MEXICO CITY, Mexico -- During the week when one of Mexico City’s most heated soccer rivalries -- Club America vs. Pumas -- takes over Mexico’s capital, the Sacramento Kings and Boston Celtics will play a regular season NBA game in Mexico City Arena on Thursday. Two hours before tip-off about an hour away from the arena, the first-leg of the Liga MX semifinals between America and Pumas will be played in Estadio Azteca.
It will be a week filled with sports in Mexico City, a city where every sport is welcomed, especially those that are played professionally across the border that separates Mexico from the United States. On Monday morning it was common to see New England Patriots gear, whether it was jackets or jerseys, being worn by Mexico City residents, even if the night before the Patriots lost 24-30 against the Denver Broncos. In almost all of the sports programming, one of the main topics was Kobe Bryant’s retirement announcement.
The past three years have seen some of Mexican basketball’s greatest years. In 2013 the national team won the FIBA Americas Championship, in 2014 the team participated in the FIBA World Cup in Spain (its first in 40 years), and in 2015 the team finished fourth in the FIBA Americas Championship held in Mexico City.
Led by Spanish head coach Sergio Valdeolmillos, Mexico’s basketball team, also known by the crowd as Los 12 Guerreros, 12 warriors, has generated a lot of expectation around the game among Mexico’s sports crowd, by winning important games against national teams like Argentina and Puerto Rico.
But contrary to Argentina’s golden generation, which included the likes of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino, and Fabricio Oberto, Mexico’s current generation is aspiring, still primitive and has a long way to go to match such a successful one as Argentina’s, which even won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics.
Between 2011-14 Mexico’s current basketball superstar, Gustavo Ayon, played in the NBA for the New Orleans Hornets, Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks, and Atlanta Hawks, but didn’t manage to leave a stamp in the league. The other three Mexican players who have competed in the NBA -- Eduardo Najera, Horacio Llamas and Jorge Gutierrez -- have also left behind very few memorable highlights.
Recently, Ayon was awarded Mexico’s highest individual sports award, Premio Nacional del Deporte. The current Real Madrid power forward won the race against Mexico’s soccer national team captain, Andres Guardado, who had a stupendous 2015 playing for Dutch side, PSV, and El Tri.
In the past days, Ayon described to Claro Sports that him being the best Mexican professional athlete in 2015 should serve to young kids as a living example that in Mexico, it’s possible to achieve dreams. He also added: “In Mexico we have a bad culture in regards to keep on pushing for our dreams. People always talk negative when you dream big, they ask, “What are you going to do with that? Or, that’s not for you.” We’re always trying to find ways to cut dreams and hope from the people when it looks like those negative people don’t seem to have dreams of their own.”
Los 12 Guerreros have showcased hunger to achieve the unexpected, while the people with the suits have ignored the potential of the big pool of basketball players Mexico has. In the 2014 World Cup, current coach Valdeolmillos shared a letter on Twitter, in which he described how difficult it was to compete in Spain without the proper help from Mexico’s basketball federation. Valdeolmillos confirmed that at times he had to pay for extra expenses at hotels or equipment out of his own pocket.
After the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship, Ayon said something along the same exact lines, suggesting that players had to use some of their own money in order to represent Mexico’s national basketball team. As more truths are revealed, the relativity of Mexican basketball’s most recent achievements become grander.
Unfortunately, matters have gotten worse during the past few days as FIBA has suspended Mexico’s basketball federation from all competitions. The suspension might prevent Mexico from vying for one of the last tickets for next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, as the International Olympic Committee is expected to review and render a decision in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the Kings’ Rajon Rondo will play against his old team, and the Mexican basketball fanatics, old and new, will witness only the third regular-season game ever played in Mexico. Because of Los 12 Guerreros’ past three years, Mexico City Arena will be more than ready to see an NBA game.