Posted Mar 19 2010 12:24AM
It's more than just a different uniform for Pau Gasol. When Los Lakers take the floor for Noche Latina, there's something special in the air.
"Those nights have a different flavor to them," Gasol said. "I enjoy them being Spanish. It's always good to have that kind of night and that kind of flavor."
Noche Latina returns for the fourth season throughout March and is a featured part of the NBA's first-ever Hispanic marketing campaign, éne•bé•a. The Latin Night program features 15 games in nine of the top 10 U.S. Hispanic markets in Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, New York and Orlando.
The special nights will involve Latin-themed activities within the arenas, including music, performances and giveaways. Sounds like a fiesta.
"The NBA is obviously trying to get different cultures into the game," said Eduardo Najera, slated to wear his Los Mavs jersey twice along with his Dallas teammates. "As Latinos, we support each other and are very loyal. It's a great experience to come out and celebrate with our own food and music. Different teams do a great job of trying to relate to Latinos."
The league hopes to highlight the impact of the league's Hispanic players -- 18 players from six Latin American countries -- and pay tribute to the more than 16 million Hispanic fans across the country. That's a group that can't be ignored.
"Hispanics make up 15 percent of the NBA's fan base -- a larger proportion than any other major U.S. professional sport," said Saskia Sorrosa, NBA senior director for U.S. Hispanic marketing. "Noche Latina is an opportunity for the league to thank these Hispanic fans for their support, while delivering the excitement of the NBA in a way that customizes their experience and celebrates the diversity of our sport."
The players also feel a responsibility to connect with those fans and encourage the development of basketball at all levels.
"Our Latino fan base is big and we want to continue to encourage them to come and support us, and make sure they feel they're a part of the game," Gasol said. "I know that we're getting more involved, and hopefully more Latino kids will come out and play the game and enjoy themselves and hopefully get to the NBA."
Najera echoed those sentiments.
"The majority of the league is African-American and Caucasian, but obviously there are other people trying to get into the league," he said. "I think the league gives everybody a chance if you have the skills and the ability to play. The more Latinos watch us, maybe the doors are opening up and they say, 'I can be in the NBA.' If not at least they can get better at the sport of basketball and become fans."
The growth of the sports internationally is reflected by the infusion of players with Latin backgrounds. That's not lost on those who grew up in the United States.
"Part of the reason they're trying to broaden their appeal now is we have a lot of people coming in from South America and Spain who are making a big impact," said Robin Lopez of Los Suns. "Gasol, Nene, [Francisco] Garcia and then [Sergio] Rodriguez; players like that have the potential to hook people from other countries into watching the NBA game.
"It just makes the game that much more fascinating, bringing in players from other parts of the globe with different styles. Leandro [Barbosa] plays like nobody I've ever seen. It's really fascinating sometimes."
Noche Latina launched during the 2006-07 season. The thinking behind the altered team names is how they would be spoken by the Latin population. The Heat become "El Heat" and the Spurs transform into "Los Spurs."
As part of the éne•bé•a initiative, Noche Latina is being supported with TV and radio advertising in English and Spanish across the country, as well as the Spanish-language Web site, NBA.com/enebea. Noche Latina merchandise is available at the NBA Store in New York City, Champs Sport, at NBAStore.com and at the arenas of the participating teams.
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