBA team to the national team)," he said. "You're not drafted. You’re not a franchise player, so you have to understand your role when you're in an NBA team.

    "When you're blessed to play with national team like some of us, your role changes. You're now 'the guy.' The team is counting on you for points, assists, to lead the team, and I felt more comfortable when I went to Puerto Rico.

    "Every time I wore the jersey, aside from just playing for pride and representing your people, it's a place where I felt like I could be myself, with no restrictions.

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    "I knew the sky was the limit. And it was also a team whereI could show the NBA what I could do. I tried to take advantage of that every time I represented Puerto Rico. I had those things in mind - I have to prove to the NBA why I'm worthy of more minutes.

    "I have to prove to the fans that it's an honor to represent Puerto Rico and I wanted the world to open for me worldwide with other things. It's just a comfort level, too, as a player. You know where you're at, you know your role and it shows when you play."

    The Athens Games was the only Olympics Arroyo played in. It's an experience that he, and all of Puerto Rico, will never forget.


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