If the Hialeah Gardens Gladiators are able to make it back to Lakeland to defend their state title, they might have to again deal with racial slurs that spewed from the fans of their beaten rivals.
If so, they’re prepared.
“We are a tough-minded team,” 6-5 senior wing Adrian Gonzalez said. “We don’t let that get to us.”
Last year, the Gladiators became the first predominantly Hispanic team to win a Class 8A championship in boys’ basketball, and that fact must have set off some fans from Boca Raton’s Spanish River community in the semifinals and some supporters of Orlando area’s Hagerty in the final.
Some fans from both teams chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!,” an obvious shot at Gardens’ roster full of Hispanic players, even though some of them — including Gonzalez — were born in the United States.
Even worse, some fans from those teams yelled nasty slurs at the parents of Gardens players.
“Our parents were ridiculed,” Gardens coach Marcos Molina said. “One person said: ‘Shut up and cut my yard, you Mexican.’ It was ugly, insulting and degrading.
“It’s disappointing that still today people will stoop to those levels of trying to humiliate other people. It’s got to be a lack of intelligence on their part — calling kids ‘wetbacks’ and ‘lawn-cutters.’
“We have really good kids. We told them to be respectful. We told them that not every place is Miami. Not everyone is used to Hispanic kids.”
Alvaro Simoza, Hialeah Gardens’ 6-7, 245-pound center from Caracas, Venezuela, said he heard the “U-S-A” chants and was upset by the negativity being hurled at his team.
“It angered me and hurt me,” said Simoza, who has been living in Hialeah since age 8 and is now an American citizen.
“But we used it as fuel. We figured they were saying those things because they were scared. It made me want to beat them even more.”
The Hialeah Gardens kids, though, aren’t the only ones who have heard anti-Hispanic slurs.
Last March, Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez, who is a graduate of Krop High School, heard the hate. As he stepped to the free-throw line, members of the Southern Miss pep band started chanting: “Where’s your green card?”
Rodriguez, by the way, is an American citizen, born in Puerto Rico.
Southern Miss quickly issued a statement of apology, but the damage was done.
Gonzalez, who leads Gardens with a 24-point scoring average, said last year in Lakeland was the first time he had encountered ethnic slurs.
He said he was at the free-throw line in the state final when he noticed his cousin in the stands, running to separate Gonzalez’s mother from a rival fan.
“My mother was shooting video,” said Gonzalez, whose parents were born in Cuba. “You could hear what the other fan was saying to her.
“We felt disrespected. Why would they go that low?”
Gonzalez, like Simoza, said he used the slurs as extra motivation and reasoned that teams wouldn’t show such hatred if Gardens were an average team. But the Gladiators (18-5) are far from average.
Simoza, who averages 14 points and eight rebounds, and Gonzalez are the two returning starters from last year’s team.
They have just one non-Hispanic, 6-0 freshman point guard Dylan Frye, on a diverse team.
The rest of the team is comprised of Henry Leonardo, a 6-6 senior forward who is a Muslim from the Dominican Republic; 6-1 senior guard Luis Huertas (Cuban); 6-1 sophomore guard Josh Sanchez (Cuban); 6-1 sophomore guard Raul Frias (Dominican); 6-2 senior wing Abel Scilingo (Cuban); and 6-5 sophomore forward Abraham Kurnich (Cuban).
Gonzalez said he is proud of his team’s Hispanic roots.
“Everyone looks at Hispanic athletes as baseball players,” he said. “But I think if anyone works hard, they can accomplish whatever they want.”