By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
For 12 summers Robert Corn coached in the Superior Basketball League in Puerto Rico.
After Corn became men’s basketball coach at Missouri Southern, a friendship in Puerto Rico helped start a pipeline from Puerto Rico to MSSU.
“Cuco Ortiz, my first owner at Bayamon, and I have been great friends through the years,” Corn said. “Cuco called me and said ‘I have two kids you need to recruit.’ One of them was a 6-10 kid in junior college. I got a chance to watch him play, and obviously he passed the eye test. That was Osiris Ricardo.
“Then I got a chance to watch Eddin (Santiago). Whenever I first saw him, Eddin probably weighed 130 pounds maybe. I looked at Cuco and said are you sure? He said ‘trust me, the kid can play.’
“I watched him play, and you could see he had the instincts. He was a very cerebral player at a young age. You knew he would get bigger and stronger because he was only 17 at the time. We were fortunate to get him as well, and he made me an awfully smart coach for the four years he played here.”
One reason Santiago wanted to come to the United States to play was he liked the more-structured game.
“Coach Corn was great, and he’s still great,” Santiago said. “It’s different from back home. Back home it’s all relaxed and do whatever you want. Then you come here and you have to do what they tell you to do. It’s like strict, but I like that. I’m not like most Puerto Rican players. That’s why I wanted to be here in the States because I wanted to follow instructions and keep getting better. If I would have stayed home, I wouldn’t be the player that I am right now.”
Santiago became a recruiter for the Lions. Carlos Escalera, his high school teammate, came to Missouri Southern for the 1999-2000 season and joined Santiago and Ricardo in the starting lineup for the Lions’ record-setting 30-3 team.
Arnaldo Febres, Antonio Latimer and Hiram Ocasio arrived at Missouri Southern in 2001, and Michael Aponte and Carlos Collazo came the next year.
“They all played together in the Superior League,” Corn said. “At that time you could play in the Superior League and still play college basketball. Eddin and all those guys knew each other from playing in the Superior League.
Santiago — still the MSSU record holder with 804 career assists and 383 career steals — is one of the most popular players to ever play for the Lions.
“Eddin was such a great role model for all of them, and they followed his lead,” Corn said. “They really got along well out in the community. People certainly looked up to them and had a lot of respect for them.”
After that Elite Eight season, the Lions won 21 games in the 2000-01 season and 20 games in each of the next two years.
“The one disappointing thing,” Corn said, “was we had the great year and then good years the next three years but couldn’t get back into the tournament. Those guys definitely deserved to play for another championship but never had that opportunity.”
Corn’s first Missouri Southern team (1989-90) had one player from Puerto Rico – forward Lino Rodriguez.
“That was my last year I went down there,” Corn said. “We had a scholarship open, and we were able to bring Lino up for the year.
“Coach (Gene) Bartow (former UAB coach where Corn served as an assistant) got me going there. He’d been their national team coach back in the 1970s, and a team contacted him and wanted him to come down and coach their team. He said he would but he would have to bring someone with him. He took me with him, and we (Bayamon Vaqueros) won the league championship that year. And it snowballed from there.”