Devastation of Hurricane Maria puts Martucci's pro career on hold
Waterford — She was nine days removed from enduring the terrifying landfall of Hurricane Maria at a home in Cacao, Puerto Rico, surrounded by four of her teammates, and Adily Martucci was now on standby for a United Airlines flight home to the United States.
The day, Friday, Sept. 29, had been a series of misadventures. With two of the teammates from Politas de Isabela — the basketball team in Puerto Rico with which Martucci had signed a professional contract — already gone, the remaining three women set about trying to get off the island.
Martucci's flight wasn't scheduled to leave the Luis Munoz Marin Airport in San Juan until Oct. 3, which would have made her the last of the teammates still in Puerto Rico. With gas a scarcity — cars were allowed only $10 worth of fuel at time and some were waiting up to nine hours in line for the privilege — Martucci had no way to get back to Cacao. The prospect of sleeping in the overheated airport from Friday through Tuesday was unfathomable to her.
So Martucci, 23, the Waterford High School graduate who last season led the Quinnipiac University women's basketball team on a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament, sat overlooking a United Airlines counter five minutes before boarding, quietly freaking out.
“I saw my name on the standby line. I was the fifth person,” Martucci said this week, back safely in Waterford. “When she called my name, I started to cry.
“I thought, 'I'm going to be the last one here, I have to try.' You don't understand how hot it was, no air conditioning, everybody sweating, the workers dripping with sweat. I was looking for the United Airlines line and, 'Oh, crap, I passed it.' … I ended up going to Newark. All I needed was a ticket somewhere in the states. I took the train to New Haven. I knew New Haven. I was so glad to see something that was recognizable.”
It was a summer and fall that Martucci won't soon forget.
With ties to Puerto Rico on her mom Adi's side of the family, she originally headed to San Juan to try out for the Puerto Rican Women's National Team. She was named to the team on June 26, a jubilant occasion Martucci called at the time “a dream come true.”
She competed in the Women's Centrobasket Championship, July 12-16, on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Then, before the next tournament, the FIBA Women's AmericCup in Argentina in August, Martucci was cut.
Soon, however, she was headed back to Puerto Rico, having been signed to play professionally for Isabela. In her first career game on Sept. 13, Martucci, a 5-foot-8 guard, finished with 18 points and eight rebounds in an 85-64 loss to Aguada. In the third game, Martucci was even better with a 25-point, 11-rebound performance in which she played all 40 minutes and finished 11-for-11 from the free throw line. Her name was being bandied about as the league's Rookie of the Year.
And yet, it was also the midst of hurricane season.
Martucci arrived in Puerto Rico on Sept. 3 for the scheduled start of the basketball season on Sept. 8. Hurricane Irma brushed the island Sept. 7, with Martucci and her teammates safely tucked away at one of the women's grandparents' house. The season was postponed briefly.
But the worst was still out there.
“We had Irma, but I felt like I was really unprepared for what was about to transpire,” Martucci said. “At the end of the day, I was in a place that was unknown to me. Now, Maria is a (Category) 5. I don't know how fast the winds were. You know the power's going to go out … knowing that I won't have communication with my family.”
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, punishing the island for more than 30 hours and causing an estimated $50 billion worth of damage. The eye of the storm passed directly over Cacao, Martucci said, a brief respite in which she wandered outside and saw the trees back upright. Soon, they bent again in the 150 mph wind, the entire island rendered without power.
Martucci rode out the storm with four teammates: Giocelis Reynoso, a 6-2 center and graduate of Central Connecticut State University; Lanese Bough, a 5-10 guard from the Virgin Islands; Shayra Brown, a 5-9 swing player, Brooklyn native and Boston College grad; and Desiree Irizarry, a 5-8 guard and Chicago native.
It was five days before they could finally reach their families, time spent washing clothes by hand, manufacturing a homemade hoop outside their home, playing dominoes to pass the time.
One day, they learned there was a wireless signal to be had on the side of the highway, so the teammates, now friends, piled into the car, weaving around downed electrical wires, until they got to a spot they could phone home.
“It felt like forever,” Martucci said. “It was just waiting to call our loved ones and tell them we're OK. I'm sure my parents (Tony and Adi) knew I was safe, but I'm sure it crossed their mind what if their daughter wasn't OK?
“I had tears in my eyes. I couldn't believe I was able to talk to them. I was standing on the highway, talking to my parents. I could hear it in my mom's voice and my dad's voice, like, 'We're so happy to hear your voice.'”
She's been home a little more than a week — her first meal was her mom's pancakes and bacon — and her thoughts are still somewhat scattered. The Puerto Rican basketball season is on indefinite hiatus.
“A lot of things are going through my mind right now. It's definitely a rush of emotions,” Martucci said.
She went to Puerto Rico to fulfill a dream of playing professional basketball, but Martucci came home with more than that, mainly gratitude.
“A cool thing about the town we were living in, those families would make sure we're OK,” Martucci said. “Honestly, the families made sure we're OK. They had plates waiting for us for dinner and breakfast. Out of all of this, I've learned how important it is to be hospitable.
“People are going crazy for supplies, people died … but the little food these people had, they were willing to give us. I want to do something for the families who helped us. If everyone acted like that, we would have no problems.”
One thing Martucci has been working on since she arrived home is starting a line of clothing, with the idea of using a part of the proceeds to send back to Puerto Rico. It is called “Tucci,” her nickname at Quinnipiac, the “i” dotted with her uniform number, 3. The logo is a colorful lion.
The shirts would include motivational sayings, she said.
“A lot of things have been inspiring me. I'm a huge believer in purpose. What's your purpose in life? I love basketball, but at the end of the day is that a purpose?” Martucci said. “I feel like my purpose is to change lives positively. My brother (Anthony) was the first person who inspired me to do it.
“'Destined for greatness,' 'prove doubters wrong.' Random sayings that mean something,” she said of the shirts. “It might trigger something. 'I could be more positive today.' Or, 'I could give more to someone today.' … It's given me the positive energy I need.”
Martucci admits to being frightened during the hurricane and it's aftermath.
“I'm still kind of recovering,” she said.
Still, she calls Puerto Rico “a beautiful island.”
“I feel for Puerto Rico. It hurts,” Martucci said. “Towns like where my grandmother's from (Canovanas), it's destroyed.
“… I guess I feel just gratitude, being grateful for the simplest things. You kind of forget how important people are. This really changed me. This whole experience, as crappy as it was, I have so much gratitude to what I do have.”