Editor’s Note: Costa Rica is one of seven small countries that make up Central America. The few American basketball coaches, some famous and some not, that have ventured into this world have had largely contentious and short-lived reigns. Their neighbors call Costa Rica the “Switzerland of Latin America,” but Paul Weir, who was named the head coach at New Mexico State last spring, found a country with a far deeper, confounding fabric. Weir, a native of Toronto, is the only major college head coach born in Canada. A deep thinker with an intense interest in the academic side of college life, he’s a fine writer, a curious world traveler, and a breed of Renaissance in the tradition of Phil Jackson and Paul Westhead. Weir has had a remarkable run as an assistant coach: 10 conference championships in 13 years, 6 NCAA Tournaments, including a streak of four in a row at New Mexico State, and an NIT bid this past season.
“You got something, Paul?” the Costa Rican head coach, Josh Erickson, asked me as the whistle blew at the other end of the court. I leapt from my chair and quickly enacted my best third-base coach performance, sliding my right hand down my left forearm, pointing my right index finger to my nose, and finishing with a rubbing motion up and down my right calf. I walked back toward the bench, I glanced at the rows of Costa Rica’s sports ministry officials proudly sitting courtside watching their team here at the Eddie Cortez Arena in San Jose. These were shrewd, driven men who loved Costa Rica and badly wanted us to succeed.
It was like a scene from Rocky IV and the politburo boastfully cheering on their Drago. Except we weren’t Drago, the players had no reverence for those administrators, and this definitely wasn’t Moscow. When I found my seat next to Coach Erickson, I wondered not only did I just do that but what I am doing here period? Have Josh and I officially lost it? Josh, the now five-year Costa Rican transplant through Willamette University, and myself, a Canadian through way of New Mexico State University, have been so immersed into this project that we’ve started to joke about our shared states of delirium. Josh was passionate about Costa Rica, but it seemed the pressure had finally made us both crack. We nearly didn’t make it to this game. I can still remember the look on Josh’s face when I swiftly entered the hotel lobby with all my bags in tow just a few months earlier. “What are you doing?” he wondered in an unintendedly condescending tone.
“We’re supposed to be at the airport in 30 minutes?” I was almost asking myself now based on his question.
“There’s no way they are signing it,” he said with total confidence.
“You really think their pride is going to let them not send a team to Panama?”
He paused before replying, “You might be right. I’ll go get some stuff in case they sign it. Lisa’s gonna kill me either way.”
That it was a contract we had finished up about 4 o’clock that morning in the basement of a casino bar, had translated into Spanish by a hotel front desk clerk by 6, and then emailed to the entire basketball federation by 8. The stipulations were markedly clear: a formal contract to coach the team with dates in place, health insurance for his players, to see the books and their money trails, and most of all he wanted to know he couldn’t be fired whenever they felt like it. We were supposed to depart later that day for a tournament in Panama and Josh said he would not be joining the team without a signed contract. Josh wanted to win even more than the administrators, but he felt he had to draw the line.
Most of the morning the President of the Costa Rican Basketball Federation (FECOBA), had been increasingly hedging his stance to get Josh on the plane: starting with “Let’s sign it when you get back,” then “I don’t really understand the terms, I need some time,” to “I am traveling, I can’t find anywhere to print it and sign it.” When one of our star players, Kay Martinez, told a FECOBA official the players were sticking with Josh and would not be traveling to Panama City without him, the heat was turned up and the contract came through.
There are two different worlds in Costa Rica: the “Pura Vida” one in tourism advertisements, Jurassic Park, its captivatingly gorgeous country and ocean sides. The other is San Jose, where I would be in and out of for the next four to five months preparing for our qualifying tournament. This capital city is dominated by traffic, potholes, garbage, a recently beefed up presence of police, and house and store fronts barricaded by wrought-iron and barbed wire. Laws not permitting cars in a traffic accident to move combined with an urban planning history of Spanish exploitation and unexpected growth in the coffee industry have created an intensely uncoordinated and traffic-filled city scape. An American ex-pat summed it up to me in an American Airlines check-in line: “It’s a dump.” So when the emails and WhatsApp’s of “Costa Rica, lucky you”, “Must be nice”, “Is that work or vacation?” came in every time I found a WiFi location, it became excruciatingly painful to play along. I had come to think the Switzerland label was made by people who had not spent time in downtown San Jose after dark.
San Jose does represent nearly half of the country’s total population, an even bigger portion of its economic activity, and almost all of the power. Sport at all levels has always been thoroughly dominated by soccer and that only intensified with the recent Cinderella story in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Regardless of where or how you grew up, real opportunity for any Tico or Tica (a Costa Rican) athlete resides in San Jose. For basketball players this is no different. Whether you want to play for the top-paying professional team, Ferreteria Brenes Barva, or get a scholarship to the top high school, Colegio Seminario, San Jose is the hub of basketball in Costa Rica. It also became my headquarters in 2015 as I took on the official role of National Team Advisor to head coach Josh Erickson. I didn’t love Costa Rica like Josh. Not yet, I didn’t.
The dream, at least Josh Erickson’s, was the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Americas Championship Tournament. Costa Rica in its entire history had never qualified for this event that served as the last-stop for entrance into the Olympic Games. The first step toward this was in a few months, the Confederacion Centroamericana de Baloncesto (COCABA) Championships, and one in which Costa Rica had had inconsistent but reasonable levels of success. Success at this event led to the Centrobasket, a tournament merging COCABA with the Caribbean countries, in which the top-four teams would qualify for FIBA Americas. In Costa Rican history, simply qualifying for Centrobasket has been seen as cause for celebration and inevitably finished with a coup de gras. In 2014, their first game against the Dominican Republic ended in a 38 point loss only to be followed with a 44 point loss to Panama the following day. So going to Centrobasket with any expectations of success was complete madness. But Josh was crazy enough to believe it could be done and in a meeting at the 2014 Final Four in Indianapolis, convinced me of the same.
Josh left a lot of things out of that meeting. Not only was our national basketball federation in Costa Rica a secretive organization creating obstacles to team success but one of the most decorated players was fed up enough to refuse his future participation. FECOBA continually pumped the “we’re broke” card to coaches, players, administrators and anyone that was willing to listen. Players were left with empty promises of health insurance, reimbursements, gas money, and basic equipment. A genuine resentment toward the organization developed and it was evident that Josh had brought me into a junta of players threatening to quit, demanding change, and questioning everything they ever heard team-related. I had inherited a group of players that were suspicious, resentful, short-tempered—and for good reason.
Before I make this venture with Costa Rica basketball out to be a scene from The Untouchables, a little contextualization is in order. The Costa Rica Federation Soccer President was just arrested in May of 2015 with several other FIFA officials under charges of racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. In 2013, FIBA suspended Panama from international competition for having not one, but two national federations operating at the same time. Mexican coach Sergio Vilaldimos quit his job with their program in August of 2014 saying he would no longer put up with the deceit and lack of payment from the Mexican basketball federation. The following month, Mexico hired former NBA player and coach Bill Cartwright to take the charge of the program. Five months after that, Cartwright was replaced by a coach named Eddie Casiano. Then two months later, Casiano was out and Sergio was re-hired as the Mexican National team coach. So as much as I was learning about how chaotic Costa Rican basketball was, I also realized they were following a typical Central American script.
The player distrust was going to cost us our most talented post player: Hernol Gardener Hall, one of a few talented young players from Costa Rica that were transplanted to the United States just over ten years ago. A regional broker and NCAA coach had sent Hernol and three other Costa Rican players to junior colleges in the United States. Hernol was the #4 ranked junior college player in the country and could have gone to any school he wanted. But his brokers also had places they wanted him to go. Hernol chose the University of Cincinnati on his own accord and evidence he previously played professional basketball for money mysteriously appeared, which eliminated his NCAA eligibility.
Josh was now five years in to living and working in Costa Rica and had really begun to make his mark professionally. He took over an underdog franchise, San Ramon, and turned them into the only threat Barva, the New York Yankees of the domestic professional league, would have for championships. Beyond his success on the court, he had earned a local respect for his efforts off the court. He was not cautiously viewed by locals as the stereotypical American gringo here on an exploitive venture but one willing to work with the underprivileged, disabled and a side of Costa Rica outsiders rarely endeared themselves too. This kindness also bled toward his players as he would drive them when he could, give them gas money when he couldn’t, make sure their uniforms were always washed, and most importantly, refrain from the hateful personal attacks they were accustomed to from their coaches. In 2014, Josh was hired as the National Team coach after a championship season in San Ramon, but fired after all of two weeks. Shortly after the coup, the replacement coach quit, and the third coach oversaw the disaster at Centrobasket. Soon thereafter, Josh, ever-forgiving, accepted the job again.
So to take a quick inventory here—I signed up to help a talented and saintly head coach who could get fired any moment, players who could choose to quit at any moment, an exceptional history of defeat, presided over by a messy organization with no structure in place for team success, and a top player already off the roster. Translation: My initial glamorous vision of learning the nuances of international basketball to take back with me to my college job morphed into a soul-searching expedition that neither Josh and I knew the outcome of. I had gone from courtesy cars and Adidas allotments at NMSU to wondering if we’d get 10 guys to practice and telling Josh not to stop the car at red lights driving through the city at night.
But we had to tackle the court either way and Josh equaled my somewhat neurotic propensity to never stop thinking about our team. Our players had been bullied by ultra-aggressive coaches lacking, or choosing to lack, individual or defensive techniques. So we needed them to execute the most efficient game plan we could surmise in a desperately short period of time. Over 80 percent of our practice time became dedicated to our defensive philosophy: transition defense, forcing the offensive player to their weak hand, and taking away catch and shoot threes from the top threats on the opposing team.
We installed a shuffle-cut offense that solved our concerns of not having an experienced point guard, limiting turnovers, staying away from ball screens, and eating as much clock as we could. Not a single player had the freedom to go to the offensive board on field goal attempts and all we would chart on offense (and stress) is turnovers. Combining this patient, conservative and paranoid offensive mindset with a defensive-first approach might provide us with a chance. We knew we could not outscore most of our opponents, but we felt if we could muck the game up enough, make it a battle of discipline and willpower of fundamental basketball execution, we could find our ceiling. Very few teams in this region played much defense, if any, and if we excelled at it at a greater rate than they were already better than us offensively—we could close the gap on some of our talented opponents. This process was far from smooth.
Gaburieru Moya was our most committed player throughout the entire process. Moya was blue-collar, loyal, passionate, he lifted weights before practice relentlessly, stayed shooting until we turned the lights off, and desperately wanted this team to be successful. He was our best shooter and at 6-7 could play three different positions. Yet his passion could veer into aggression in an instant. Moya had an odd fight-or-flight response that often got stuck on “fight.” There were several games we had to sub Moya out before he tore somebody’s head off. He was our Dennis Rodman.
“Don’t worry, Moya can play tomorrow, we worked it all out,” the federation official frantically told Josh in our hotel lobby.
Just a few hours before I found myself in the middle of a post-game handshake line melee. After picking up a technical foul for taunting players from Mexico during the game, Moya and their head coach, the legendary Horacio Llamas, had been jawing at each other the rest of the game. When they finally met up in the handshake line, Llamas had a few words for Moya maybe thinking he would back down from his stature (7 feet tall and up to 350 pounds) and status (the first-ever Mexican to play in the NBA). The problem with that mindset was that this wasn’t your typical player, this was Moya. So for the next 10 minutes players, coaches, administrators, everyone was trying to break up two guys from trying to strangle each other. After it ended we immediately thought “Great, we just lost Moya for the rest of the tournament. He attacked a coach at a FIBA event on national television.” After all, the FIBA officials running this tournament can stick their chests out and noses up with the best of them. But while there are some things in San Jose that apparently follow a public, transparent process (there’s that Swiss thing again) most of it comes down to who you know and what power they hold. Thus, the underworld of Costa Rica ruled the day and Moya would be just fine.
Moya’s stellar commitment to our team was joined by Jefny Anderson. Jef was a big-body presence for us at 6-10 and about 260. This may make you think we had a great interior but his game was much more suited to the perimeter with his shooting touch. Without Hernol, Jef became our only true pivot on the roster and his health became our primary concern for the summer. Being able to count on him and Moya provided us with a great backbone.
Our wild card was Kay Martinez. Another member of that talented American delegate of players in the early 2000s, Kay was our most gifted player. He was a versatile 6-5 scoring guard who had great shooting range and a post-up game. The problem was that Kay was as close to quitting the team as anyone and his hatred for FECOBA, previous coaches, and the effects of basketball in Costa Rica ran deep. Getting past his harbored anger of lost wages, petty coaches, and poor treatment had alienated him from many players and coaches in Costa Rica. Kay and Hernol had been labeled as cancers but the reality is that previous coaches put up with them because they knew they needed them to have any shot at winning.
Part of Kay and Hernol’s contempt toward the organization was true for all of our players from Limon, even the most tolerant ones. I over-simplified when I said there were two parts to Costa Rica. There are actually three: the countryside, San Jose and Limon. Limon’s habitants are largely Afro-Caribbean, and the relationship between them and Costa Rica has not been glossy. While the history of their relationship is complicated and involves racism, American companies, plantations and a whole host of other variables—the modern day outcome is some racist perspectives from native Costa Ricans toward darker-skinned people that largely populate bordering Nicaragua and those in Limon. So while Limon may create an inordinate amount of Costa Rica’s top athletes, some of its residents carry a militant side toward their home country that is difficult to shake.
This almost xenophobic mentality they feel is real. The Switzerland label is rooted in a general air of exceptionalism. Costa Ricans are intensely proud of their superior economic and social development in the region, that they don’t have, or need, an army, enjoy a terrific health care system, and now, world-class soccer. Because taxes are so high, having a government job is attractive. It means votes, favors and incentives for these posts are moving around constantly and the individuals can become excessively arrogant and difficult to deal with. They talk down to people and enjoy their power. If forced to succinctly answer why Nolan Richardson, Rick Pitino, and John Calipari did not last long in their positions in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. I’d bet those federations could not handle giving away the power and publicity they crave nor could the coaches hold their tongues long enough while witnessing their tactics.
So the overriding question Josh and I asked each other daily: Should we even be doing this? We loved the guys, coaching, the competition, but were we averting some sort of natural order here? We had a sense that Costa Rica National’s program had a due course we were now violating. Maybe the best thing that could happen to this is for us to step away, let complete failure ensue, and some type of Orange Revolution would hit reset for the next Snowball or Napoleon. So when a stranger happened to hear Josh and I jokingly talk to each other, “Should we just let this thing burn?” or “Everyone dies you know,” they may have walked away thinking we were one of those famous American gambling tycoons operating our empire when really we were just wondering if our efforts were futile or not. We found ourselves talking about our experiences through Rust Cohle as much as we were basketball junkies.
But as far as we strayed from sensibility, we were joined in this now stricken existence to take a job no one really wanted to a place it had never been in history. When Jeff Van Gundy returned to the NBA to coach the Houston Rockets in 2003 he said, “I guess I just missed the misery.” This may be thought of as a dumpster fire, but it was our dumpster fire. And I was going to give Josh every ounce I could to help him pull this off.
Josh and I walked into our locker room for our game against Cuba at the Roberto Duran Arena in Panama City with almost nothing left in the tank. We had lost 8 out of our last 9 games and an evening out in Panama City the night before didn’t help. We knew we were on the verge of losing our jobs despite a newly signed contract. The travel, the losing, asking our guys to play a selfless game of basketball that was far from the loose, free-spirited style they were accustomed to was not adding up a lively group of guys. This last game of the friendly-tournament against Cuba could be our death blow. We had both tormented the officials enough that we were facing threats of fines and suspensions from tournament officials. Neither of us cared. Josh went far enough to incite the entire Israeli contingent with a few of his word choices.
Thankfully, Cuba had also played three games in the past three days, were not a great shooting team to distance themselves from us, and their monster post player, Yoan Luis, was left handed. Like most left handed players, he was deeply limited with his right hand. With our defensive philosophy, he might be vulnerable. And as much as we doubted our current willpower and the gravity of our collective history wearing us down, these were proud men that showed flashes of a deep hatred for losing. Has this crossed criminal lines at time? Yes it did and I would elaborate if I felt comfortable with my outcome. But in true Frank Underwood fashion, we accepted these means in their disgust for failure as something we desperately needed them to revert to if we were going to avoid being on the wrong side of basketball’s natural selection.
Our weak hand defensive execution against Luis was flawless as he went 2-13 for 6 points. Our offensive output was right on par with our Baltimore Raven/Trent Dilfer-esque philosophy: 56 points scored, 40 percent shooting from the field, and only 4 offensive rebounds. As much as our guys may hate the Costa Rica Basketball Federation, fighting a team-oriented system that didn’t fit their desires, or having to deal with defensive shell drills for hours at a time, they yearned for that success as a unit they have never had before. And it was in that very small crack in the window that we wiggled every ounce of new air inside them we could.
We not only beat Cuba for the first time ever but we later qualified for Centrobasket 2016 and had a historic win over Mexico at COCABA. That was the game that was highlighted not only by victory but by the post-game brawl. Our tournament was propelled by a terrific defense that was led by Rouel Wilson, a young, lanky wing with tremendous athleticism and upside for us. As the tournament came to a close, and thus my first year with the Costa Rican team, I started to appreciate that basketball in this region was not better or worse than my American version – just different. I now had the awareness that I was merely a coaching reflection of popular American values emphasizing rationalization and risk management whereas this region had either passed on the same ideals or had yet to take them on.
The play calls I was faking earlier became a ritual that was no longer designed to fool the other team but for Josh and I to make it through the day. In my previous world a young college coach working 90 hour weeks would be scribbling down my signals and deciphering them for his boss. At the outset of my journey, I was thinking we’d have the opposing coaches twisting and turning in bed all night trying to figure them out. But our opponents coach was more worried about finding a good beer and couldn’t name three players on our roster, never mind our plays. So part of our coping mechanism was self-deprecating, particularly of our team and circumstance (which was alarmingly comforting and full of tremendous laughter).
I took this job thinking I can learn and grow through the exposure of a unique basketball experience and possibly enjoy some new food and beaches at the same time. What I did not expect was to find myself baptized into a real-life sociology project of power, politics, and race and uncovering destinations like Hotel Del Rey. So the revolutionary basketball drills I would take home with me or the visits to the national parks while tasting the gallo pinto were exchanged for a Lord of the Flies setting where I was finding enough basketballs and begging players to attend practice by day and hustling up board member votes by night. I am no Upton Sinclair and nor do I equate San Jose to early 20th century Chicago. But I do walk away with an appreciation for how easy basketball comes to us in the United States. If Josh is crazy enough to bring me back for another year I am sure we will find ourselves even deeper into the crevices of San Jose and our own minds as before. Our federation’s President has already “retired” amidst his overthrow and it seems a fitting way to plunge back into the darkness of basketball in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica finished 0-4 in Centrobasket last month in Panama City. Mexico has already been suspended by FIBA for a similar infraction to Panama previously, having multiple national federations operating at the same time. The top-five finishers (Puerto Rico, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Virgin Islands) qualified for FIBA Americas in 2017. Josh Erickson has remained to coach the national team in the country he loves.
Author Paul Weir begins his first season as New Mexico State’s head coach this November.
Photos courtesy of Paul Weir