How Mexico beat USA in basketball

Mexico coach Ivan Deniz instructs San Antonio native Orlando Mendez during the USA vs Mexico FIBA World Cup qualifier. Luis Licona/Getty Images

MEXICO CITY -- There are more players on Mexico’s national basketball team roster hailing from California than Baja California, south of the border. In fact, nearly half of its roster for its most recent 2019 FIBA World Cup qualifying game, against the United States, is U.S.-born.

Alex Perez is a native of San Diego, California. Oakland’s Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jonathan Machado, who hails from Bakersfield, Lorenzo Mata, from Los Angeles and Aaron Valdes, a Whittier native all come from the same state. Others include Paul Stoll, born in Lansing, Michigan. Orlando Mendez, from San Antonio, Texas and Lucas Martinez, of Rugby, North Dakota round out the contingent of Mexican-Americans.

The group is largely responsible for keeping Mexico’s FIBA Basketball World Cup qualifying hopes intact. On Thursday night, at the Gimnasio Juan de la Barrera in Mexico City, the national team pulled off a stunning upset against the USA, beating them 78-70.

Though both teams were through to the next round of qualifying before the contest, nor were there any NBA players on the USA’s G-League player roster, the result was a massive milestone for Mexico – it was just the second victory for them against the Americans in 30 tries.

When the final buzzer sounded, Mendez, who poured in 20 points, strolled around the court, popping his jersey to the delight of the crowd.

“That’s right, baby!” Mendez yelled out, repeatedly. The entire celebration was a mix of idioms, accents and cultures – a faithful representation of the team itself.

Mexico’s reliance on talent born outside their borders is a key part of its program. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 36.2 million people living in the United States identify as Mexican-American, allowing basketball authorities south of the border to expand their player pool considerably. The mix of players hailing from both sides has not been without its issues, however.

“I'm fluent in Spanish and I was able to connect with those guys right away. There was a little tension though, some felt like there were Mexican-born players that were being left off for Mexican-Americans,” said Lorenzo Mata, a native of Los Angeles County who has played for Mexico’s national team since 2010.

Mata, a UCLA graduate and former Los Angeles Lakers summer league forward, is returning to the squad, fresh off a knee injury sustained last December playing for Soles de Mexicali, a team in Mexico’s top domestic league, the Liga Nacional de Basquetbol Profesional (LNBP).

Mexico’s climb in the last decade from also-rans to global contenders (they rank 13th on FIBA’s men’s classification) has its roots with the United States not just within the roster, but from the bench as well, helping to ease initial tensions between the two groups of players.

“A turning point for our program was the signing of Nolan Richardson,” said Modesto Robledo, the former head of ADEMEBA (Asociación Deportiva Mexicana de Básquetbol), Mexico’s governing body for the national team. “To have that kind of experience, passion and talent is always important when you’re trying to build success with a national program.”

Richardson, the Hall of Famer and 1994 NCAA National Championship winning coach with the Arkansas Razorbacks, took the Mexican program over in 2007. At that point, the legendary coach was tasked with qualifying the Doce Guerreros (12 Warriors) to the Beijing Olympics the next year, as well as implementing his famous “40 minutes of hell” style of full-court pressure play.

Cuarenta minutos de infierno,” Richardson told ESPN days before the 2007 FIBA qualifying tournament began. “We may end up, uh, giving 'em two minutes of hell and 38 of what the hell are we doing, you see. But right now, we're thinking that we might be able to put 40 [minutes] in. Or try."

In the end, Richardson was unable to coach Mexico into the 2008 Olympics (they finished seventh of eight teams in the qualifying round). Despite this, Richardson’s contribution included fielding American-born players Adam Parada and Anthony Pedroza, who starred with Horacio Llamas and Gustavo Ayón, both of whom had NBA experience.

Richardson’s continuity had been contingent on making history. When he did not deliver, the new group of executives, which included Robledo, opted not to renew his contract. After a short spell from Spanish coach Pep Claros, the ADEMEBA turned to another Spaniard, Sergio Valdeolmillos, who continued Richardson’s recruiting of American-born players.

“Sergio renovated that roster,” said Robledo. “He brought in guys like Paul Stoll, Jovan Harris and other dual nationals. And he developed a style of play. Those two factors gave him and the team success.”

Under Valdeolmillos, Mexico made history in 2014 by qualifying to its first FIBA World Cup in four decades, by way of winning the 2013 FIBA Americas Cup the year before. Led by Ayón, the Mexicans knocked off a talented Puerto Rico team in the final, headlined by NBA veteran J.J. Barea and former New York Knicks forward Renaldo Balkman.

“To win like that was a great feeling,” said Stoll, who sat out on Thursday because of a lingering injury. “For years, other teams would look at Mexico on the schedule and say ‘that’s a win for us right there,’ we were a big joke to them. So we used that as motivation.”

Shortly after the Americas Cup, Valdeolmillos’ contract was up for renewal. When the coach and the federation could not come to an agreement, he was replaced with former Knicks and Bulls center Bill Cartwright.

“It was a money thing, yes,” said Robledo. “We disagreed and we moved on. But the players were caught off guard, and Cartwright never had a real chance.” Many on the roster, including most of the Mexican-Americans, refused to play under Cartwright in a show of loyalty to Valdeolmillos.

“Bill talked to me but my mind was already made up,” said Mata. “The only reason I knew about Bill Cartwright was because he played with Michael Jordan and had an ugly jump shot. I was with Sergio. He was like a father figure to me.”

A fifth-place showing at the Juegos Centroamericanos, a tournament Mexico regularly dominated, prompted Cartwright’s ouster. Under pressure from the players, Robledo reinstated Valdeolmillos towards the end of 2015. He would eventually stay on through May of this year.

Valdeolmillos, now a head coach in the Spanish League with Delteco GBC, was replaced with another compatriot, Iván Déniz. Recognizing the advantage of recruiting north of the Rio Grande, Déniz loaded his initial roster with U.S.-born players.

“There’s a lot of great talent [in the United States] we have to recruit in order to get better,” said Déniz. “That’s why we’re going to get to work and look at players who can join our program at the youth levels.”

Robledo, now retired from his post at ADEMEBA, agrees. “That’s the way to do it. There’s a lot of young Mexican-American talent that needs to be scouted, and a lot of talent south of the border, too.”

On the cusp of another potentially historic run, and following their shocking victory over the Americans, the Mexican team rolls on with its now characteristic mix of cultures, Spanish coach, and players from Mexico and the United States.

“The players, we’ve known each other for years now,” said Stoll. “We’re brothers and we’ve been through it all. The biggest disagreements we have are whether to play hip-hop or banda in the locker room. We’re always going to rep for Mexican basketball, no matter where we were born.”