Borrego Reflects on Hispanic Heritage, Family During Éne-Bé-A

By Sam Perley
by Sam Perley

March is the final full month of the NBA regular season, but it also marks the beginning of Éne-Bé-A, the league’s annual celebration and recognition of Latin American heritage and culture. For Charlotte Hornets Head Coach James Borrego – the league’s first fulltime Hispanic Head Coach – it’s an opportunity to not only reflect on his own background, but all the different ones within the game as well.

“It’s a wonderful time for our heritage,” said Borrego in an interview with Hornets.com. “To be able to look back and reflect on my upbringing, my background, my culture, my heritage and really be thankful for where I come from, who I am and embrace all the other cultures around us as well. I think that’s what the NBA is doing such a great job at, obviously embracing everybody. It’s so inclusive right now.”

Raised by a single mother, Lydia, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Borrego has begun tracing his Mexican roots more in depth in recent months (becoming the first Hispanic NBA Head Coach might have that effect). His family is currently in the process of determining which generation first arrived in North America, although like many Latin Americans, Borrego’s ancestors originally hail from Spain.

Growing up in the southwest United States, Borrego says he rarely dealt with any type of exclusion because of his background, nor did he ever feel like opportunities were limited because of it.

“To be the first Hispanic Head Coach is an honor, but it’s really more of a reflection of what’s going on in the NBA right now. It’s a blessing to be a part of an organization like this. Going back to New Mexico, I was embraced from Day 1 at my school,” he said. “I grew up with white friends, black friends, Hispanic friends - you name it. We all just loved each other, pulled for each other and that’s what I was used to. I think we’re seeing that here in the NBA as well.”

“I had a good circle around me so I never felt limited. I never felt different or excluded. For the most part, I grew up in a state that’s predominantly Hispanic. I didn’t feel like a minority or I was on the outside looking in. The school I went to was very diverse, so I was used to that. Even when I went to college, it felt very similar to what I experienced in middle school and high school.”

Like many Latin American countries, soccer, baseball and boxing reign supreme in Mexico, although basketball is picking up in terms of popularity. To date, there have been just four Mexican-born players to make it to the NBA, half of which have actually played in Charlotte (Eduardo Nájera and Jorge Gutiérrez). Horacio Llamas and Gustavo Ayón are the other two, although none are currently active in the league.

The NBA first hosted a preseason game in Mexico back in 1992, when the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks met at the Palacio de los Deportes in Mexico City. These two squads met again five years later for the country’s first regular season contest and in between, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico also staged NBA exhibition games as well.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season, the NBA has held regular season games in Mexico featuring different teams from all over the league. Borrego was part of two trips to the country when he was with the Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs and says these efforts are certainly helping grow the game in the region.

“You see a real love for basketball there,” he said. “They really love the game. I think that’s an area that the NBA is trying to tap into. I think there’s an open door for us in Mexico and Mexico City, especially. I think they obviously love the NBA and I’ve seen that being there face to face with the fans and young kids.”

Four summers ago, Borrego had the opportunity to travel to Cuba for an NBA and FIBA Basketball Without Borders development camp. The sport isn’t nearly as popular on the island nation as other parts of the world, although a love for basketball is blossoming, says Borrego.

“It was great to go and visit and spend time with the young people there. They knew Steve Nash, Dikembe Mutombo,” he said, referencing the two Hall-of-Famers who were also on the trip. “Just to see their reaction and openness to a new sport was exciting. Boxing and baseball especially are heavy there, but I think we opened up a small window there to show them the game of basketball. I think it’s going to continue to grow not only in Cuba, but Mexico as well.”

Borrego recognizes his role as a trail blazer of sorts, but hopes his story resonates with people from all different cultures and backgrounds – not just Hispanic ones. Regardless of origin or ethnicity, anything is possible with the right combination of hard work and resiliency.

“I’ve been fortunate along my journey. I’ve tried to put my work in, but I just want to be an example for young people. No matter where you’re at, male, female, wherever you’re from, the sky’s the limit for you. I never knew I’d be here. I never thought I’d be here sitting at a head coaching seat in the NBA, but here I am today. Put the work in, go after it, don’t limit yourself, surround yourself with good people. You may need a lucky break here and there like I got, but put your time in and you never know what’s possible.”

March might be the association’s designated month to celebrate Latin American heritage, but it also serves as a time to recognize and appreciate all the different cultures and backgrounds that comprise such a diverse group of players, coaches, executives and employees. With leaders like James Borrego at the forefront, the NBA will surely continue to be one of the most inclusive and progressive leagues there is.

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