#8 Carla Cortijo: Boricua Floor General

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Nestor David Pastor

This year the WNBA will celebrate its 20th season despite enduring years of financial insecurity, teams folding, and low numbers in attendance. Much like the league itself, basketball player Carla Cortijo has faced a unique set of challenges. Nonetheless, this year she’s making history as the league’s first-ever island born Puerto Rican player to start the season under contract.

For 28-year-old Cortijo this is more than a second chance. Cortijo made her first historic debut last year when she played the final two games, an unofficial tryout, to close out the Atlanta Dream’s season in September.

Cortijo’s debut was marred by the Puerto Rican National Team’s controversial decision to prevent her from signing with the Atlanta Dream last August. As captain of the women’s national team, Cortijo was expected to represent Puerto Rico at the Women’s pre-olympic qualifying tournament in Canada, which was scheduled to take place in the middle of the WNBA season. As a result, Cortijo did not show up in Edmonton and cut off all contact with the national team.

Many Puerto Ricans expressed solidarity with Cortijo through social media. “Queremos a Carla Cortijo en la WNBA, Dile no al Egoismo”, a Facebook group, grew to over 20,000 followers during the controversy. They have since changed their name to “Ya tenemos a Carla Cortijo en la WNBA, Orgullo Boricua.”

Cortijo also received support from Jose Juan Barrea, the BSNF (the professional women’s league in Puerto Rico), and the mayor of Carolina who wrote an open letter on her behalf.

Unfortunately, by the time the Puerto Rican Basketball Federation gave Cortijo permission to sign a midseason contract with the Atlanta Dream, the organization had moved on. Cortijo subsequently released an open letter stating that she had not been offered a contract at that time.

It was another setback for Cortijo who in 2009 was invited to training camp by the Los Angeles Sparks, but was unable to attend after breaking a finger that same day during the last game of her collegiate career.  

But late in the year, after several players became injured, Atlanta was given special permission to sign an extra player to the roster for their final two games of the 2016 season. Cortijo’s two-game stint last year set the stage for her to sign a two-year contract as an unrestricted free agent in late January, with the official word coming in February.

“I have a list of things to accomplish and signing this contract with the Atlanta Dream goes under the accomplished category […] I am just happy that this organization showed the interest since you don’t see a lot of players from Puerto Rico go to the WNBA or NBA. Being the first woman born and raised in Puerto Rico to earn this opportunity is quite the honor. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this experience…” Cortijo said in a statement released by the Atlanta Dream.

Cortijo has also publicly announced that she hopes to return to international play so long as it doesn’t interfere with the WNBA season.

Born in San Juan and raised in Carolina, Cortijo’s WNBA debut adds to an already impressive resume, which includes being named Puerto Rico’s high school basketball player of the year in 2002 and winning a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 2011 as captain and starting point guard of the Puerto Rican Women’s National Team.

Cortijo was also a star at the University of Texas, playing there from 2005-2009. She eventually returned to the island play in the BSNF for six seasons. Her return to the Atlanta Dream comes after back-to-back championship titles and Finals MVP honors with the Gigantes de Carolina.

Much of this success has come after two serious injuries to her left knee: an ACL tear and a hyperextension, both of which required surgery. Nevertheless, Cortijo is healthy and continues her rigorous training regiment to this day, occasionally posting videos of her workouts through social media.

She is also active in the community and last December, hosted her first-ever basketball camp in her hometown of Carolina. Over 50 young girls attended the free event.

Cortijo’s success in the WNBA could pave the way for other Puerto Rican players to join the league. In a recent interview, she named several players, including Dayshalee Salaman, Michelle González, and Yeimily Cabrera, as potential WNBA hopefuls. Damika Martínez is another player to keep an eye on.

Bronx-born Jennifer O’Neill, the first U.S.-born Puerto Rican player to ever play in the WNBA, is also looking to make it back into the league. After attending training camp, she signed with the Minnesota Lynx midseason, only to be waived one month later. She is currently on the Connecticut Sun’s training camp roster, but unlike Cortijo, does not have a guaranteed spot on the final roster.

For now, Cortijo continues to prepare for next month, which is when training camp is set to begin. The WNBA season tips off May 14th with the Atlanta Dream looking to improve upon a disappointing 2015 campaign.

 

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.