NEW LONDON — The crowd roared for India Pagan — a two-time Class LL state champion with New London High School and now a member of the women’s Olympic basketball team for Puerto Rico — during Thursday’s Olympic tournament game that was live-streamed from Tokyo at the Garde Arts Center.
The Puerto Rico team was holding the Belgium national team in check — including Emma Meesseman, the 2019 Women’s National Basketball Association Finals Most Valuable Player — early on in the game, but Puerto Rico was struggling to make shots.
As the first quarter was winding down, Pagan entered the game. She knew her family, friends, and community were watching thousands of miles away and she didn’t hesitate to show her moves. After her teammate had a shot blocked, Pagan grabbed the rebound and swiftly laid it in. The Garde crowd erupted as the hometown hero cut Belgium’s lead to four.
That was the closest Puerto Rico came to taking the lead back from Belgium, but the excitement at the Garde never wavered. Puerto Rico ultimately fell 87-52, but 22-year-old Pagan — one of the youngest players on Puerto Rico’s national squad — put up a strong performance, making both of her shots and sinking both of her free throws in about eight minutes off the bench.
“I asked her, ‘Hey, give me two points,’” India’s father, Moises Pagan, said after the game. “She scored six. I’ll take the six.”
It was a solid performance against a Belgium team that could make a deep run for a medal.
Even though the score was less than the Puerto Rican team wanted, Moises said, the energy and support in the room was incredible. India’s mother, Carmen agreed.
“It was a special moment because the community — her teachers, her coaches, her family, everybody — got to be together to enjoy this moment. It’s something that I don’t even have words to describe,” Carmen said. “This was a special gift from the community and I’ll never forget that, and I know India will be grateful.”
New London City Council President Efraín Dominguez Jr. has known the Pagan family for years and was India’s social studies teacher in middle school. After learning that one of India’s games would be streamed at night, he called Mayor Michael Passero to discuss using the Garde Arts Center to hold a free public watch party.
Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde, said the plan was to reopen the theater in September for the first time since its closure due to COVID-19 in March 2020. He said a community event supporting one of New London’s own was the perfect way to bring the community back together.
After working with NBC and Atlantic Broadband to obtain permission to live-stream the game, the event was set. That night the marquee displayed Pagan’s name accompanied by “Olympian Hometown Hero.” Pagan showed her appreciation for the crowd back home, holding up two “L”s with her fingers to represent New London as the camera panned to her while the team was being introduced before the game.
Pagan’s family and the community watched India compete not only as New London’s first Olympian but also as a member of Puerto Rico’s first-ever Olympic women’s basketball team. Dozens of people at the event donned Puerto Rican hats, masks, shirts, and flags.
Dominguez, who is Puerto Rican-American, said the moment was special for the Puerto Rican community.
“To have someone from the diaspora who was born here to be able to make the Olympic national team in Puerto Rico and play, that’s just beyond words,” Dominguez said. “I know that’s why we have so much pride, because being able to have someone that not only lives in New London but is Puerto-Rican American, it’s just our culture. It’s great to have someone representing us.”
India began playing basketball at the New London recreation center when she was 11 years old. Her dad said she didn’t want to play at first, and cried when they signed her up. It only took a few practices to get her hooked.
“The rest is history,” Moises said.
Dominguez said that when Pagan was his student, she wrote an essay about how she wanted to play for coach Geno Auriemma at UConn. Now, she’s playing in the same tournament as UConn legends Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier.
“Now I’m thinking, you’ve surpassed Geno Auriemma to play at that level,” Dominguez said.
Pagan graduated from Marine Science Magnet High School in 2017, but played with the New London Whalers for four years, appearing in the Class LL state championship three times — winning it all as a freshman and senior — and clinching a No. 1 state ranking for New London High School in 2017. She finished her high school career with more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
Pagan played four years at Stony Brook University in Long Island, eclipsing more than 1,000 points and 500 rebounds during her undergraduate career. She helped guide the Sea Wolves to its first NCAA Tournament appearance this year. This fall Pagan will use her extra year of NCAA eligibility, granted to student athletes because of the pandemic, as she works toward obtaining her master’s degree.
Moises said India first played with Puerto Rico’s U-18 and U-19 teams for two years before joining the senior team for the last three years.
“They always say ‘reach for the stars, reach for the stars.’ I told her, reach for the stars and if you miss, you might just land in Tokyo for the Olympics. And she did,” Moises said.
India was part of the senior team that took Bronze at the 2019 Pan-American games and most recently won a silver medal at the 2021 Americup tournament. Puerto Rico’s second-place finish in Americup also guarantees the team a spot in next year’s International Basketball Federation Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament.
“For us, they’ve won gold already,” Carmen said.