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Could Mexico City Support an NBA Franchise?

After hosting two games last week, Mexico City is looking more and more like a viable NBA franchise destination. Erik Spoelstra, Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, and Mexican fans consider the possibility of basketball south of the border.

NBA: Miami Heat at Brooklyn Nets Jose Mendez-USA TODAY Sports

Eduardo Najera, a chippy, defensive-minded forward, never averaged more than seven points a game during an 11-year NBA career spent with five different teams. But after the first quarter of last week’s game between the Brooklyn Nets and Oklahoma City Thunder, he strode to center court in a charcoal suit and sangria tie to a deafening ovation from a crowd of 20,000. One bellowing fan wore a Najera jersey from the New Jersey Nets, a New Jersey Nets hat scribbled with what was presumably Najera’s autograph, and a deflated basketball with eyeholes that he yanked over his head whenever TV cameras panned across his section.

The exuberant response was no surprise. Thursday’s contest was the first of two regular-season games held at the Arena Ciudad de México in Mexico City; on Saturday night, Brooklyn was paired up with the Miami Heat. In this country, Najera, the second Mexican-born player to play in the NBA and now a scout for the Dallas Mavericks, is a sports deity. And according to anyone you ask, it is a place where the religion of basketball is catching on.

“I love basketball,” said Normando Vasquez, a computer programmer who attended the game. “I’m a big fan since Jordan times.” He was chauffeuring his rawboned 16-year-old nephew, whom he laughed at for being a noob Golden State booster. Nearby, at the foot of the arena’s steps, hawkers noisily peddled loose cigarettes and translucent blue mugs emblazoned with Nets and Thunder logos. “The problem was that it was difficult to watch games on TV,” Vasquez said. “Usually only a little group of people can see it.”

Mexico City is a 21 million–person megalopolis, and just a two-hour flight from San Antonio. And, not coincidentally, the NBA is making eyes at El Monstruo as a potential gold mine. Basketball is already the second-most-popular sport in the country (behind soccer, obviously) and the league has labored to provide better access for fans like Normando. In June 2016, the NBA inked a deal to broadcast monthly live games on media monolith Televisa Deportes, which supplements cable coverage on ESPN and NBA TV, as well as international League Pass subscriptions. According to metrics supplied by the NBA, last week’s game had a potential reach of 31 million households in Mexico.

The NBA Global Games initiative has now hosted four regular-season games in Mexico City during this calendar year — in January, the Suns played the Mavericks and Spurs — but that’s only one part of a muscular south-of-the-border marketing push. The league is opening a training facility for elite Latin American and Caribbean players here this winter and is looking at adding a G League developmental team as early as next season; NBA commissioner Adam Silver is openly musing about the viability of airdropping an expansion team into the city sometime down the road.

“There are many reasons why this is an attractive market for us,” Silver said during a press conference before Thursday’s game. “There is a very strong and passionate Mexican American fan base back in the United States, and this is also potentially a gateway for all of Latin America.”

Heat forward Justise Winslow agreed with Silver. “It would be great for the game. The idea is for the game to keep growing in America and globally,” he told The Ringer. “So, traveling here, maybe once or twice a year, depending on what conference, wouldn’t be bad. It’s not too far. It’s great to see the fan support out here. They deserve it if they’re really into basketball like that.”

Silver watched most of the game from a seat 20 rows back from the court. Chris Bosh, Glen Rice, and Horacio Llamas, the NBA’s first Mexican-born player, were in attendance. Throughout the arena, fans were draped in freshly purchased Nets and Thunder gear, along with jerseys honoring James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Seattle-era Shawn Kemp (there was also a Brooklyn one with “Palestine” inscribed on the back and the number 48). Courtside, fans could be seen wearing slouch beanies, sunglasses, and backward baseball caps. There were families helmed by prim fathers in tailored blazers. Ticket prices ranged from $18 for nosebleeds in the third balcony to $354 for sitting wood. In other words, it was an NBA game.

Perhaps hampered by the altitude — at more than 7,000 feet above sea level, Mexico City is over 2,000 feet higher than Denver — both teams started out flinging up bricks. The restless crowd erupted in “MVP” chants whenever Russell Westbrook touched the ball. The first enormous roar of the night came when Carmelo Anthony’s dunk attempt was stonewalled at the rim by Nets rookie center Jarrett Allen. Later, Anthony caused a ripple of snickers when he barked, “Fuck outta here, I got it!” on a rebound and promptly passed the ball to a Net who was standing 5 feet away. (After shooting 5-for-20 from the floor, 0-for-4 from deep, and 1-for-4 from the line in the Thunder’s five-point loss, Anthony would call his recent slump “probably the roughest [stretch] that I’ve ever had throughout my career.”)

Opened in 2012, Mexico City Arena is a state-of-the-art facility with crispy Jumbotron screens, pulsing music, and 22,300 seats. It seems a readymade home for a future NBA franchise. As in-game entertainment, the league unfurled the paint-by-numbers pageantry that has become part of the expected fan experience: Brooklynettes in monochrome outfits danced to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.,” contestants feebly heaved half-court shots for prizes, T-shirts were pitched into the stands, and sunken free throws were punctuated with Super Mario–esque coin plings. “You can see that we have a great stadium,” said Josh Paraga, a lawyer who attended the game. “It’s also very convenient for us, living in Mexico. Prices in America are so much more expensive than it is here.”

The NBA’s piqued interest in Mexico City comes at a moment when the city has become a hot destination among the trendoid cognoscenti. It is stunningly affordable, closer to both New York City and Los Angeles than those cities are to each other, and offers a comfortable mix of bourgeoisie homogeneity and exoticism. One can visit contemporary galleries showing Mexican artists, drink Oaxacan mezcal siphoned from plastic barrels, explore open-air markets devoted to witchcraft, and drink Americanos brewed by baristas who name-drop Blue Bottle’s Williamsburg outpost.

In 2016, The New York Times positioned Mexico City as the top draft pick in the paper’s list of 52 Places to Go. Eater, the international food portal, has posted 25 guides dedicated to the city’s fine dining, street tortas calientes, and cocktail bars over the past two years; “Everyone we know wants to visit Mexico City,” Eater’s intro breathlessly reads. Almost weekly, someone floods my Instagram feed with flicks of the towering mushroom fountain at the National Museum of Anthropology, airborne masked wrestlers from Lucha Libre, or the angular pink and tangerine architecture of the Casa Luis Barragán. Mexico City’s emergence as a rising cultural epicenter may not be part of the NBA’s calculus, but the timing could not be better.

On Friday afternoon, the Heat held practice at the American School Foundation, an academy in a fortified compound with thick concrete walls topped by imposing fences and sliding metal doors wide enough to cruise trucks through. It was coach Erik Spoelstra’s first time in Mexico City, and he had spent the previous evening meandering through the shops and cafes of Polanco, a tony, tree-lined district near the team’s hotel.

“In many ways, walking around last night, there were certain pockets of the neighborhood that felt like you were in Miami,” Spoelstra told me, as members of the Mexican media swarmed Heat point guard Goran Dragic nearby. Despite his relative anonymity in Mexico City, Spoelstra said he had encountered several Heat fans on the street. “In terms of the city, I wasn’t too familiar with it,” he said. “But when we had an opportunity to volunteer to come down here last year, it was a no-brainer. We immediately signed up.”

Along with London and Tokyo, Mexico City is one of only three international locations (excluding Canada) where the NBA has played regular-season games. All told, there have now been seven games in Mexico City that counted in the standings. The first came in 1997. The next attempt, a 2013 matchup between Minnesota and San Antonio, was postponed after a generator malfunction choked the arena with billowing black smoke.

This year’s Global Games took on greater significance after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in September that toppled buildings and killed hundreds in the city. Months after the cleanup, there are still abandoned structures that sit like gaping maws on bustling streets. “The game was scheduled already, so our hearts really went out to everybody down here,” said Spoelstra. “We can relate. We go through natural disasters, unfortunately, yearly. And we went through one this year with Hurricane Irma.”

Despite Mexico City’s rise as a trendy destination, natural disasters are but one of the city’s maladies. The majority of its inhabitants struggle with poverty, and swaths of the sprawling metropolis are formations of stacked cinderblock houses, corrugated metal, faded pastel paint, and Slinky-like spools of razorwire. Traffic is a bleating cacophony bogged down by flash floods during rainy season, and the air quality is the worst in the Western Hemisphere.

Mexico City has largely avoided the gruesome violence that has tarred the country’s international reputation, but there are still real concerns. This year, the homicide rate in Mexico reached its highest level since 2006, inspiring a controversial measure to give the military virtually unchecked power in waging war against the Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation, and other cartels. According to estimates that account for how many crimes go unreported, the country may suffer around 30,000 kidnappings a year.

At the Heat practice, I asked Miami shooting guard Dion Waiters if he had any preconceptions about his first visit to Mexico City. “You know, man, like the mob, gangster movies and all that stuff,” he said, seemingly alluding to how Mexico is portrayed in films like Sicario or Netflix’s El Chapo series. “I’m into all that, that’s like my favorite movies. A lot of little crazy stuff going around.”

Waiters said the league had given players an extra security briefing, but he didn’t seem overly concerned. “I’m from the hood so there ain’t much I ain’t see,” he said. “I know they just doing they job, but I come from that and I can adapt to anything. You just never know with the earthquakes, though. As far as everything else, it’s smooth. I’m thinking about coming back for a vacation.”

The NBA first dipped its toe in international waters in 1995, when the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies entered the league (the latter lasted six season before moving to Memphis). But socially, economically, and linguistically, erecting an expansion franchise in Mexico poses greater challenges. Most American-born basketball players are pipelined from high school, through the NCAA, and into the pros without ever leaving the United States. Although plenty of athletes undergo the cultural immersion of playing overseas, it’s never been part of the NBA experience. Waiters was diplomatic, but expressed reservations about the idea of playing for a franchise in Mexico City. “I dunno, it’s a little weird — it’s not bad, though,” he said. “It’s two different lifestyles.”

Winslow, Miami’s third-year wing, was more open-minded, in part because he grew up in Houston. “As long as my teammates and coaches can understand me. We interact with the fans, but come game time, we’re pretty locked in on what we’re trying to get done. We got Goran on the team — he’s not the best English speaker, but we can get our message across.”

Whether or not expansion is ultimately in the cards, the NBA is content to play the long game in Mexico City. With basketball’s popularity surging, the league has the opportunity to build a foundation that could last for generations. To find the next Najera, they just need more people playing the game.

“It’s not like the States,” said Omar Hernandez, a barber who grew up in Los Angeles and has lived in Mexico City for the past nine years. Though a Lakers fan, he went to Thursday’s game to see Westbrook and Anthony. “I used to play streetball every day,” he said of his time in America. “We grew up with And1 tapes and watching Allen Iverson and trying to learn his moves. There’s a culture of basketball here, but it’s still growing.”