How Mexico's Horacio Llamas made history during eventful NBA career

Horacio Llamas of the Suns wound up with a stiff back after standing his ground against the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal during a 1997 game. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

His NBA "career" consisted of 28 regular-season games. He played a grand total of 143 minutes.

But Horacio Llamas, the first Mexican-born player to appear in an NBA game, did more than just become the answer to an obscure trivia question. The 6-foot-11 center experienced moments and gained memories that most basketball players could only dream about.

Llamas ran the floor with a teenage Kobe Bryant, made his first start against his idol, Hakeem Olajuwon, felt the strength and scowl of Charles Barkley, bodied up on a 25-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and sank a game-winning basket off a bullet pass from Michael Jordan.

Sure, it was more gig than occupation, but Llamas made the most of his cup of coffee with the NBA.

Nearly 20 years after making history by stepping on the floor as a member of the Phoenix Suns, the 43-year-old from El Rosario, Sinaloa, is excited that the NBA is returning to his home country this month. The Suns play the Dallas Mavericks at 10 p.m. ET Thursday and the San Antonio Spurs at 6 p.m. ET Saturday in Mexico City.

"The people are going crazy here trying to go to the games," Llamas said.

Reached by phone recently from Mexico City, where he was between games as a director with Garzas de Plata, a professional team based in the state of Hidalgo, Llamas recalled the improbable highlights of his NBA experience.

Making history

Llamas didn't let his NBA dream fizzle away after he went undrafted out of Grand Canyon College (now Grand Canyon University) in 1996. Instead, he participated in the NBA summer league with the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers, who were slowly breaking in Bryant, their prized 17-year-old rookie.

Llamas parlayed that experience into a roster spot with the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the Continental Basketball Association. Then, in late February 1997, the Suns, with their frontcourt depleted by injuries, signed Llamas to a 10-day contract.

His initial elation nearly took his breath away. But Llamas remained on the bench as the days passed, and the reality began to sink in that he would soon be heading back to Sioux Falls without ever showing the Suns what he could contribute.

On March 2, 1997, the final day of his 10-day contract, with his parents watching from the stands at Reunion Arena in Dallas, the Suns were down by double digits in the second quarter against the Mavericks. Phoenix coach Danny Ainge looked down the bench and made eye contact with Llamas, then pointed to the scorer's table.

Time stood still at that historic moment. Llamas stepped onto the court with a group of teammates that included Jason Kidd, who was playing his first game in Dallas following his blockbuster December trade from the Mavericks to the Suns, and Kevin Johnson, who later served two terms as mayor of Sacramento.

"Everything, the people, the players, they were all in slow motion until I went for the rebound and banged with another body," Llamas said, "and then everything started going back to normal, to normal speed."

Llamas not only secured that first rebound, but he also made his first shot, a no-hesitation jumper from the free throw line.

"I was so happy to make it, so they kept me in the game," he said.

Llamas played just four minutes in that game, but it was enough to make NBA history. It also became an entry in the Suns' record book, as Phoenix rallied from 27 points down to win in overtime in what was then the largest comeback in franchise history.

Better yet for Llamas, he was signed to a second 10-day contract the following day.

Battling Olajuwan, Barkley in first start

After Llamas' second 10-day contract expired, the Suns signed him through the rest of the season. Although he had minimal impact on the floor, the team's fortunes seemed to change after Llamas arrived.

Phoenix had opened the 1996-97 season by losing its first 13 games and was sporting a lackluster 21-36 record when Llamas made his debut. Lo and behold, the Suns continued winning with Llamas on the roster. They were riding a six-game win streak and had won nine of their past 10 when Llamas received late word that he would be starting against the Houston Rockets on April 2.

This wasn't just any opponent, but rather a powerhouse with three future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup: Barkley, Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. That didn't faze Llamas, who was especially amped to be matched against Olajuwon, one of his idols in college and someone who had taken Llamas under his wing for a private two-week training camp the previous summer. Llamas was nearly as excited to share the frontcourt with Barkley, who had played for the Suns the previous four seasons and provided Llamas with some sage advice during offseason pickup games.

Llamas remembers Olajuwon scoring about a dozen points against him in the first quarter and Barkley getting so physical on a boxout that he threw Llamas to the floor and then stood over him, hollering a few choice words.

"That got me very mad," Llamas said. "So after that, I was playing very, very hard and strong ... bumping and hitting [Barkley] in the back and stuff like that, and we won."

Llamas played a career-high 24 minutes in that game, scored six points and grabbed four rebounds. To his astonishment, his teammates voted him MVP of the game.

"Charles Barkley brought the most out of me by throwing me to the floor," he said.

Getting physical with Shaq

Nine days after the Houston victory, with the win streak up to 11 games and a playoff berth nearly in hand, the Suns traveled to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers, a team featuring O'Neal in his first season with L.A. and Bryant making the sixth start of his rookie season.

O'Neal had missed the previous 28 games with a knee injury, and when Ainge put Llamas in the game, Lakers coach Del Harris pulled O'Neal out.

Sean Rooks entered for O'Neal, and the Lakers fed him the ball on four straight possessions, each time coming up empty. That prompted Harris to send O'Neal back in, and Llamas immediately recalled what Olajuwon taught him during their workout sessions: to be physical against bigger centers from the time they reach the 3-point line until they set up in the post.

"Don't let him just get in the position in the low post because he was going to be very tough to defend, so that's what I did," Llamas said.

Llamas didn't have much luck preventing O'Neal from scoring, but he remained physical with the powerful superstar, even opening a gash above O'Neal's eye that caused him to depart to the locker room for a stretch and frightened those who thought he had reinjured his knee.

Phoenix ended up losing for the first time in 24 days, but Llamas and the Suns earned additional respect from the Lakers.

Phoenix's road trip continued to Golden State, and when Llamas was sent in the game against the Warriors, he was quickly reminded of his battle with O'Neal.

"I couldn't move my back," Llamas said. "It was so stiff. I couldn't move from defending Shaquille. I can never forget that."

Brush with Jordan's greatness

Llamas appeared in 20 regular-season games his rookie year and didn't see any action in the Suns' five-game, first-round playoff loss to the Seattle SuperSonics. He then appeared in eight games spread across three stints with the Suns in 1997-98.

After playing in various international leagues over the next four years, Llamas attempted an NBA comeback with the Washington Wizards in 2002. One of his teammates that preseason was the 39-year-old Jordan, who was beginning the last of his 15 seasons in the NBA. Llamas took every opportunity to learn from the six-time NBA champion and five-time league MVP.

"He used to go early to practice because he had knee surgery," Llamas said. "I used to get there early too, so every time I got to talk to him a little bit."

During one of his 16 days with the Wizards, Llamas landed on the same intrasquad team as Jordan, who rarely practiced that preseason, much less played games. But something enticed the aging legend to participate in this particular affair.

Perhaps it was the chance to face off against Jerry Stackhouse, who at one time was considered the "next Jordan" after he followed his footsteps at North Carolina. Or maybe it was the presence of Christian Laettner, a graduate of archrival Duke, or even Bryon Russell, already known for being "posterized" by Jordan when Russell was a young player with the Utah Jazz and Jordan was in his prime with the Chicago Bulls.

The trash-talking that went back-and-forth was epic, Llamas said, and the intensity reached an apogee with eight seconds left and Jordan's team trailing by two. After a timeout, Jordan drove to the basket, drew Laettner over for the double team and flung the ball out to Llamas just beyond the 3-point line.

Llamas sank the game-winner at the buzzer, Jordan raised his arms in triumph and woofed aloud, and Stackhouse stormed out of the gym, crashing through the double doors on his way out.

Llamas was released a few days later, but for a brief moment, he felt like he had just won Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Not a bad way to end a career.