Before sophomore point guard Giolibeth Perez returned to Stony Brook to suit up for her second season in a Seawolves uniform, she spent her summer as the captain of the Puerto Rico women’s national basketball team.
Perez led the squad to a berth in the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup, the first time the island territory of 3.5 million people ever qualified for the tournament. For Perez, who goes by “Gio,” representing her home was a dream come true.
“I’m very proud to be Puerto Rican,” Perez said. “I keep it very close to my heart, that’s where I come from, where my family’s at. I was the captain two years in a row and it was a great experience just representing your country. We played against the best in the world… and that was the second time [2004 Americas Championships] in Puerto Rican history we ever qualified for a world championship.”
Perez spent her formative years growing up in Camuy, an old city on the north coast of the island, thought to have originally been named by the Taino, an indigenous people in the Caribbean, in honor of its beauty. She lived with her parents and brother in a house by the beach near her grandparents. Perez’s father was a basketball coach and introduced his daughter to her future passion at a young age.
Perez left her home for the United States in ninth grade, when she was just 14 years old. Apart from the occasional trip back home, she has lived apart from her family ever since, staying intermittently with teammates and family friends before settling on Stony Brook’s campus.
It was that physical distance from those she loves the most that made the news of the Category 4 Hurricane Maria, set to cut through Puerto Rico, so hard to bear.
“Everybody was rushing, everybody was just very scared because it was passing through the middle of the island,” Perez said. “It was hard especially for me, because I’m not close to my family. So just knowing that they had to prepare for everything and they’re not going to have signal or power for a while, it was very hard.”
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, leaving devastation in its wake. The storm itself destroyed the territory’s electrical grid, cut most of the population off from clean drinking water and directly killed at least 66 people.
Perez was starting off her semester when the hurricane isolated her from her family. In its aftermath, she heard nothing about their condition for two and a half weeks, before her mother was finally able to reach out.
“I was very nervous, crying all the time,” Perez said. “I used to go to sleep crying, waking up crying, because it was hard for me not knowing about them… But then I heard from my mom, I got a phone call from her through WhatsApp, and I think that was the best feeling that I had in the whole two weeks and a half.”
The storm’s destruction impacted families all over the island, and Perez’s family was no exception.
“Even now there is no type of power,” Perez said. “They’re not going to get power until the beginning of January. The water comes back and forth… Puerto Rico looks very devastated.”
The loss of contact with her struggling family made it hard for Perez to focus on basketball and her studies at first. Even so, she powered through, pouring herself into her game as a tribute to her loved ones.
“I’m over here, working in basketball, school, and everything that I’m doing right here is for them,” Perez said. “So it was hard, but I had to go through it. Basketball is my passion, that’s the sport that I love and it escapes me from everything that is happening around me.”
Perez and her fellow Puerto Rican teammate, freshman forward India Pagan, who grew up in Connecticut but still has family on the island, have not been weathering their troubles alone. The entire team, from head coach Caroline McCombs on down through the roster, has rallied to support its teammates.
“Absolutely, you know those things are going on and obviously when it hits home with one of your own, you feel that,” McCombs said. “For Gio, her family is very affected by the hurricane. They’re still without power and just happy that everybody is safe.”
While she wishes her family was able to join her in New York, Perez is still looking forward to what the season has to offer for herself and her team.
“We have a lot to learn,” Perez said. “We’re looking to make an impact to everybody and I think that we’re looking forward to doing our best. We have a young team, but we’re looking forward to winning the America East Championship.”