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The NBA And Latin America: The City Game's Global Expansion

The NBA And Latin America: The City Game's Global Expansion

Posted by Juan Gavasa on June 06, 2014

On a Saturday in late May I sprinted up an outdoor basketball court in Mexico City defending against against a square jawed sharpshooter named Cuauhtemoc. Every Saturday, players from around the city gather in the neighborhood of Del Valle for five-on-five pickup games. Although there are always a few senior citizens hoping to make teams, most players are young and fit and have carefully honed their basketball skills. During my Saturday afternoon game Cuauhtemoc scooped up passes from outside the three point line and sent jump-shots arcing gracefully through the net-less rim. On other possessions he lowered his shoulder and drove towards the basket. Although most pickup games in Mexico City are devoid of hard fouls, the May game was an exception. On the defensive end of the court, players scrambled for position under the hoop. When I jumped for a rebound a muscular player with a mustache and a black tank top shoved me from behind. “This is street ball. No rules man,” he said in English before taking off towards mid-court.

Basketball has a long tradition in Mexico. In the 1930s President Lazaro Cardenas sought to pull Mexico out of the violent throes of a decade of revolution and forge a new national identity. While Diego Rivera painted his elaborate and proudly patriotic murals on government buildings in Mexico City, in the rural hinterlands of southern states such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, Cardenas built basketball courts. In addition to serving as meeting places and spaces for drying coffee beans, basketball courts were used to help create a new secular community life that fit into Mexico’s new national political landscape. Today, pickup games can be found on courts from Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala all the way up to the Texas border. Jorge Gutierrez, a guard for the Brooklyn Nets, is originally from the state of Chihuahua, just south of the Rio Grande border. As new waves of returning migrants help bring back version of the game that is played on outdoor courts in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, a new generation of Mexican players is also watching and learning from the NBA. As the league works to expand its global footprint, the National Basketball Association is quickly becoming a regional phenomenon.

In 2014 the league is continuing to build its profile both within the Spanish-speaking market in the U.S. and also in foreign markets in Latin America and Spain. On March 2, part of the league’s new “Noches Ene-Be-A” campaign, the Knicks and the Bulls, two teams from cities with strong Mexican migrant populations, wore jerseys emblazoned with Spanglish: Los Bulls and Los Knicks. While countries throughout Latin America have their basketball traditions, the NBA is working to promote the U.S. professional league’s version of the game.

Major corporations have also helped to build up the NBA’s presence in the region. In 2010 Spanish bank BBVA, a company with a major presence in Latin America, signed a $100 million dollar four-year deal to become the official bank of the NBA. Point guard Steve Nash even spoke a few words of spanish in an ad for Wonder bread, a product now produced by Flowers Foods in the U.S. and Grupo Bimbo in Mexico.

The league’s relationship with Latin America is continuing to evolve. The NBA has been scheduling exhibition games south of the border for more than two decades. In 1997 after five straight years of hosting pre-season games in Mexico, the NBA brought two Texas teams, the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks to Mexico City for the first ever regular season NBA game in the U.S.’s southern neighbor. In both 2000 and 2002 the NBA organized pre-season games in Mexico and in 2002 the Minnesota Timberwolves traveled to the Dominican Republic to play a pre-season game against the Miami Heat. In 2003 the Miami Heat traveled to Puerto Rico to play a pre-season game against the Philadelphia 76ers. During that same pre-season the Utah Jazz played the Dallas Mavericks in Mexico City. In 2005 and 2006 the NBA hosted pre-season games in Puerto Rico. And, in 2006 and 2009 the NBA hosted pre-season games in Monterrey, Mexico.

In December 2013, however, Latin America’s first regular season NBA game in the 21st century didn’t go exactly as planned. Although both the Timberwolves and the Spurs were able to practice in Mexico City’s Arena Ciudad de Mexico on December 3, as tip-off time approached before the game on December 4, an equipment malfunction at the arena caused the basketball court to fill up with acrid smoke, leading to a canceled game. The mishap was a major disappointment for local fans, many of whom came dressed in grey and black Spurs attire.

The NBA rescheduled the game, but hosted it in the United States. In the 2013-2014 season the Timberwolves will return to Mexico City to play the Houston Rockets.

Games in Mexico have become a central part of the NBA’s global expansion plan. At the same time, the NBA is getting added attention in Latin America as more players from the region join U.S. based professional teams. This year’s NBA Finals features players from Brazil and Argentina.

Overall, Brazil has served as the biggest feeder country from Latin America to the NBA. A total of 12 players from Brazil have made it to the league, including Anderson Varejao, the 31-year-old center for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Both the Spurs and the Boston Celtics have big men from Brazil, Tiago Splitter and Vitor Faverani. The Celtics previously signed Fab Melo, a Brazilian center who played at Syracuse University before he was drafted by Boston in 2012.

Argentina is next on the list of Latin American countries whose players have made it to the NBA. Current Argentinos in the league include Manu Ginobili, of the Spurs, Luis Scola of the Indiana Pacers and Pablio Prigioni of the New York Knicks, a team that played a pre-season game in Mexico City in 1993.

Mexico has passed four players to the NBA including Gustavo Ayon, the 6’10” power forward for the Atlanta Hawks. Ayon’s teammate, Al Horford is from the Dominican Republic. Brooklyn Nets Center Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez are the U.S. born sons of a Cuban father. Greivis Vasquez, a guard for the Toronto Raptors who had a big impact on his team’s first round playoff series against the Nets, is from Venezuela. The New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony’s father is from Puerto Rico, as is JJ Barea of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Prior to the Timberwolves’s December 2013 visit to Mexico City, during a telephone interview the team’s Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio told me that, “It’s a source of pride to play in a country that shares [his] language.”

“The NBA is expanding a lot. Hispanics are hitting hard, there are a lot of us here representing,” he added.

On the side of the court during a practice session in Mexico City, I head JJ Barea tell a group of Mexican reporters that while travelling he and Rubio can both act as translators for their teammates.

Although the Mexico trip was Rubio’s first visit to Latin America he said, “I also want to visit South America—Brazil.” Although the NBA held an exhibition game in Brazil at the start of the 2013-2014 season, the league has yet to schedule a regular season game in South America.

Overall, interest in the NBA is growing within Latin America.

For instance, during the 2012-2013 season, 17.6 million viewers in Latin America tuned in to watch NBA games, a ten percent jump from the number of viewers who watched games during the 2011-2012 season.

The NBA, for it’s part has been working steadily to increase its fan base in Latin America, part of a concentrated effort to help develop basketball as a global sport.

Before a rec league game at indoor gym near Mexico City’s Ixtapalapa neighborhood, David Jimenez, a lanky 6 foot 4 inch tall 24-year-old who played in high school and college told me, “Mexico has a lot of people playing basketball. What we lack is infrastructure. There aren’t a lot of good courts. A lot of my friends who played in high school don’t play any more.” While his team-mates practiced layups after a victory against a rival squad that didn’t include any players over five feet tall, Jimenez said “Jorge Gutierrez and other Mexican players who made it to the NBA played in the U.S. first,” at the college level.

Even though Mexico is not yet a farm league for NBA players, many fans remain optimistic about their country’s long term prospects. A few months ago at the end of an early evening pickup game in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, I watched Jorge Chavez, a 31-year-old Mexican actor drive towards the hoop, weave past a defender wearing a green Boston Celtics jersey, and leap into the air, deftly flipping the ball up and into the basket for a game-winning shot. A few minutes later, as he took a break by the sideline Chavez explained, “In the south, in Oaxaca, they have their own basketball traditions. They’ve been playing basketball there for seventy years. Now though, there’s Youtube, people can watch and learn. I’ve been to indigenous villages and seen people wearing basketball hats and jerseys.” Chavez, who played during middle school and high school in Mexico City, explained that he refined his game when he moved to Los Angeles to live with an uncle. “I’ve always been a Lakers fan. Up there there’s a big difference in height, ability, and physical condition. I had to learn to be fast. I got better and they respected my game,” he said. Although an injury prevented him from playing basketball in college, Chavez continues to play pickup basketball. He thinks that with more disciplined training more Mexican players should be able to make it into the NBA. “Especially in the north [of Mexico], where people are taller there’s a resurgence in basketball. We should see more players [from northern Mexico] in the NBA soon.”

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