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Heading in opposite directions, Suns and Spurs find common ground in Mexico
Former postseason rivals share a connection with their mutual southern neighbor
Matt Petersen, NBA.com
MEXICO CITY — The Spurs and Suns jointly represented one of the NBA’s most intensely repeated rivalries from 1992 through 2010.
Everything about the two teams seemed to clash for reasons that fans could easily identify. Big men vs. point guards. Execution vs. entertainment. Black-and-silver vs. purple-and-orange. Big-tme performances and heated moments blurred together across 47 total postseason games between them.
That span ended, however, with a rare instance of on-court enemies standing together. In 2010, Arizona had recently passed a law that came under scrutiny for potentially violating the basic rights of the state’s sizable Latin American community.
Suns owner Robert Sarver issued a public statement condemning the law, and Phoenix players donned their “Los Suns” jerseys – usually only worn on Latin Pride nights planned well in advance by the league – in support of those whom they felt the law targeted. This then-rare public showing was even more pronounced given that it was being made during the playoffs – on May 5, or Cinco de Mayo.
The Spurs — otherwise Phoenix’s rival — vocally stood by the Suns, as they were unable to obtain their own “Los Spurs” jerseys in time for the game.
“It’s a wonderful idea,” Popovich said at the time, “because it kind of shows what we all should be about.”
That moment 10 seasons ago strengthened the teams’ ties to the country that lies directly south of them, which now hosts the NBA’s 30th regular-season game within its borders.
When the Spurs last played in Mexico City, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard were all on the team. San Antonio boasted a 31-8 record at the time, extending a seemingly never-ending window of title contention.
That was less than three years ago. Only coach Gregg Popovich remains, along with now-assistant coach Tim Duncan. The former entered the team’s hotel on Friday at the head of a Spurs team that, nearly two months into the season, is still a jarring discovery in the standings. At just 9-15, they’ve already lost precious ground in the Western Conference playoff race, though a midseason turnaround could see them rise quickly in a muddled bottom half of the conference.
Minutes after arriving in Mexico City for this week’s south-of-the-border tilt against Phoenix (5 ET, League Pass), one Latin American reporter asked Popovich to compare this startlingly different season to the two decades of top-tier basketball that preceded it.
“We’re not doing very well,” Popovich wryly observed.
That didn’t stop Popovich from planning Saturday morning visits to local museums of art and culture in Mexico City. The Latin American culture is so ingrained in his home city that he admits “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different” being in the heart of Mexico. Yet Popovich thoroughly enjoys taking in the source of that culture, one that defines so much of his franchise’s community.
“The culture that we have in San Antonio is very similar [to here],” Popovich said. “That culture is something that has been close to all of our players, our management, our owners for a long time.”
Even as San Antonio struggles with its new basketball identity, the Suns have finally discovered one of their own. The departure of Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010 and Steve Nash in 2012 — and the series of moves that followed – was harsh. They have not made the playoffs since sweeping these same Spurs in 2010. Monty Williams is the team’s seventh head coach since then, tasked with overseeing what could be the most encouraging Suns team in years.
Devin Booker lies at the core of Phoenix’s newfound optimism. The 23-year-old averages 25.0 points and is the only player in the league currently shooting better than 50 percent overall, 40 percent from 3 and 90 percent from the free-throw line. Kelly Oubre, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson provide further potential after several top draft picks failed to pan out. Veteran additions Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes and Dario Saric have guided the otherwise young Suns in making the transition from cluelessness to competence.
Despite injuries to several players and a 25-game suspension to former No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, Phoenix has hovered around .500 all season, a drastic improvement compared to most of this nearly concluded decade.
“The season is long and this isn’t a thing of 20 games,” Williams said. “We’re not content with just doing better than last year. We want to do the best we can this year.”
In our community we have a lot of Mexican heritage. Being a part of this organization, mixed with my heritage that I’m trying to become more a part of has been unbelievable.
Booker has more reason to accomplish that than anyone else on the team. The former No. 13 overall pick is now in his fifth season and has yet to taste 25 wins in any one of them, let alone a playoff game. Less than halfway through December, Phoenix is already hunting for win No. 12.
That could come in Mexico, which holds a special significance for Booker. His maternal grandfather was born in Nogales, which lies fewer than 200 miles south of his NBA city.
Between his family and his fans, Booker has more reasons than most to forge a connection with Mexico and Latin America. He has staged events in partnership with Nike and Zucaritas (the Hispanic brand of Frosted Flakes), which he called some of the best partnerships he’s enjoyed thus far. On Friday, he and the Suns participated with children in an NBA Cares clinic two days after the Detroit Pistons did the same.
“In our community we have a lot of Mexican heritage,” Booker said. “Being a part of this organization, mixed with my heritage that I’m trying to become more a part of has been unbelievable.”
The Spurs and Suns represent two of the NBA’s strongest links to Mexico and Latin America at large. Per the 2010 US Census, more than 40 percent of Phoenix’s population are of Hispanic or Latino origin. That number jumps above 60 percent in San Antonio. Geographically, they rank as two of the country’s closest NBA neighbors.
That link will be strengthened in the coming years. Mexico City’s incoming G League Team will compete against the Suns and Spurs’ own affiliates. NBA academies and clinics will further infuse basketball into a country that has produced four NBA players in the last 22 years.
Horacio Llamas became the first of those Mexican pioneers when he signed with the Suns in 1997.
“Sports in general is the main tool to battle all the negative stuff,” Llamas said. “To be a part of the Suns organization and the NBA and see them doing so much for the Latin community, I feel so proud.”