Catching Up With Horacio Llamas

During the 1996-97 season the Suns turned to center Horacio Llamas, who became the first Mexican player to participate in an NBA game.
(NBAE/Getty Images)
On March 2, 1997 Horacio Llamas and the Phoenix Suns made history.

The 7-foot center from El Rosario, Mexico made his debut with the Suns, and, in the process, became the first Mexican-born player to step on the court in the NBA.

His roots in Arizona went deeper than that, as he first played organized basketball in the United States at Pima Community College in Tucson before transferring to Grand Canyon University to finish his collegiate career.

Llamas is still playing professionally in Mexico, and he took time out of his playoff run with Pioneros de Quintana Roo to discuss the career that he’s had, his time in Phoenix, where the game has taken him and what he has planned for the future.

SUNS.COM: How did you get started with the game of basketball when you were growing up in Mexico?

LLAMAS: I basically played baseball since I was 5 years old, and I practiced karate beginning when I was 2 until I was about 13. I didn’t even start playing basketball until I was 14, but I was always the tallest guy in my classroom.

I was 6-6 or 6-7 when I was 12 years old, so that’s why I started. The game came pretty easy to me. I was just playing around the rim, catching the ball and scoring. There was no three-second rule back then.

After that a few of my friends began asking me to play in different tournaments, and that’s really what started it all for me.

SUNS.COM: Can you describe your hometown of El Rosario in Mexico? What was life like in that town?

LLAMAS: It was pretty calm there. It’s really just a big town, not much more than that. The thing that I remember the most is that when I was growing up we never had an indoor basketball court. Actually, there is just one right now, and it has my name.

It’s not like indoors in the states; it is a building, but it doesn’t have a wood court. It has a cement court, and that’s really the best thing that we have there. Due to the weather conditions there, the economic conditions too, it just wasn’t something the town gave a lot to.

So when I played, I never played on a wood court.

SUNS.COM: What was the next step for you in the game, after figuring out that’s the sport you wanted to play?

LLAMAS: Well, I would say when I was around 17 or so, that is when I began to play nationals. Those were a couple pretty nice teams, and then I played for the junior national team at the same time. I traveled a lot with both teams, and I think the first time I saw and played on a traditional court was in Japan for a tournament.

When I went to these other countries and saw their gyms and what the game was like there, it didn’t really make a big impact on me. I’m from a small community, a small town. Just because we didn’t have a whole lot didn’t mean the transition was that difficult.

I didn’t even notice, really, that much had changed. I just had wanted to play the game.

SUNS.COM: How did your family help prepare you for those moments? Who was a major influence on your life at that time?

LLAMAS: Yeah, my dad (Horacio) actually like basketball, but both my mom (Ana Luisa) and dad always went to the games. They supported me a lot, and they were the ones who helped me a lot. It took a lot for them, because not all parents were too thrilled about having their kids go off to places they didn’t really know and with other kids and people they didn’t really know.

But I’m just so glad that they gave me that opportunity and that they allowed me to go. They just supported me so much.

Then one of my first coaches was Manuel Raga, who coached me in juniors for Mexico. Up until then he was probably the best Mexican player ever. He had played in Italy for a couple years, and he was basically the Toni Kukoc for Mexico because of how successful he was.

So, back then to be taught by him after he had accomplished all of that, it was great to learn from him. He really taught us how to be professional about the game, and helped me really understand the game.

SUNS.COM: How did you get your break into the American game?

LLAMAS: I had a friend who was going to Pima Community College, and he was playing for Mike Lopez. After he spoke to the coach about me, I remember Mike told me that he thought my friend was crazy because he didn’t think there was a Mexican that was this big.

So I had to take a bus from Mexico City, which was about 32-36 hours, and they wanted to pick me up in the morning. I remember that when Mike saw me, he said he didn’t care if I could play. He was going to make me play. I was already 6-11 at that time.

It was crazy how fast everything went, because I remember when I first got to Pima coach made me go one-on-one against Ed Stokes. He was pretty good, and he went to the University of Arizona. I saw him and he was over 7-foot, all muscle and I was like, ‘Oh man, why did they make me play with this guy?’

But I think between my time there and playing for the national team was really how I got confident. Everybody I worked with then really helped me.

SUNS.COM: Did you feel, coming out of Grand Canyon University, that the NBA draft was a realistic opportunity for you?

LLAMAS: Yeah, I was feeling pretty good. I had been to a couple pre-draft workouts, and things had been going pretty well for me around that time. Then there was Mexican TV covering things, and they were telling me that they had been hearing that I would be drafted.

Then I went back home, I went over to my friend’s house because not everyone had satellite TV. One of my friends had a satellite, so I watched the draft at his place. And all of a sudden he had to leave. So he left me to watch the draft, and I was watching it and became pretty sad because after watching the whole first and second round I had to go home to tell everybody I hadn’t been drafted.

I came back all frustrated, and my mom and sister were asking me what happened. Everyone was so sad, and then I don’t know how many pushups I had to do to work off all that anger. Then out of tiredness I went to sleep, and the next morning the Lakers called. I don’t even know how they got the phone number, but they invited me to play in their summer league.

SUNS.COM: Can you remember much about the first game that you played with Phoenix?

LLAMAS: It was pretty cool because my parents were there. I talked to them before the game while we were at the hotel, and then I talked to them after the game. I think I gave them the score sheet from my first game, so it was all pretty cool.

I can remember when (Head Coach Danny) Ainge told me to get into the game, it was all pretty weird. It was like a movie. I had been there for almost 20 days, and when he told me to get into the game everything went into slow motion until I got hit by a guy.

On the first play somebody bumped me – I think it was Ed O’Bannon – in my shoulder and arm, and that woke me up really quickly. That made everything turn back to normal. I swear before that everybody had been in slow motion; it really was like a movie.

After that first play, they put up a shot and I got the rebound. Then the first play on the other end, I shot a mid-range shot and made it. That all went perfect, and I was feeling pretty good.

SUNS.COM: From your time with your Suns, was there anyone in particular – teammate, coach or anything – who really stood out to you?

LLAMAS: I’m sure that I really did get along with everyone, but I still remember the first person to welcome me was K.J. (Kevin Johnson). He gave me a nickname, because he noticed I would go to the bathroom a lot. He asked me how to say ‘bathroom’ in Spanish, and then nicknamed me ‘baño.’

The other guy that helped me a lot was Danny Manning. He was an amazing player because he was tall enough to play center, but he most of the time played the three and sometimes he would even take the ball and run the plays. He was so helpful, and I can remember just how hard he pushed me in practices.

It was just such a great group of guys. Another one that stood out was Mark Bryant. Then when I think back, I remember Jason Kidd and Steve Nash and how they treated me really well. Most of those guys were so good with us. The coaches, too, especially Frank Johnson helped me a lot.

SUNS.COM: What have you been up to most recently, and is the game still a major part of your life?

LLAMAS: Yeah, I’m in Cancun playing for a team in the Mexican league. The league that we’re a part of plays teams from all over Central American, from Mexico to South America. We’re in the semifinals of our playoffs right now, and last year we won it. This run has been really important for us.

I’m planning my retirement right now, though, and I’m trying to picture what I will be doing. I’m starting to get involved in some team camps, and last year I did one in my hometown. That felt really good since it was the first time I went back there to do that. It was funny because I got to see a bunch of my friends, and we realized how old we are because I was teaching all of their sons.

I enjoy teaching the game to kids, and my main goal would be to help with the national team here. That would be an honor and something I’m trying for. Hopefully, the coaching staff would give me that privilege. I would just like to use that platform to help basketball here in Mexico.