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NBA doubles down on Mexico's potential with G League team

The league's southern neighbor represents one of the most appealing untapped markets

MEXICO CITYMexico now knows what it’s like to be an NBA social media bomb.

Seconds before commissioner Adam Silver delivered the news personally to a room packed with mostly Latin American media, Twitter began trickling the word: Mexico City was getting its own NBA G League team.

When Silver confirmed the groundbreaking endeavor – which will be owned and operated by professional Mexican club Capitanes – excited murmurs rippled through the room. Over the last four years, those same media outlets had diligently and repeatedly asked Silver about the league’s future intentions within its southern neighbor’s borders. The most oft-asked question: is an NBA team coming and, if so, when?

The question behind the question was clear. What were all the regular season games, clinics and youth academies from the last few years building towards?

Silver’s answer was emphatic.

“I think it’s an important signal to the market just how important we view the entire country of Mexico and all of Latin America,” Silver said.

Roughly 24 hours before the G League announcement, Mexico’s NBA godfather looked on as his country’s basketball future spent time with the Detroit Pistons. Teenagers from NBA Academy Latin America took pictures with and played one-on-one against a few of the players, brushing the dream that Horacio Llamas lived over two decades ago.

“It’s very special for them to see the platform in front of their eyes, things that we didn’t have when we were their age,” Llamas said. “To have tools, coaches to help them get closer to their goal… most of them don’t come from a big city or economic wealth. They come together with people they don’t know, with languages they don’t speak and they become a family that work hard every day. They’re hoping at least to get a scholarship in the states. That’s the next step to get ready when any NBA team or camp gives you the opportunity.”

Llamas cashed in on that opportunity when he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 1997 as an undrafted free agent out of Grand Canyon University, making him the NBA’s first Mexican-born player. The 6-foot-11 center was an instant fan favorite in a city with an overwhelming Latin American influence. A pair of his NBA shorts are on display in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.

Llamas’ career was short – just 28 games – but it further opened a door that had only allowed preseason games to that point. This week’s games mark the 29th and 30th regular season contests played in Mexico since then – the most other than the United States and Canada.

Yet Llamas, Silver and several key figures from both sides want to strengthen Mexico’s ability to produce, and not just receive, NBA talent. As revolutionary as the G League announcement is, they recognize the native talent must be recognized and treasured long before the professional playing age.

“We are looking for talent, that’s for sure,” said NBA Mexico VP and Managing Director Raul Zarraga. “This G League team is part of this basketball ecosystem that we are building around the nation. Now we are creating an alternative for them so in the future they can see themselves living basketball and perhaps playing in the NBA.”

Mexico’s current youth has admirable predecessors to emulate. Eduardo Najera followed Llamas from Mexico to the NBA and carved out a 12-year career as an all-out hustle player and fan favorite. Gustavo Ayon and Jorge Gutierreze are the country’s most recent NBA exports. Now the league stands waiting and ready for Mexico’s next wave of talent.

What is our dream? To bring another Mexican to the NBA, of course, very soon.

Capitanes co-owner Gilberto Hernandez

Luka Doncic and Ricky Rubio represent the most recognizable Spanish-speaking NBA players in Mexico City this week. They also hail from countries that were not always synonymous with basketball, but that have recently become international powerhouses.

Doncic helped lead Slovenia to an unexpected 2017 Eurobasket Gold Medal. Rubio’s Spanish national teams boast two Eurobasket golds, two Olympic medals and the 2019 FIBA World Cup gold medal.

This begets the question: if Slovenia (a country with just one million people) and Spain (overwhelmingly inclined to soccer) can produce golden eras of basketball, why not Mexico?

“What is our dream? To bring another Mexican to the NBA, of course, very soon,” decalred Capitanes co-owner Gilberto Hernandez.

NBA Academy Latin America will play a vital role in generating that movement. The basketball training program, backed by the NBA and the Mexican government, develops talent from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central American and South America. The academy projects to be a destination for top-tier young prospects, similar to many such institutions in Europe that helped develop Doncic and other European talents that moved on to the NBA.

“This is the next step in this market,” Silver said. “We’re learning we need to be on the ground, we need to be local, we need to get basketballs in the hands of young boys and girls. We need to work particularly with the elite players.”

Doncic understands the power of a relatable example. He and fellow countryman Goran Dragic were weaned on stories of former Yugoslavia’s superstars, including Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic. The 20-year-old Doncic – who is fluent in Spanish after playing professionally in Spain – took the microphone immediately before tipoff on Thursday and greeted the crowd.

“Hola, como estas?” (Hi, how are you guys?)

The building erupted. Somewhere amid the cheering throng, Doncic, Mexico and the NBA hope at least one youth is inspired to pick up a basketball and take the country’s next step in their rapidly expanding basketball world.

“I hope I inspire kids here and everywhere to play basketball and have fun,” Doncic said. “The sport has done a lot for me and my country, and I’m sure it can do the same anywhere.”

Starting in 2020-21, the city’s new G League team will provide a much closer glimpse of that goal. Capitanes will bear the added challenge of being an independent team – they will have no NBA affiliate team directly feeding it draft prospects, summer league standouts or two-way contract players. Instead they will fill out the roster themselves, and hope that the process inspires local talent to make the team and its parent league.

“This is great news for our country,” Hernandez beamed. “The fact that the NBA, the most global league in the whole world, is putting solid two feet in our country, I believe it’s great news not only for basketball, but for sports nationwide.”