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Early in the afternoon on Tuesday, Dec. 3, Ricky Rubio and the Minnesota Timberwolves gathered on a basketball court to practice. But there wasn’t much about the session that was ordinary. For one thing, Rubio and the T-Wolves were nearly 1,800 miles away from their home court in Minneapolis and 7,943 feet above sea level, under the bright lights of the basketball court in the Ciudad de Mexico Arena in Mexico’s capital.
There have been 28 preseason NBA games held in Latin America, 19 of them in Mexico. The December 4 game between Minnesota and the San Antonio Spurs, however, is the first regular season game ever played here.
With reporters from the Mexican media gathered along the sidelines, a handful of Timberwolves practiced their jump shots: Rubio, the Puerto Rican backup point guard José Juan Barrea, and power forward Kevin Love among them. With a trainer feeding him the ball, Rubio clanged one three-point shot after another.
As Barrea stepped to the sideline to speak with reporters, Rubio launched a shot from near center court, far beyond the three point line. The bail sailed past the backboard. “Not bad,” he said in English as he shook his head, smiled and walked away.
“I speak the language, but it’s still an experience,” Barrea said in Spanish about the trip to Mexico. “I have to translate.” he said. Switching to English, he added that despite that, overall the trip “is great for the NBA, great for basketball and great for Latinos.”
Love agreed, telling reporters, “I think it’s great for basketball that we’re here in Mexico City. It’s tough with the elevation but hopefully we’ll get a win.”
The game in Mexico City Wednesday night is the latest installment in the NBA’s 20-year history in Latin America. In 1994 the Spurs and the Houston Rockets traveled to Mexico City to play the NBA’s first preseason game in Latin America. Between 1995 and 1997, the Spurs, Rockets, Pheonix Suns, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers all came here to play preseason games.
And it isn’t just Mexico that’s been pursued by the NBA. In 2002, the Timberwolves and Miami Heat met for a preseason game in the Dominican Republic. In 2003 the Heat and Philadelphia 76ers played an exhibition in Puerto Rico. And this year, the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards payed a highly publicized visit to Rio de Janiero for a preseason game.
As the league’s most international squad, it’s only natural that the Spurs have the deepest résumé of playing in Mexico. The last time the Argentinian shooting guard Manu Ginóbili and his longtime Spurs teammates Tim Duncan and Tony Parker traveled together to Mexico City was during the preseason in 2010, when they beat the Los Angeles Clippers, 100-99.
During a telephone interview prior to tonight's game, Ginóbili said, “We’ve had experience in Mexico and have felt the support of the people in Mexico City.” He added, “The NBA is opening the door and entering new markets. It’s growing in Latin America.”
The number of NBA fans in Mexico growing, being added to by returning migrants and their families. Which might make you wonder why the league hasn’t yet scheduled visits from the Los Angeles Lakers, the Bulls, or the New York Knicks, three teams with large fan bases in Mexico.
Watching the T-Wolves’ session from the sideline is Rodrigo Mejia, a 15-year-old member of the collegiate champion Universidad Intercontinental basketball squad. His favorite team is “los Lakers.”
“Kobe Bryant, he’s my idol since I was a kid,” he said.
In Mexico City, “the majority of the people watch soccer, but basketball is my passion,” Mejia explained. While soccer is still Mexico’s national sport, basketball has a growing presence, boosted in part by the changing face of the NBA.
The Atlanta Hawks’ Gustavo Ayón is only the third Mexican-born player in the NBA, and his teammate is Al Horford, who hails from the Dominican Republic. The 2013-14 Timberwolves and Spurs rosters feature players from Spain, France, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Australia, Canada, Senegal, Cameroon, Montenegro, Italy and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“It’s part of the globalization of the NBA,” said Tiago Splitter, the Spurs’ 6-11 power forward. “It’s strange to have so many foreigners on the same team, but the chemistry is good,” he said, speaking in Spanish, a language he perfected while playing for a decade in Spain’s professional league.
After the Timberwolves practiced, Mexico’s barefoot boys basketball team from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, stepped onto the court for a chance to participate in a training session against NBA players. Ginóbili and Duncan settled under one basket, giving the young players tips on shooting. Rubio staked out a space at the other end, dishing out tips on passing and dribbling.
At one point, he took a behind-the-back dribble and bounced it into the hands of a delighted player half his height.
The Spurs staged a five-on-five match, barefoot themselves, against the boys from Oaxaca. While Duncan and his peers ran up the court gingerly, feet thudding against the hardwood, the boys ran naturally, speeding to the basket and converting lay-ups.
After failing to score and being called for a tounge-in-cheek travel, a 24-second shot clock violation and an offensive foul, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called out his starters. “We’re getting killed out there! It’s embarrassing,” Popovich yelled. Like everyone else, he was enjoying the moment.
Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @LatAmLENS.
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