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New London proud: India Pagan playing for Puerto Rican Olympic women's basketball team

All the obstacles were a memory Friday night when 22-year-old New London native India Pagan walked into Olympic Stadium in Tokyo as a member of the Puerto Rican Olympic women's basketball team, clad in a red dress with a blue and white belt looped around the waist, tears streaming down her face.

Basketball wasn't even Pagan's first sport. She and her sister Taina tried karate, swimming, softball — "anything you can think of," Tai Pagan said — before they fell in love with basketball. India was 11 and Tai was 9.

Then, when she was 17 and India was first being recruited to play for the Puerto Rican Basketball Federation in the 2016 FIBA U18 Americas Championships in Chile, her parents, Carmen and Moises, needed to make sure that the whole thing was on the up-and-up. Pagan's parents, Puerto Rican natives, thus qualifying India for the honor of representing the island, accompanied her that first summer.

Finally, Pagan's Olympic dream took a hit in 2020 when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed due to COVID-19.

Now this.

"We're still in shock, still numb," Carmen Pagan said this week. "We don't even have enough words. You see the pictures of her (over there) and think, 'That's my child.' ... She called and said, 'I just saw my favorite (United States women's basketball) player, Brittney Griner. Remember when I wanted to do everything she was doing? Right now I'm standing next to her.'"

"She's literally my other half," Tai Pagan said of her older sister. "It's like another part of me on the other side of the world. Like, my sister is India Pagan. ... She's so super happy to be there, so super happy and proud to be representing New London, the Whalers, Stony Brook (University), her family, representing us and so many teams she's been a part of."

Pagan, a 6-foot-1 forward who has been a part of the Puerto Rican federation since 2016, was officially named to the 12-member Olympic team on July 7.

The team left for Tokyo on July 11 and Pagan has documented her travels on social media sites such as Snapchat and Instagram.

Eating sushi. Taking a bus tour past a volcano. The warm greeting given to the team by the employees of their hotel upon arrival. Checking into the Olympic Village. Pagan, masked to guard against the coronavirus, wearing a white cowboy-style hat with her red dress, marching into the opening ceremonies just behind flag bearers Adriana Diaz and Brian Afandor.

Puerto Rico, coached by Jerry Batista and making its Olympic debut, will play its first game in Olympic competition at 9 p.m. Tuesday (8 a.m. EST) at Saitama Super Arena, facing China. Competing in Group C, Puerto Rico will play Belgium on Friday and Australia on Monday, Aug. 2. The top two teams in each of three groups plus the top two third-place teams will advance to the quarterfinals.

Carmen and Moises Pagan will be back home in New London with fans not allowed at the Olympics.

They made a point to attend their daughter's final two big tournaments in person before she departed for Tokyo, traveling to San Antonio in March to watch her play for Stony Brook in the NCAA Division I tournament and taking in the 2021 FIBA Women's AmeriCup in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in June.

"Oh, it's been challenging," Carmen Pagan said of not being in Tokyo. "We follow this child everywhere. From the beginning we talked about going. We talked about how much (money) it was going to be. This is a one-time deal, a once-in-a-lifetime chance. We knew how special it was going to be."

When they're not with her, the Pagans go to the home of Moises' mother, Carmen Olga DeJesus of New London, to watch India's games. They invite the whole family and bring a feast.

India calls home daily and provides plenty of photographic evidence and video footage.

"She does record everything," Tai Pagan, who plays for the women's basketball team at Post University, said with a laugh. "... She knows her family always has her back."

***

Tai Pagan said if there's one thing she would tell India it's this:

"I know you hear this every day, but I really am so proud of you," Tai Pagan said. "She probably hears that from everyone. It leaves you speechless."

India Pagan played for the New London High School girls' basketball team from 2014-17 and is a 2017 graduate of the Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut.

She played for New London's first state championship team in 2014 and led the Whalers to the 2017 Class LL state championship, playing in three state title games overall. New London was the top-ranked team in the final state poll in 2017 and Pagan was named The Day's All-Area Girls' Basketball Player of the Year.

At Stony Brook, where she will be a graduate student in the fall — taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19 — Pagan reached the 1,000-point plateau and she finished the 2020-21 season with the highest career field goal percentage in school history (.512, 460-for-899). The NCAA tournament bid was Stony Brook's first.

With Pagan achieving so much in the way of history, it's no wonder the prevailing emotion among friends and family now that she's an Olympian is pride.

"It's a really proud moment for New London and for the community that she represents," said former New London coach Holly Misto, who coached Pagan for three seasons. "It's hard work that's paid off for her. She's always had the potential; to see her succeed and take it to that level is amazing.

"She's definitely a presence on the court. You can see how much she's developed. She's maturing physically, mentally, she's learning more about the game as she gets older. She just has so much ahead of her."

One of Pagan's signatures is her humility, Misto said.

"I used to have to beg her to shoot the ball more," Misto said. "I would say, 'India, shoot the ball.' She'd say, 'OK,' then she'd pass it two feet from the basket. It was never about how many points she could score."

Pagan is averaging 10.2 points and 5.1 rebounds over 108 career games at Stony Brook. For the Puerto Rican national team in the AmeriCup tournament, she averaged 2.4 points and 1.6 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game as the team achieved the silver medal.

Shortly after that, Puerto Rico named its Olympic team, choosing to keep that AmeriCup team together, in part due to its chemistry — "They know each other well and understand their roles," Battista said in a press release.

"She gets the job done," Tai Pagan said of her sister. "She has a work ethic like no other person that I know. It's so hard to get to where she's at now. It always has been fun. We just fell in love with basketball. It's never been a burden. It's always something we loved to do."

***

New London mayor Michael Passero compares Pagan's accomplishment as an Olympian to that of the city's great athletes who have achieved professional careers: Rajai Davis in Major League Baseball, Jordan Reed in the NFL; and Kris Dunn in the NBA.

"It's pretty exciting," Passero said of Pagan. "New London's amazing the way it just keeps creating these great athletes. She's the latest and great that it's a woman. ... I remember watching, going to the women's games that year (2017 at New London). You know what I remember most? Pretty much merycing most of the teams they played."

Stony Brook teammate Courtney Furr, a senior guard from Elkridge, Maryland, and one of Pagan's best friends, calls Pagan "a positive spirit."

"Whenever she walks into a room, it's like a light walks into a room," Furr said. "She knows all these people. We'll be walking across campus and people will come up and talk to her. I say, 'Who's that and how do you know them?' You would have no idea (what she's achieved). She doesn't brag about anything. She really shares her success with all of us, bringing us along with her."

During the Pagans' trip to San Juan to see India play in the AmeriCup final against the United States, there were several members of the family in attendance and even more who couldn't get in due to coronavirus protocols, who were outside the arena texting Carmen and Moises.

"We were the loudest family there," Tai Pagan said. "We had Puerto Rico flags swinging around, Puerto Rico jerseys and stuff. Every time Indi went in, I screamed at the top of my lungs."

Carmen Pagan has seen her daughter adopted by her teammates and the fans in Puerto Rico, where Carmen once excelled in track and field and Moises in basketball and baseball. The fans ask India Pagan to be photographed with her.

Now, Pagan is representing her parents' home country in Tokyo, one of 31 Puerto Rican athletes at the Games, an endeavor that has been most meaningful.

"This happened so fast for her," Carmen Pagan said. "It's been amazing. For some people, it takes them a lifetime. This has opened so many opportunities. I said to India, 'Do you know you've been in 10 countries already around the world?'

"It's just amazing."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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