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Sarasota Thursday, May 31, 2018 4 months ago

Booker High grad heads to Puerto Rico for college basketball

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Diamond signed to play women’s basketball with the University of Turabo, in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, on May 22.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

Recent Booker High graduate Diamond Merced remembers the stories from her father, Richard Merced, with crystalline clarity.

Like the one about a young Richard climbing these big trees, the biggest you’ve ever seen, to reach the fruit in the treetop treasure trove. The fruit was the juiciest you’ve ever eaten, too, and always perfectly ripe. Richard would scuttle up, grab all he could and toss the lot down to his mother, Josephine Merced, who was waiting with open arms to catch them.

The one thing all of Richard’s stories have in common is location. They all took place in Puerto Rico, where he was raised.

“I used to hear all about how great it was there,” Diamond said. “Now, I can relive all those stories without them (her family). Or with them, if they want to come (laughs).”

Diamond signed to play women’s basketball with the University of Turabo, in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, on May 22.

Her entire basketball career is intertwined with family. It began when Diamond was 4, and her older brothers, Rico and Niko Merced, wouldn’t let her play with them. Until Diamond told their father, of course; A quick talking-to changed their outlook. Soon, Diamond was out-dribbling the boys, her mother, Marie Rodriguez, said.

On the afternoon of Jan. 29, 2016, hours before Booker’s 5A District 10 title game against Lake Wales High, Diamond’s uncle, Poochie Rodriguez, passed away, she said. Diamond was devastated, but found the strength to play in the game, like her uncle would have wanted. She led the Tornadoes with 13 points, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the opposite free throw line. Booker won, 39-38, in overtime.

It’s still Diamond’s favorite basketball memory, even though she has no idea how she made that shot.

Her career may have started over sibling jealousy, but Diamond, a guard, learned to love the game. Diamond said the transition to coach Shantia Grace this season was a welcome one. She was tough, and made everyone run for even the most minor infractions, but Diamond appreciated that. It instilled the discipline necessary to compete in college, she said. The Tornadoes rewarded Grace with a trip to the regional semifinals. Turabo saw Diamond’s tape from this season, and the rest is history. The season also helped Diamond remember why she loved the game in the first place.

“It’s a rush when I score,” Diamond said. “Or when I make a nice pass, or cross up somebody. It feels good inside.”

Diamond and her family took a vacation in mid-April to visit the university. Diamond is fluent in both English and Spanish, though she admits she’s done more listening in Spanish than speaking it.  The Tuabo coaching staff didn’t tell her much, other than to be ready to play, and Diamond will be. She didn’t need to hear anything else. She’s going for basketball, but she’s going for her history, too.

The beautiful world painted by her father’s stories is still there, if a little more haggard in 2018. Hurricane Irma left the island’s cities in tatters, and though they are slowly being rebuilt, they are not all back yet. It was during the Merced family’s trip that Puerto Rico was hit by the latest island-wide blackout. Diamond felt comfortable enough with Turabo’s surrounding area to make her commitment.

“Certain parts are worse than others,” Diamond said. “But it’s not like people can’t live there. It’s still pretty good. I’m just ready, I can’t wait to go. I want to go right now (laughs).”

It’s still Puerto Rico, and it still has those trees, and that’s all that matters.

 

I’m the sports reporter for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, MD. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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