Much has been made about the international movement in the NBA.
But what few realize is that it all started in Mexico.
In 1970, then Atlanta Hawks general manager and current NBA Director of Scouting Marty Blake made the first international selection in NBA Draft history. Mexican native Manuel Raga was chosen in the 10 th round, with the 167 th overall pick in the Draft. He was never signed as the Hawks didn't have the $35,000 to buy him out of his overseas contract.
Eduardo Najera (NBAE/Getty)
At the time, Raga was in the midst of playing for Varese of the Italian League. He played for that squad for six seasons, earning the nickname of "The Flying Mexican." Born in Aldama Villa, Tamaulipa, Raga was known simply as "The Phenomenon" in his homeland.
He drove crowds crazy with his sweet jump shot, mid-air finishes and ball thefts igniting the transition game. But it wasn't until 27 years later that an NBA audience would get to see a Mexican-born player play in the league.
On March 2, 1997 at Dallas, Horacio Llamas made history by becoming the first Mexican-born player to appear in an NBA game.
Born in El Rosario, Sinaloa, Mexico, the 6-11, 285-pound center attended Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz. for two seasons, where his play caught the eye of several NBA scouts and earned him an invitation to play in the Nike Desert Classic pre-draft tournament.
Although he wasn't drafted, Llamas later got called-up from the CBA in February of his rookie year, signing the first of two-consecutive ten day contracts with the Suns. He was then inked for the remainder of the season and averaged 1.7 points per game for 20 appearances, including two starts. He appeared in eight games with Phoenix in 1997-98 before missing the entire 1998-99 campaign due to a bruised right foot and Achilles tendon.
The second, and most productive Mexican-born player to compete in the NBA is Denver Nuggets forward Eduardo Najera. The 6-7 forward hails from Meoqui, Chihuahua, Mexico, and played college basketball in the United States for Oklahoma University.
Najera was named Third-Team All-America by The Associated Press and the National Association of Basketball Coaches as a NCAA senior. Selected by Houston Rockets in second round (38th overall pick) of the 2000 NBA Draft and immediately traded to Phoenix, Najera has remained in the NBA the last six seasons because of his hard-nosed style of play.
He holds career averages of 5.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game competing for Dallas, Golden State and Denver.
Other Mexican greats have flirted with NBA careers but never set foot on the court. Arturo Guerrero received numerous invitations to NBA training camps, including: Houston Rockets (1970), Cleveland Cavaliers (1971), New York Knicks (1972), Los Angeles Lakers (1973) and San Antonio Spurs (1979). Most recently, Mexican guard Omar Quintero participated in the 2004 NBA Pre-Draft Camp in Chicago following one season at Southern Nazarene University, a NAIA Division I school in Bethany, Okla. Quintero ranked third in the nation in scoring.
Mexican basketball history is connected to the NBA in just about every way imaginable.
Recently retired Mexican-American referee Tommy Nunez was NBA staple for more than 30 years. He currently lives in Phoenix, where he is involved in several community relations initiatives focusing on the Hispanic community.
Mexico has hosted more international NBA games than any other country, and it is the only country other than Japan to ever hold an NBA regular season game. Since 1992, the NBA has staged 16 games in Mexico at Mexico City’s famed Palacio de los Deportes. All of the games have been preseason match-ups except for one, a regular season game held on December 6, 1997, when Houston defeated Dallas 108-106 in front of a sold-out Palacio de los Deportes.
NBA stars such as Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and David Robinson have entertained the more than 300,000 fans that have come out to the Palacio to witness NBA basketball. Mexico has hosted 14 of the league’s 30 teams, and on four occasions, one or more participants have reached the NBA Finals – the Philadelphia 76ers in 2000, Houston Rockets in 1993 and 1994, and New York Knicks in 1993.
So while many perceive the globalization of the NBA as having occurred in places like Europe and China, it's important to remember that much of its origins can be traced to Mexico.