The Globalization of Basketball: Latin America (Part 1)

Mon, 07/10/2006 - 3:45pm

Street Court in Mexico

By Joshua Motenko

The global expansion of basketball can now be traced like a diaspora throughout the world. The cultural popularity of the sport is growing exponentially and is well documented in China, Africa and throughout Europe. However, the most recent flood of talent into the NBA is migrating from Latin America, where there are a signficant number of young prospects with legitimate NBA potential. I traveled for 6 months through Central and South America to get a closer look at the international development of the game from an anthropological perspective. I set out to discover how the game changes when translated into other cultures and languages, and how these international translations are in turn changing the game we see at home.

The Spread of The Game

Throughout Latin America, a place of wildly diverse climate and geography layouts, the basketball landscape is as varied as the environmental topography. Despite the growth we have observed in the sport around the world, basketball is certainly not yet a way of life in Central and South America. Yet wherever you go people are playing the game. Even in Zapatista villages in the jungle hills of Chiapas, Mexico, where the people are known more for their militant indigenous-rights-based political revolution than anything else, basketball courts exist. Though the courts are used to dry coffee beans during the day, you will always find at least one boy working on his game in the afternoon just as you might in rural Indiana. You only need to take a look up at the backboards for evidence of the immersion of the sport with the local culture. This is where their political agenda is written, "Democracy, Liberty, Justice." While the level of play in rural areas of Latin America is not much to speak of, the reach of the game to the outskirts of the globe is astounding.

The growth of basketball throughout the region is somewhat unexpected. The sport is always competing for national attention and funding with the continent's number one athletic attraction, futból (soccer). Basketball also has to compete with baseball in Central American countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Cuba, as well as volleyball in South America, most notably in Brazil and Argentina, where the volleyball is at its best. However, the basketball being played in futból -dominated countries is often influenced by futból, although this seems to differ depending on the economic development of the country.

Latino Basketball


Nené and Eduardo Najera at the 2005 Adidas Superstar Camp in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Photographer: Denis Maestrello


In less developed countries without the luxury of good basketball coaches and a thorough understanding of the game, the influence of futból is especially apparent on basketball courts. Because passing the ball is the only way to advance play in futból, passing is a natural instinct when futból players step on the basketball court. Players often have a more instinctual understanding of offensive spacing on the floor, leading to a higher chance of exploiting the defense. This is true especially during fast breaks. Of course you will always find players who love to dribble the ball, but the importance of advancing play with the pass is often a natural idea even for pre-adolescent Latino players. However, in countries like Brazil and Argentina with first world basketball infrastructure, these natural tendencies are harnessed and seem to create a penchant for players with higher basketball IQs, and general understanding of teamwork. If this sounds like a typical description of European style basketball, it's only logical to look at the popularity of futból there as well. This is just one example of how basketball in Latin America has adapted to cultural differences.

The popularity and unique translation of basketball in these countries is just now beginning to dramatically affect in the NBA. The Latino influence on U.S. basketball only came to the attention of the general basketball public in 2003 when Argentinean Manu Ginobili and Brazilian Nené both scored double digits in points per game for the year, solidifying them as impact players at the highest level of play. Yet it could be argued that the current South American influence began in 2002, the year Manu Ginobili joined the San Antonio Spurs, and the same year in which Nené (and 6'9" famous Argentinean power forward Luis Scola) was drafted. Either way, across the United States, Nené and Ginobili are household names from a region that is changing the game rapidly before our eyes.

To really put this global phenomenon in perspective, we must not forget that it took 49 years after its invention in Dr. Naismith's gym class for the game of basketball to become a U.S. profession in 1937. By Naismith's death in 1939, his original 13 rules of the game had been translated into 50 languages. Although traveling missionaries were spreading the game along with the Christian faith, it was not widely adopted by foreign cultures until the NBA achieved enough success to thoroughly spread the game. It took another thirty years and much work by the NBL, BAA, ABA, and NBA, to achieve the popularity success we see today. The financial stability and drug-free image that the NBA is known for now were not more than a dream until the early 1980s. Yet at the time, NBA basketball was barely reaching Europe. When tracing the globalization of the sport, we must go back to 1983 when Commissioner David Stern began distributing televised games to Italy, the NBA's first international television contract. If you consider this as the tipping point for the globalization of the sport in the form we see today, the sport as an international phenomenon is only 20 years old - still quite a young social movement.

However, the influence of Latin Americans on the NBA originated in the Caribbean and Central America. The first ever Latino player in the NBA was Alfred "Butch" Lee from Puerto Rico. He was drafted in 1978 by the Atlanta Hawks, and scored close to 10 points per game his rookie year. He played only a few more seasons due to a career ending injury, but before retiring, he collected a championship ring with Magic Johnson and the "showtime" Lakers. After his playing career was over, Lee returned to his native country and became one of the most respected head coaches in the National Superior Basketball League, a summer league that has employed coaching legends such as Red Holtzman, Tex Winter, K.C. Jones and Phil Jackson to prowl the sidelines.


Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, Puerto Rico.
The list of Latin American players who reached the NBA include Puerto Rican Ramon Rivas, who played as a backup forward to Kevin McHale and Larry Bird in 1988, as well as center Horacio Llamas, who in 1996 became the first Mexican in the NBA. But there were many other groundbreaking players that serve as role models throughout Latin America. Puerto Rico's Rafael "Piculin" Ortiz, who was drafted 16th overall in 1987 by the Utah Jazz, is considered one of the most famous Latino players in the world. He was strongly considered to carry the Puerto Rican flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, before the honor was given to Carlos Arroyo. At the tender age of 39, Ortiz was the leader of that historic Puerto Rican National team who stunned the United States by beating them 92-73 in their first game of the Athens Olympics. These players, along with many other Latin Americans who have enjoyed success in their home countries and Europe over the last 30 years, provide a solid group of idols for the current players we see immigrating into the NBA - and also for the younger generations currently preparing themselves to take that step.

The newest generation of Latino players has made the greatest impact on our game, most significantly in these 2004 Olympics, when Puerto Rico and Argentina both beat a United States team lead by Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. These losses were the first since professional athletes were allowed to participate in Olympic games - an era that began with the Dream Team's inception and annual dominance in 1992 - and humiliatingly eliminated them from competition. This event showed all of Latin America - and the world - that the United States is beatable at their own game. But more so, it gave Latino players confidence to not only compete at the highest level of play in the world, but also impact the NBA game using their unique style of play and interpretations of the game.

The foreign players who fill today's NBA rosters bring a persona from their home cultures influenced by attitudes and values of their national psyche. For example, Eduardo Najera's well known hustle on the basketball court exemplifies a work ethic specific to Mexico, where the same focused and efficient diligence can be observed in his countrymen when undertaking even the simplest of household duties. There are other Latinos currently making their personal and cultural mark on the NBA. Consider the passion and exuberant self-pride found in the vibrant cultures of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as characteristics of the on-court personas their NBA representatives are proud of. The fiery personalities of Sacramento Kings shooting guard Francisco Garcia and fellow countryman (and former NBA player) Felipe Lopez of the Dominican Republic, as well as celebrated Puerto Rican, and Orlando Magic point guard Carlos Arroyo are what the people of their Caribbean countries are known for. They wear their true colors on their sleeves as they leave their cultural footprints on our NBA courts.


Carlos Arroyo in the final minutes of Puerto Rico's monumental defeat of the U.S. at the 2004 Olympic games.
As Latino players emmigrate to the NBA, their personalities and cultures flavor the league with new styles of play and approaches to the game, creating diversity that breeds basketball evolution. America is beginning to respect and learn about basketball in other countries, and this changing landscape is creating a melting pot of basketball knowledge and talent in the NBA. But what do the basketball cultures look like where these Latin American players come from? How are they different from each other? What are their histories, and more importantly, what will their future contributions be?

From Belize to Colombia, Uruguay to the well-established basketball countries of Argentina and Brazil, you can see a progression of basketball infrastructure. Like in a family, there exists a hierarchy among siblings of different ages and levels of physical or emotional development. The basketball cultures of these Latin American countries display obvious categorical differences among them. Each country I visited is an example of a certain stage of basketball development, which is why I will discuss them from least to most developed. From their differences in maturity, I hope to paint a picture of the basketball landscape throughout Latin America at its current stage of globalization.

Part 2
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