Juan Castillo’s friends speak fondly of the legacy that he left behind after he died about seven years ago — and of its future. It is the Juan Castillo Basketball League which is now in its 28th year, and which may be the oldest league of its kind. .
“We promote Latino culture but try to keep it diverse,” said league president Mario Lugo, who has coached Boy’s Basketball at Watkinson School since 2015.
The league, which was originally called the Latino Basketball League, is now run under the auspices of the Elite Hoop Group ,“an international organization that operates teams in Puerto Rico, Columbia and Connecticut.
Lugo, who is a co-founder and the executive director of the international group as well as president of the Hartford league said, “Our history is important because it gives people a sense of personal and national identity. The league’s history tells a great story about our people. Keeping the league running for so many years demonstrates how resilient and passionate our city and league members are. It symbolizes that no matter what, we will not give up but will work together and preserve what is ours regardless of who cares. That fight in in our people is what kept the league running so many years and made it home for thousands of people. If we have enough funding, our future goal would be to have the league back at the Belizzi School because the court there was named after Juan Castillo (former League president).
It used to be commonly called the Spanish League and there used to be a restriction on the number of non-Latino players, which league advisor Israel Caro confirmed was dropped a few years after the organization began.
“Castillo did a lot of great things for the community,” said Lugo, who previously played in the league before moving to Puerto Rico for 10 years. “He was active with the league and his community. We are continuing his legacy. We want to keep his name alive.”
Most of the players are in their late 20s and early 30s, representing a broad cross-section of society. Police officers, business owners and educators hit the court, according to Lugo, who described the player base as coming from across the social classes.
“It’s stress relief,” said Lugo, alluding to the immersive nature of a good game. “It allows people to escape from the pressures of family, jobs and life.”
Players with the league are men from 18 years old and over that come from towns throughout Connecticut. The teams operate from the Greater Hartford area.
Lugo said the organization had to reduce the number of teams from 20 to 10 after the City of Hartford stopped operating it under its Parks and Recreation Department due to budget cuts.
“We had the option of running it in other cities and towns, but it is a tradition to run it in Hartford,” said Lugo. “It is important to the city — particularly the Latino community.”
Lugo said the league, which is now a private organization, plans to eventually start Junior NBA program for youth from grades five through eight.
“We hope to expand it to high school students but we want to start by reaching youth earlier,” said Lugo, who moved back to Hartford in 2014. “We want to make sure everyone has a glimpse of what we have to offer.”
Caro described himself as fulfilling a variety of roles with the organization from recruiting players to clerical work and even refereeing games and coaching teams.
“We are like a family,” said Caro, who works for Parks and Recreation. “People that would not normally come together focus on the game and having a good time.”
He said that it was his son’s interest in the game that compelled him to become involved with the sport.
“The players are role models for youth,” said Lugo. He said while it is not a traditional “beat the streets'” program, there are trace elements of it in the dynamic.
Caro estimated there were 100 players across the teams, adding that there were currently about 20 Latino players in the league.
He said there were only four teams when the league started but it had 24 teams at its peak.
“We were one of the most respected adult leagues in New England,” he said.
“The original purpose was to get more Hispanics to play,” he said, adding that Baseball was traditionally more popular in the Latino community. “Local leagues had none at all.”
He recalled how Castillo became president of the league about three years after it started, with John Lupo assisting him. He credited Lugo as instrumental in seeking sponsorships for the league, describing Castillo as an active spokesperson. He also recalled how Willie Perez, brother of former Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, succeeded Castillo and was active in working with city officials to secure resources for the league.
Lugo credited Hartford City Council members James Sanchez and Julio Concepcion as well as State Rep. Angel Arce for their assistance He added that the YMCA has been particularly helpful and noted the efforts of league commissioner Flex Vazquez — a volunteer who Lugo credits with donating his own money to help cover league expenses. He also referred to a $1,000 grant from the Maria Sanchez Foundation that helped keep the group going.
“The mantra ‘never forget where you came from’ has driven me to serve as an agent of change in the communities that I live and work in, adds Lugo. “Numerous people and organizations that invested their time and resources in me since my youth have inspired me to live by the declaration of Roberto Clemente,“ a Puerto Rican hero and Hall of Fame Baseball player who tragically passed away in 1972 while providing aid to earthquake victims; “any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, you are wasting your time on Earth.”