One Dream player drew the most attention at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross on Wednesday.
It wasn’t Angel McCoughtry, one of the WNBA’s top scorers. And it wasn’t Elizabeth Williams, who dropped a double-double in Atlanta’s last win.
Point guard Carla Cortijo ignited the crowd of predominantly Hispanic fans when she grabbed the microphone and spoke in Spanish. As the first Puerto Rican-born player in the history of the WNBA, she is looked to as a hero in her community and an inspiration for girls to blaze new trails on courts across the world.
Cortijo grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, which today is the territory’s third-largest city. She knew basketball held her future when she was 10 years old, when she dominated male opponents.
“It was a huge thing for Puerto Rico that a girl was beating the guys,” Cortijo said. “When I was 10, there was a game where I scored 40 points. That was the breaking point that let everyone know this girl was good.”
After being named Puerto Rico’s High School Basketball Player of the Year as a sophomore in high school, Cortijo moved on her own to Houston without knowing any English. She said she was always on the phone with her mother, who urged her to continue chasing her dream.
Despite battling the language barrier, her game needed no translation. She shined at Bellaire High School and was named a Parade Magazine All-American. Despite suffering an injury to her left knee during her senior season, she earned a spot with the Texas Longhorns.
Another injury to the same knee derailed Cortijo’s freshman year in Austin, but it didn’t hold her down. She played three seasons with the Longhorns and was a trusted player for head coach Gail Goestenkors. She played in 104 games and averaged 8.2 points and 4.6 assists per game.
“She was a clutch player, so if the game was ever close going down the stretch, I could count on her to make the right decision,” Goestenkors said. “She has a real knack for making great plays.”
Cortijo went undrafted in 2009 but received a training-camp invite from the Los Angeles Sparks and head coach Michael Cooper. She was unable to participate after breaking a finger and instead went to play in the Baloncesto Superior Nacional Femenino, Puerto Rico’s professional league.
Six seasons in the BSNF and one gold medal in the Pan-American games later, Cooper came calling again.
It was the middle of the 2015 season, and the Dream needed a guard.The timing, however, was an issue. Cortijo was to play with Puerto Rico’s national basketball team in a Pre-Olympic qualifying tournament. Puerto Rican Basketball Federation president Carlos Beltran would not allow her to sign with the Dream at that time.
What resulted was a stand-off between both sides. Cortijo received a tremendous amount of support from her home country as well as the BSNF and fans on social media. Although the federation didn’t relent before the Dream moved on, Atlanta approached Cortijo again with two games left in the season.
For Cooper, the third time was the charm. The team signed Cortijo for the last two games.
“It was a big relief,” Cooper said. “I’ve always believed the basketball gods do things for a reason.”
The Dream won those two games and re-signed Cortijo in the offseason. She has appeared in nine games in 2016 and averaged 7.3 points and 2.4 assists per contest.
With her place in the WNBA secure, Cortijo continues to promote basketball for Puerto Ricans. She held a camp in Carolina last December which hosted about 200 girls. Before, Cortijo turned heads because she was the girl outplaying the boys. Now, she is working to make that a normal occurrence.
“Nobody in Puerto Rico has ever done a basketball camp for girls,” Cortijo said. “I know me being in the WNBA is going to open the doors for all these girls.”
From her solitary move to Houston to injuries and contract roadblocks, basketball has thrown its challenges at Cortijo. Yet she continues to strive on, just like her mother asked her to do over 10 years ago.
As a Puerto Rican in the WNBA, she said she realizes the scope of her involvement. Anything less than her all is just not acceptable.
“It’s an honor to represent women’s basketball in the whole Hispanic community,” Cortijo said. “I have pressure on myself to do well. I just try to stay positive throughout the game and throughout my whole life.”
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