By Fran Blinebury, for NBA.com
Posted Oct 25 2009 3:55PM
HIDALGO, Tex. -- There was a taste of the exotic -- a 10-member mariachi band played a colorful version of the national anthem.
There was the routine -- midway through the third quarter, Rasheed Wallace picked up his first technical foul as a member of the Boston Celtics.
When the NBA returned to the Rio Grande Valley for the first time in 34 years with the Celtics and Houston Rockets meeting up at cozy Dodge Arena, it was a lesson in geography, culture and an opportunity for the league to expand its footprint deep into the heart of a South Texas region that is often overlooked in terms of growth.
"Hey, I had quesadillas for dinner last night," said Kevin Garnett. "I know that's not all the way ethnic, but it's about as Mexican as I get."
"If you gave me a map of Texas and asked me to point to where we are right now, I'm not sure I could come within a 100 miles of this place," said Celtics teammate Brian Scalabrine.
This place is a quite comfortable scaled-down version of an NBA arena, seating 6,247, located in the McAllen/Edinburg/Mission metropolitan area near the tip of the Lone Star State. It is the home court of the D-League Rio Grande Valley Vipers, in their third year of existence, who have entered into hybrid affiliation with the Rockets, with local ownership running the business side and the NBA team controlling the basketball operation.
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"Most people around the country probably think of this as a sleepy little area near the border," said Vipers president Brian Michael Cooper. "But the truth is that the Valley is one of the fastest growing parts of the country and there is an appetite for bit-time entertainment and big-time sports."
The last time a major league preseason game was held in the Valley was 1975 when the Rockets and San Antonio Spurs played at the Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg the year before the NBA-ABA merger. Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich played for the Rockets and George Gervin, James Silas and George Karl were teammates on the Spurs. Professional basketball and the Valley have changed dramatically since then.
"This is humongous and that's probably an understatement," said Jerry Martinez, 35, an occupational therapist, who wore a shamrock green Celtics jersey. "I'm not really a Boston fan, but I really hate the Rockets. I'm actually a Mavs fan from the several years that I lived in Dallas.
"But the whole idea that the NBA is actually in McAllen, playing a game, bringing in one of the marquee attractions in the Celtics with guys like Garnett and Paul Pierce, I think it's a statement on our area and it says something about the reach of the league. Hey, I was at a restaurant having dinner last night and saw Ray Allen. Wow! We've all seen the NBA reach out internationally to play games in China and Europe and in Mexico and I think here they might have found another place to tap into."
This is Texas and that means, of course, that football rules. The Dallas Cowboys -- known as the Vaqueros across the Rio Grande -- have the most passionate following. The Vipers have learned in their first two seasons not to schedule games on Sundays to go up against the Cowboys during the NFL season and they don't expect to get much coverage from the local paper or TV stations in the glow of the Friday Night Lights of high school football.
The majority of NBA fans in the area are backers of the Spurs with their four championships in the past 11 seasons.
"You know how people can be a bunch of bandwagon-jumping front-runners," said 28-year-old musician Ruben Saenz of Edinburg, who was grinning ear-to-ear in his third row from courtside seats while wearing his Rockets jersey. "But I grew up in Houston and I celebrated with the Rockets through the championship years of '94 and '95 with Hakeem and I'm still loyal. Maybe we with this partnership, we can get more Rockets fans and turn this thing around from the Spurs.
"This is always going to be a football area, since it's Texas. But I think having the NBA bring this game here, especially if they make it an annual event, is going to help establish the Vipers and establish basketball in the market. You can't overlook the growth that's going on here."
With the 2010 census approaching, the early estimate for the McAllen/Edinburgh/Mission metropolitan area is a population of more than 900,000. If you put it together with the Brownsville/Harlingen area (400,000), roughly 50 miles away, the combined Metropolitan Statistical Areas (1.3 million) would rank 40th in the United States, ahead of NBA cities such as Memphis (41), Oklahoma City (44) and Salt Lake City (49). Those figures do not even take into account the roughly 1 million residents of Reynosa, Mexico, just across the river.
"We all know the interest of the NBA in reaching the international markets," said Cooper. "The Mexican market is still there very ripe. Mexican sports fans love soccer and love football, but we're seeing a tremendous interest in basketball. There are a lot of high school coaches across the border who would like to see more of our reaching out to them."
The Rockets are the first NBA team to hold training camp at the home of their D League affiliate, working out at Dodge Arena for three days prior to the game.
"I think the Rockets want to increase their fan base and we want to increase our credibility with the community," said Vipers principal owner Alonzo Cantu.
The Vipers ranked third in the D League in attendance last season, averaging 3,500 per game and currently rank first in full season tickets for the 2009-10 season with roughly 1,500 sold. The stands were packed with a capacity crowd of 6,300 for the Rockets-Celtics game.
"It's good to come through a city that appreciates basketball," said Garnett. "I'm from a smaller town (Greenville, S.C.). So I know what it's like, the response and all that. It's good to switch it up every now and then."
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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