Pika Rodriguez may have just started playing for the Pitt women’s basketball team, but she comes in with valuable experience that most players don’t have.
Before the first-year guard arrived at Pitt, she devoted two years to the Puerto Rican national team. Now, she’s establishing her presence as a solid 3-point shooter for the Panthers.
But part of her journey to international basketball consisted of finding out if she even enjoyed playing. Rodriguez grew up in Connecticut and started playing basketball in elementary school. The first sport she played was soccer, and while she enjoyed the game, she said it felt like something was missing. So, her family suggested she give basketball a chance, and she took a shot.
“My dad introduced me to basketball because my uncle was actually in a Boys & Girls Club,” Rodriguez said. “He helped little people, at the ages of six and seven, basically elementary, play basketball and learn the basics of it, and after that I just started to fall in love with it.”
Rodriguez improved throughout her grade school years and started to excel as a basketball player. Even though growing into her 5-foot-11 frame gave her an edge over other players, it was her determination in the gym and hours spent watching professional basketball with her dad at night that helped her develop solid playing skills.
While attending school at Capital Preparatory Magnet School, Rodriguez won three Connecticut state championships in her first three years of high school but lost in the state semifinals as a senior. Her high school career might have been impressive on its own, but she didn’t start to get seriously noticed by coaches until she began playing travel basketball for her Amateur Athletic Union team, New Heights Youth Inc., in New York.
That’s where Pitt head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio first took notice of her. After seeing her at AAU, McConnell-Serio decided Rodriguez was worth paying attention to and attended some of her high school games.
“She happened to be on the team of another player we were recruiting,” McConnell-Serio said. “So we ended up watching her a lot, following her from her sophomore to her junior year. And when you see players that often, they start to grow on you.”
Rodriguez’s biggest asset to her game is her shooting, and that’s something Pitt’s head coach noticed. McConnell-Serio, who coached both the U18 and U19 U.S. teams, saw Rodriguez perform at both international tournaments.
“We just really liked her game,” McConnell-Serio said. “You’re always looking for shooters. When you have someone that can stretch the defense and knock down shots, it’s an important role in the team.”
Pitt, however, wasn’t the only team to notice Rodriguez’s talent through AAU. The Puerto Rican Basketball Federation also spotted her at one of the AAU tournaments. Someone from the Puerto Rico organization approached Rodriguez’s assistant coach with an offer after watching her play during the tournament.
Rodriguez said after discussing the phone call with her family, she decided to commit to play basketball for Puerto Rico.
While Rodriguez had never lived outside of the United States, she was eligible to play basketball for Puerto Rico since her paternal grandmother was from there, according to International Basketball Federation regulations.
She spent two years with Puerto Rico, playing in the 2016 U18 FIBA Americas Women’s Championship in Valdivia, Chile, during her first year and in the 2017 U19 Women’s World Cup in Udine and Cividale de Friuli for her second year.
Rodriguez made major contributions in each tournaments, where she led the team and was second in the tournament in scoring in Chile with 16 points per game and achieved the same feat this year in Italy with 14.6 points per game. Her best performance from both tournaments was in the third place matchup against Brazil in Chile when she scored 28 points, grabbed six rebounds and was a perfect 7-7 from 3-point range in that game. Her efforts were not enough, though, as the game ended in a 70-64 loss for Puerto Rico.
“I was like, ‘We need to pick our heads up,’” Rodriguez said. “We need to do better than this, because we are actually representing something that we love, and it’s not just basketball. It’s actually people that we are playing for.”
Rodriguez’s new Panther teammates have also observed her strengths on the court, particularly redshirt junior forward Yacine Diop, who has noticed more about her game than her shot.
“Before she got here, I already heard that she was a good player and a great shooter,” Diop said. “But when she got here I really saw how great of a shooter she was, ‘cause that girl can knock down some shots. She’s also a good passer.”
Even though she is now a full-time Pitt Panther, playing for the Puerto Rican team brought Rodriguez a sense of heritage and pride. When the island was hit by Hurricane Irma in late August, then again by Hurricane Maria in mid-September, Rodriguez worried about the people of Puerto Rico.
“Seeing how everyone was affected by it, I felt upset about it because they’re going through a struggle and we’re taking things for granted,” Rodriguez said. “We’re arguing about little things in this world, but they’re actually struggling out there.”
The storms left many Puerto Ricans without power, water, housing and basic supplies. Many people have fled, but there are still people missing and others looking for family members. Rodriguez said she is happy her family was OK and not in harm’s way.
“We actually flew my stepmom’s grandmother out, so she’s here in the U.S.,” she said. “She’s telling us that, ‘It’s fine. It’s just a little hurricane.’”
Rodriguez was also worried about the safety of her Puerto Rican teammates and coaches. It wasn’t easy to get in touch with them, but after a week she got a response. She managed to get in contact with her coaches, who told her that they were OK. She has heard from some of her teammates, but says the language barrier makes it hard to find out how they are actually doing.
“They don’t understand what I’m saying when I ask them, ‘Are you OK?’” Rodriguez said. “So they’ll just say yeah, and I’m like, ‘Are you sure? Do you want me to call you?’”
Rodriguez talked to most of her former teammates to make sure they were safe, but still worries about her friends and family in Puerto Rico. She’s recognized how much she has taken for granted when there are people who have so little. She also wishes she could help out the territory she has represented.
“Playing for Puerto Rico made me realize that it’s not just the people I know,” Rodriguez said. “The whole entire island is looking at you, and they’re proud of you because you have Puerto Rico across your chest. So not knowing if a specific family is OK is painful.”