MEXICO CITY – The Mexico national anthem was playing as former NBA forward Eduardo Najera took his seat courtside with an NBA dream in mind before the first G League regular-season game played in his beloved country.
“I am here because I want to bring the NBA to Mexico,” Najera told Andscape on Sunday night.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said recently that there are no immediate expansion plans for the 30-team league, but that hasn’t stopped speculation.
If and when the NBA does expand, it is expected that Seattle will land a team that can finally replace the SuperSonics, which were relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008. Silver has acknowledged Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James’ interest in wanting to be a part of an ownership group for a potential expansion team in Las Vegas. The NBA, however, acknowledged to Andscape that Mexico City could be a potential NBA expansion site if all goes well with the Capitanes de Ciudad de Mexico. The Capitanes made their G League debut in Mexico with a 120-84 victory over the Rio Grande Vipers in front of 7,391 fans at Arena CDMX Sunday night.
“Expansion is currently not on the docket, but at some point, if we were to turn to expansion, there’s no doubt that Mexico City would have to be one the cities that would be in consideration along with a host of other very big and relevant cities in North America,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told Andscape. “One of the biggest challenges around international expansion has always been the travel issues, the facility issues. But there is a world-class facility in Mexico City in Arena CDMX, which is where we’ve been playing our games and our global games in Mexico. And that’s actually the home of the G League team, the Capitanes. And so that’s not an issue.
“And the travel is not an issue. It’s a pretty short flight for several of our teams, particularly our Texas teams, our Florida teams, our New Orleans team. Arizona actually is a pretty short flight. So, those are all the kinds of things that we would take into consideration, and for those reasons you’d have to consider it. But again, I’d say it’s not immediately on the docket right now.”
So, what makes Mexico City an attractive potential NBA expansion site?
*Mexico City is the sixth largest city in the world in 2022, with 22 million people, according to CEO World. The NBA’s current most populous market is New York City, which is ranked 41st in the world with 8.9 million people.
*Mexico City has an NBA-ready venue in Arena CDMX, which has 22,300 seats. Tatum called the venue an “NBA-quality arena” and noted that it has a helipad on the roof and the needed suites and hospitality areas.
*Mexico has proven that it has a strong interest in the NBA. The NBA will hold its 31st contest in Mexico City on Dec. 17 when the Miami Heat play the San Antonio Spurs in a regular-season game that sold out in three days. Mexico has hosted more games than any country outside of the United States and Canada. The Capitanes and the G League Austin Spurs will play the night before Heat-Spurs.
*The NBA’s Toronto Raptors are not only the team of Toronto, but the team of Canada. A Mexico City NBA franchise will be the team of Mexico (132 million people) and attract interest from Latin America as well. Capitanes games are shown nationwide on Star+ and ESPN Mexico (the latter of which is in 22.1 million Mexican households; the Star+ streaming network airs in Mexico and Latin America), which make them and the Raptors the only franchises under the NBA umbrella with national television deals.
“We’ve been playing games in Mexico since 1992. So, 30 years of games in Mexico,” Tatum said. “And five years ago, Adam and I were down there with our Mexico team, including the head of our [Latin America] business. And we were talking to some of the partners down there, Televisa and some of our other Mexican partners, and they kept talking about, ‘When can we have an NBA team in Mexico City?’ And it was out of that that we started talking and saying, ‘Mexico City is the largest city in North America.’ People don’t realize that. In terms of population, there’s no city in North America bigger than Mexico City. And the country has 125, 130 million people and there is a proximity to the U.S.
“Coming out of those meetings, we started thinking about that as a very viable market. But we also said, ‘Well, look, we’ve got this G League. Why not create a G League franchise here?’ ”
So, what is the biggest concern about having a G League team in Mexico City? Safety.
The U.S. Department of State says that tourists in Mexico City should “exercise increased caution due to crime. Both violent and non-violent crime occur throughout Mexico City. Use additional caution, particularly at night, outside of the frequented tourist areas where police and security patrol more routinely. Petty crime occurs frequently in both tourist and non-tourist areas. There are no restrictions on travel for U.S. government employees in Mexico City.”
Tatum and G League executives say they are not overly concerned about the safety of the players from the Capitanes and visiting G League opponents. The G League says it has several safety measures in place, including a police escort to and from games.
“I am no more worried than I am for any other country,” said Malik Rose, G League head of basketball operations. “When we went to Abu Dhabi or when we go to Japan or any other country, the security is different, the rules are different. And just knowing how to move, what to do, what not to do, where to go, where not to go, is important. One thing I will say, our security team — and in this case our security team is headed by Shaun West (head of team and arena security) — they did a great job getting us all set up. They worked with a lot of our U.S. Embassy people, a lot of local security, and as well as state and federal security levels. They worked things out, set up tons of plans and contingencies, and we feel very confident with what we have.”
Said G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim: “We’ve done the proper work to educate ourselves, educate our teams and taking the proper precautions. So, no, I think I worry about all of our teams and all of our players, all these different things that can happen, but nothing extraordinary here.”
Rose, Abdur-Rahim, and most of the G League officials attended Sunday’s game. Rose also says the biggest challenges next to security are transportation and having a team in a Spanish-speaking country. Another challenge is playing in a very high altitude of 7,349 feet, which is higher than Denver (5,280), where the Denver Nuggets play. Rio Grande center Willie Cauley-Stein, an NBA veteran, missed the game Sunday due to health concerns related to the altitude.
“So, getting around the country, airport to the hotel, hotel to the arena, and back can be a little difficult. Security was the biggest thing,” said Rose, who played games in Mexico while with the San Antonio Spurs. “Then transportation. It’s a big country with a lot of people in it. Getting around can be difficult at different times. Making sure we have the right transportation setup, and the right security setup were probably two of the bigger things we needed to focus on.”
Capitanes forward Bruno Caboclo, a former NBA forward from Brazil who speaks Spanish, said: “I’m international, so it feels good here. It feels like home. I learned Spanish for three years in my school in Brazil, so I can survive here.”
Adding to the safety is that the G League Capitanes reside in the richest area of all their G League colleagues.
The G League Capitanes live in a G League-paid Mexican hotel in the affluent Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City. Polanco is one of the more upscale neighborhoods in Mexico, with world-famous restaurants, luxury hotels, art exhibits, high-end shopping and expensive condos. Polanco is considered the Beverly Hills of Mexico, and is considered very safe with a strong police presence. G League visiting teams will also stay at a hotel in Polanco. Capitanes and Rio Grande players told Andscape they feel very safe in Polanco.
“Mexico life has been great,” said Capitanes center Jahlil Okafor, a former NBA center from Chicago. “I’m here with my fiancée. We go to a lot of restaurants and I’m working on my craft trying to get better. I feel extremely safe. I haven’t had any worries. I’m in Polanco, which is one of the best neighborhoods. So, I definitely feel safe.”
Said Rio Grande guard Trhae Mitchell: “We were good. They showed a lot of hospitality. The people at the hotel took good care of us. We just enjoyed our stay.”
Nearly half of the Capitanes enjoyed a late dinner at the lively Beluga restaurant in Polanco after the game Sunday. Okafor was there and told several of his teammates about the restaurant. Capitanes forward Alfonzo McKinnie was among the players at the restaurant and has raved about the food scene in Polanco.
“Man, the food here has been A1,” said McKinnie, a former NBA player. “That has probably been the highlight to me because I just like going to random restaurants and stuff. But the neighborhood we are in is nice.”
The Capitanes were founded in 2017 and originally played in Mexico’s Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional. Silver announced in December 2019 that the Capitanes would join the G League during the 2020-21 season. Due to coronavirus restrictions, the Capitanes did not debut in the G League until last season. Their facilities were located in the Fort Worth, Texas, area and they played all of their home games in G League markets as the designated home team. The Capitanes had a strong Mexican following at G League games that were all played in the United States last season.
There was a lot of excitement on Sunday about the Capitanes’ first game in Mexico City. G League officials said more than 1,000 spectators were waiting outside to enter once they were allowed to 90 minutes before the game. Najera sat courtside wearing a Capitanes jersey.
Marcelo Luis Ebrard Casaubón, who is Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, attended the game and took pictures with Najera. Najera is also very familiar with the family of Carlos Helu Slim, a Mexican who is ranked by Bloomberg as the world’s 11th richest person with a net worth of $78 billion.
There were chants of “CAP-I-TAN-ES …” 53 minutes before tipoff. A mariachi band also entertained fans before the game. McKinnie asked Capitanes coach Ramón Díaz Sánchez if he was nervous before the game after he talked to a large group of media.
“Three or so years of planning before that, it’s finally here,” Abdur-Rahim said. “A lot of work and planning and struggle comes to fruition, the excitement of the community. And then ultimately, it’s history. You haven’t had a North American professional league that has had a team in Mexico or in Latin America. So, the fact that we, from the G League standpoint, can do that — we can continue to work with the NBA in Latin America, possibly learn more about the market if there’s possibilities of the NBA being here in the future — is outstanding. But just to see that work of so many years come to fruition tonight is exciting.”
Raul Zarraga, vice president and managing director of NBA Mexico, said, “It’s incredible to see a dream come true like this. It’s also incredibly amazing with all the people here and finally playing in Mexico City. A year ago, was different. But finally having the Mexican fans with Capitanes is an amazing opportunity.”
The Capitanes didn’t disappoint, as guard Mason Jones scored a game-high 32 points in the blowout win. Many of the satisfied Capitanes fans gave the team a standing ovation after the win, chanted “CAP-I-TAN-ES” to a drumbeat and didn’t appear in a rush to leave.
“It was amazing. It was a different vibe. Coming from LA [the G League South Bay Lakers] to Mexico City, you don’t know what to expect,” Jones said. “But playing in front of 7,000 and seeing how the fans get crazy and basketball can be good here was intriguing to see. I know we have a lot of things we can do this year to be really good. I’m very excited.”
Said Mitchell: “The atmosphere was cool. For the G League, this is probably one of the biggest crowds we will see. They brought a lot of energy, so it was fun.”
An emotional Sanchez was teary-eyed after the game and hugged family and friends before leaving the floor.
“I was so excited. It was the first game in Mexico City after three years with more than 7,000 fans. It’s crazy. We won. This is the only way to start this season,” Sanchez said.
“Coming from LA [the G League South Bay Lakers] to Mexico City, you don’t know what to expect. But playing in front of 7,000 and seeing how the fans get crazy and basketball can be good here was intriguing to see.” — Mexico City Capitanes guard Mason Jones
The Capitanes have a roster that can appeal to North America with several players who represent their respective national teams. Moisés Quintana is a Capitanes guard who is one of the more promising NBA prospects from Mexico. The Americans on the roster are all former NBA players, including McKinnie, Okafor, Jones, Gary Clark, and Shabazz Napier, and also includes players from Puerto Rico. The roster also includes Caboclo and players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
The Capitanes roster was designed to be attractive to Latin America.
“It’s pointless to put a team here and then have a bunch of American dudes, right?” said Abdur-Rahim, a former NBA star. “There’s enough talent throughout Latin America, where as a league, being a development league, it should be an opportunity for young Latin players, Mexican players to find, live out their dream and represent Mexico City. So, definitely I could see a future where Latin draft prospects … the team here in Mexico City could be their pathway to the NBA.”
Said Caboclo: “A lot of guys are playing for the national team for their country. [The international players] just need to learn the concepts of American basketball to play here. We will do well. We play hard and everyone is very competitive.”
The Capitanes will give Mexico a regular opportunity to prove that this country is ready for an NBA team or prove it is not. No one in Mexico knows NBA basketball better than Najera, who played 619 career NBA regular-season games, easily the most of any Mexican.
Najera believes strongly that Mexico has been ready for the NBA.
“Mexico has been ready for quite some time,” Najera said. “If you look at the metrics and the fans here in Mexico City alone, it’s quite significant. If you do it the right way, an NBA team can galvanize an entire [country]. We’re ready. Certainly, the G League is the first step. It is going to be up to the baby steps. If NBA fans in Mexico support this, it will be great to have the big boys here.”
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