In 1987, Cruz, pushing 30 years old, was faced with an opportunity to try out for the New York Knicks, who would go on to Draft one of the all-time great point guards in NBA history—Mark Jackson. Monch was invited to a workout with the Knicks and was matched up against a young Jackson, fresh out of St. John’s University. While other players invited to the workout brought agents along with them, Monch brought Carmen, his wife at the time. “He did really well,” she says. “I remember he was giving Mark Jackson hell to the point where Mark Jackson’s agent said, ‘Wait, let’s change this around. Let’s put [Jackson] with Monch instead of against him.’”
After retiring from basketball, Cruz took a job at Yankee Stadium. Farrell recounts: “He was in Yankee Stadium and [Puerto Rican great] José Valentín was playing there. Valentín’s family sees [Monch] and they start freakin’ out, ‘Oh my God it’s Angelo Cruz!’ They tell José Valentín, who is a professional baseball player, and he sees [Monch]. He’s like, ‘Yo, give me your autograph.’ Monch started laughing and says, No, you give me your autograph! [Valentín] goes all right, let’s switch. I’ll sign a baseball, you sign a basketball and we’ll switch.”
And then, in 1997, Monch tragically and mysteriously went missing. His family and friends put ads in the major papers and on television in Puerto Rico. His former teammates have posted pictures of him on Facebook. But no one has heard from him since.
Monch’s son, Alvin, the all-time assist leader at Niagara University who currently plays for the Ponce Leones in PR, remembers the last time he saw his father. “I [last] saw him when I was about 16,” Alvin says. “He came down and got me a tryout with a team. Over here [in Puerto Rico] he’s like a legend, you know, so he told people, ‘My son can play.’ He got me a tryout and I signed when I was 16. Right after I signed, maybe like six weeks later, he disappeared.”
“We support him,” Alvin offers sincerely. “We don’t care what happened; the things he did or he’s doing. We support him. If we find him, we want to be there for him. Maybe that’s what happened, he was so famous and when basketball was over he wasn’t that ‘god’ anymore. Another guy comes along and he’s not the man anymore. But we will be here for him. For him we’re going to be here.”
Monch had five children, and he always cared deeply about his family. Whenever he was on the road, he would talk about his kids and would wonder how they were doing back in Puerto Rico. “I know that if he wanted to get away from anyone that there’s no way in the world that he would not be in touch with his kids,” Carmen explains.
Nappy Nap says, “I still have hope that he’s alive and will show up one day. He’ll figure out a way.”
The legend of Angel “Monch” Cruz is etched in the memories of those who were fortunate to have known him and to have witnessed his greatness. His footprint is that of a trailblazer, one who never backed down from a challenge. “He would battle anybody. He came here [to Puerto Rico] and took down all the big names,” Alvin says.
Monch delivered his street savvy game to the hardwoods of Puerto Rico and to the world. In the process, many fell victim to his offensive arsenal. Whether he breezed past defenders for acrobatic layups or no-look passes to teammates, or if he drove the lane and rocked the rim á la Spud Webb or Nate Robinson, Monch left his imprint on the game.
If he was able to see or hear about the 92-73 upset that Puerto Rico pulled against the US on the shoulders of Carlos Arroyo in the 2004 Olympics, Monch might have found gratification in the prospect that he influenced the young fella in some way. That he played even a small role setting the groundwork that led to the victory that immortalized the image of Arroyo proudly popping his jersey, representing Puerto Rico. And Monch would definitely shine that big smile at the fact that his son runs the point for Ponce alongside another member of that Olympic team, Rick Apodaca.
The legacy of Monch Cruz is one of pride and humility. As Carmen notes, “He never really looked at himself as a big celebrity.” Yet he took on the greatest challenges of outplaying Hall of Famers and anyone who crossed his path. A perfectionist at his craft. An artist whose canvas was any basketball court. Someone who amazed onlookers by achieving great feats in such a small frame.
Angel “Monch” Cruz was just a self-proclaimed bum from the Bronx who was able to work his way to immortality for an entire culture.
And then he was gone.
If you have any information about what happened to Angel Cruz, please contact Mike “Nappy Nap” Napolitano at [email protected].
NYC native, Jonathan Lopez attended Norman Thomas High School and graduated from Millbrook School before earning his bachelor’s degree from Colgate University. An avid basketball fan, Lopez still laces up his kicks for some competition and especially appreciates hoops at its most grassroots level – on the playgrounds of his hometown, where he and so many others learned the game. These days Lopez spends much of his time on the hallowed grounds of NYC with his pen and camera in-hand, covering all the action. You can see more of his work here.