Midway through the first quarter on a rainy Tuesday night in Heredia, north of San José, forward Rohel Wilson of Ferreteria Brenes Barva split two defenders, leaped, and was fouled as he threw down a thunderous right handed dunk over an opponent from Cartago’s San Luis Gonzaga,” The small crowd erupted in “oohs,” Wilson sank his free throw and his team closed the quarter on a 19-0 run. When the final horn sounded to end of the game, Barva had eked out a 130-22 win over Gonzaga.
If you’re scoring at home, that’s a 108- point difference.
And while Barva was pleased to win the lopsided contest, players and coaches consider the lack of parity in the Costa Rican First Division League (LBS) to be a major disappointment. Of the eight teams in the league, the top four have won 10 or more of their first 17 season games. The bottom four have all lost 10 or more of those games.
“It’s a wonderful thing that we have four great teams that train and succeed and elevate the level of basketball in Costa Rica,” said Barva coach Luis Blanco. “And it’s an unfortunate thing that we have four other teams that can’t compete on the same level, don’t challenge the other teams and don’t elevate the level of Costa Rican basketball. It is a very unbalanced league.”
Basketball is racing to become Costa Rica’s second sport – after soccer – but the national league’s promoters are finding some hurdles remain. One is the towering imbalance of talent, and another is financing.
Barva, which boasts a record of 16-1, is currently in first place in the league, two games ahead of the team from University of San José at San Ramón (USJ Arba), which is 14-3. On Tuesday, USJ Arba beat seventh place Pérez Zeledón by 43 points.
To reduce this disequilibrium, the Costa Rican Basketball Association (FECOBA) created a committee to balance the caliber of players on each team. Using players’ statistics (points, rebounds and assists) from the previous season, the committee ranks each of the 120 players in the league on a scale of A through D. Each team is supposed to be comprised of two A-level players, several B and C-level players and a few D-level players.
Judging by the 108-point and 43-point blowouts Tuesday night, the formula doesn’t appear to be working.
“The federation established the categorization system three to four years ago, but at this point, it is still very flawed,” said Fabián Marín, coach of San Luis Gonzaga. “Some of the best players in the league are classified at B level. It needs to provide more equilibrium. …Though I do think that in the next few years it will start to balance out.”
But Does It Pay?
Coaches of some of the weaker teams, such as Marín, whose Gonzaga team has a record of 2-15, also attribute the inequality of the league to finances. Barva, for example, is the best-financed club in the First Division. Its multitude of sponsors, including Banco Nacional de Costa Rica, the Ferretería Brenes hardware store and the Cartago-based utilities company JASEC, are plastered across the team’s jerseys and shorts. Thanks to the sponsors, some of Barva’s players are paid enough to make a living as professional basketball players. This is not the case for other teams.
Marín said his Gonzaga team is composed of players all under 22 who have been with the organization since they were boys. None receives any sort of financial compensation for his efforts.
“They don’t even pay me,” the coach said with a laugh.
Players from other teams are compensated with housing and school grants, but very few receive enough compensation to make a living off their hoops careers.
“Really, we are more like a semi-professional league,” said FECOBA president José Carlos Barquero. “Not very many players receive any money besides small scholarships and basic finances.”
Costa Rica’s Second Sport
Barquero said that basketball hopes to solidify itself as Costa Rica’s second sport, mentioning that it is taught and played in schools throughout the country. While it will most likely never replace soccer, coaches and players throughout the league are optimistic about the future of the game.
“As long as the federation continues to promote and support the sport and put the idea of basketball into the public mind, I think basketball definitely has a future here,” said Blanco, who has coached in Costa Rica for over 30 years. “It’s continuing to grow, and our job is to make sure it keeps growing.”
Ticos Got Game
While Costa Rica is, and most likely always will be, a soccer-first nation, the players on the floor at the Palacio de Deportes in Cartago on Tuesday night could, in basketball terms, flat-out “ball.” They were that good.
From running complicated offensive sets, to handling full-court pressure, to throwing down the occasional windmill dunk; there was undeniable talent on the court.
Wilson, Barva’s 20-year-old forward, was the star of Tuesday night’s contest. Though the game itself wasn’t much to watch, Wilson definitely was, as the slim, long 6’5” forward/center from Limón finished with 23 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and three assists.
“He’s only 20 and can do just about anything,” coach Blanco said. “He’s only going to get better with time.”
Several other members of Barva’s cast also could rise to the occasion on a given night, most notably Panamanian forwards Isaac St. Rose and Amir Alvarado. (Alvarado was away Tuesday playing with the Panama national team at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico.)
But, despite their talents, these young players know that a career in basketball in Costa Rica is limited.
“I hope by the time I am 22 I will be playing in a league at a higher level,” said Wilson, who is a university student studying physical therapy. “I’d love the chance to play at a university in the U.S. or somewhere in Europe. Playing internationally is my main goal.”
St. Rose, who has played in the LBS five seasons, expressed a similar desire to play abroad, possibly in Mexico or Europe. “It’s natural that players would want to leave,” Blanco said. “They can find higher level competition in other countries. We are seeing more and more young players leaving the country to improve their game and opportunities to play professionally.”