How Jay Hernandez’s Puerto Rican Basketball Roots Paved His NBA Pathway

by Sam Perley

Although a New Yorker by birth, Hornets Assistant Coach Jay Hernandez’s love of basketball can be traced back to his grandparents’ native home in Puerto Rico. It was there that Hernandez spent four-and-a-half of his early childhood years while his father, Richard played professionally for Bayamón in the nation’s first-tier Baloncesto Superior Nacional (BSN).

“They gave me my own little uniform – I was like a designated mascot,” recalled Hernandez, whose family originally hails from Río Piedras. “I’d go out there and shoot hoops during timeouts. Those were some really good memories. That was the start of my passion and love for the game. I played in little league there with an outdoor court. Since I was young, I had the ball in my hands.”

A member of the Puerto Rican National Team, Richard played 13 total seasons in the league, once winning a BSN championship and twice being named Defensive Player of the Year. Jay and his family moved back to Long Island when he was seven, where his love of basketball continued to blossom. “When I came back to New York, there’s a rich tradition of basketball there. I just loved being around the game. Growing up, I played multiple sports, but when I got to high school, I specialized in basketball. My goal was to play Division I.”

Hernandez started his collegiate career at the University of New Hampshire in 1996 before transferring to Hofstra University back on Long Island, where he played under future two-time NCAA Men’s National Champion Head Coach Jay Wright. Alongside NBA first-round pick Speedy Claxton, Hernandez helped lead the Flying Dutchmen to a pair of NCAA Tournament berths, marking the program’s first appearance in the Big Dance since 1977.

“I ended up becoming a very good defensive player playing under Jay Wright,” said Hernandez. “I was co-Defensive Player of the Year my senior year of college and defense was something my dad was really known for. He had some quickness to him. I was probably less athletic, but shot it better when I was playing. He took it to the rack, I was a bit more methodical. Our mentalities were the same with how tenacious and competitive we were.”

At the time, NCAA regulations permitted Hernandez to spend his offseasons playing professionally in Puerto Rico. Then, while juggling a post-grad MBA pursuit, he’d spend from Wednesday to Sunday commuting to the island to continue competing. He went on to work in college admissions and pharmaceutical sales for a bit before getting back into the sport for good, working with his wife, Allison, to balance a basketball training business in New York with a resumed playing career in Puerto Rico.

“I went down, played and the experience there was phenomenal,” said Hernandez, who played a total of three seasons for the Guaynabo Mets, Aibonito Polluelos and the Cayey Toritos. “It’s super competitive. During my second stint, [future nine-year NBA veteran] Carlos Arroyo was still playing in the league. There were a lot of EuroLeague, Division I-type guys that would go there to make some extra money. In terms of guard play, it’s one of the best leagues. I still say to this day, it’s the best competition I’ve ever played against. Everybody brought something unique and challenging.”

“There’s a lot of physicality and not a lot of calls being made. Guys are hitting each other pretty hard. It reminded me of people talking about the 80’s and 90’s of the NBA. One night, you could be playing in a beautiful, twenty-thousand-seat arena and the next night, you’re in a smaller town with an indoor-outdoor court that seats seven thousand. It’s hot, muggy, fans in the stands are having a really good time. I really enjoyed every night – it was a different experience you were facing.”

Basketball continues to grow in popularity in Puerto Rico, with sports like baseball, boxing, volleyball and soccer also attracting widespread attention. The National Team is a regular medal contender at FIBA AmeriCup, Centrobasket and Pan American Games competitions and has qualified for every FIBA World Cup since 1982, placing as high as fourth back in 1990.

In addition to Arroyo and former Dallas Maverick guard JJ Barea – both of whom are native Puerto Ricans – the nation has had several NBA players of Puerto Rican descent represent the National Team, including Shabazz Napier, Renaldo Balkman and Maurice Harkless. The squad will be looking to qualify for its first Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo since 2004 later on this year.

Sometime down the line, Hernandez hopes to collaborate with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program to host basketball camps and clinics down in Puerto Rico. “I would love to combine ideas with the NBA at some point. I think the players there on the men’s and women’s side would eat up having the NBA go to Puerto Rico. Being able to go back to my roots with basketball training and working with young kids like I was in Puerto Rico once, it’s something I’m looking forward to being a part of.”

Hernandez recently reached a couple of notable milestones in his coaching career the past few years, taking the helm of the organization’s 2018 Summer League team and leading the Greensboro Swarm through its 15-game G League bubble schedule last month. As somebody of Puerto Rican descent, the significance of what he’s been able to accomplish isn’t something he’s lost perspective on by any means.

“I’m humbled because there’s just so many great coaches in Puerto Rico that I looked up to over the years – Carlos Morales, Flor Meléndez, Julio Toro,” he said. “Also, Phil Jackson, Del Harris, Gene Bartow, PJ Carlesimo – who was my dad’s coach at one time – all coached there. To be the first coach of Puerto Rican descent to coach Summer League or be on the bench, all those kinds of things matter because it’s about representation. Hopefully, I can be inspiring to younger coaches and make them feel like they have a pathway to coach at the highest level.”

Hernandez first started working with now Hornets Head Coach James Borrego in Orlando several years ago. At the time Borrego was hired in Charlotte in 2018, he was the first-ever NBA Head Coach of Hispanic descent and soon afterwards, asked Hernandez to be part of his staff.

“JB is just an all-around great guy. He’s taught me a lot since I got in. His background wasn’t something I thought about too much until I realized the significance of him becoming a Head Coach and what that represented. Now, I’ve definitely looked at his pathway and it’s one that I really can appreciate and understand because I’m in it. The depth of what that means, I don’t take lightly. When you sit back and say, ‘He’s the Head Coach and I’m part of his staff as well,’ – it’s definitely an honor.”

Basketball has brought Jay Hernandez to a lot of different places in his life and allotted him the opportunity to work with many of the top coaches and players in the sport. The locations may come and go, but the pride for his Puerto Rican heritage and love of basketball will always remain steadfast.

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