Capitanes, Mexico City's G League franchise, set sail on debut season away from Mexico

Mexico City's Capitanes, who had a 78-38 record in three seasons at the top level of Mexican professional basketball, will make their G League debut Friday after a prolonged delay brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Imago 7

Nearly two years ago, NBA commissioner Adam Silver took the podium at Mexico City's premier indoor arena to announce the league's first established foray outside of the U.S. and Canada in the form of the minor league Capitanes, which were to join the G League in 2020.

The G League's 29th franchise would be a "historic milestone for the NBA," the commissioner said at the announcement.

"[It] demonstrates our commitment to basketball fans in Mexico and across Latin America," Silver said at the Arena Ciudad de Mexico in December 2019. Within 48 hours of Silver's remarks, the NBA further cemented its presence in Mexico at the arena by holding its ninth and 10th regular-season games in the country since 2014.

By planting their flag in Mexico with Capitanes -- Spanish for "Captains" -- the NBA was hoping that a successful expansion would open doors and activate the next phase of its global plans. Yet what appeared to be a rise toward an inevitable crescendo of permanent professional sports ventures for Mexico City came to a screeching halt with the onset of the COVID-19 virus.

Because of the worldwide pandemic and the circumstances that came with it only a few months later, Silver's commitment to Mexico remains an unfulfilled promise of sorts. On Friday, the unaffiliated Capitanes will finally make their G League debut, but not at all as they had expected. Beginning with the opener against Memphis, the team will play its 12-game Showcase Cup campaign entirely on the road. In fact, the team will not venture into Mexico City during its inaugural season, the latest challenge in trying to incorporate the franchise into the fold.

Only 18 of the G League's 29 teams participated in a reduced 2020-21 schedule between February and March of this year at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Bay Lake, Florida -- the same facility that housed the NBA's bubble in 2020. The Capitanes were among those opting out, choosing instead to debut in 2021-22.

"We've made this difficult decision, which we're sure will yield a safer debut," co-owner Moises Cosio revealed then in a statement.

The announcement was made with eyes on a Mexico City G League debut at their usual home base, the Juan de la Barrera gymnasium. But Mexico's status as one of the countries hit hardest by COVID called for another audible. In September, Capitanes settled on Fort Worth, Texas, as a base of operations, agreeing to play all of their Showcase Cup games in the United States. Practice and housing facilities for players and staff will be based there, but the Capitanes will travel for every game this season.

"I don't know if it's a disadvantage, but there's definitely some difficulties," said Nick Lagios, the team's 31-year-old general manager. "There's just no familiarity [with Fort Worth]. It's all new things for all of us. "

Lakers connection

The NBA has not been alone in courting Mexico City, a sprawling megalopolis of about 22 million people. In just a few months in late 2019 and early 2020, the city hosted the UFC, the PGA Tour, Formula One, and the NFL via a Monday Night Football clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers. At the city's Plaza del Toros bullring, tennis legend Roger Federer drew a then-record 42,517 fans for an exhibition match against Alexander Zverev.

When Silver made his announcement, Lagios was in his first year as the Los Angeles Lakers' basketball development coordinator, capping a rapid career rise since joining the organization in 2016. He had initially joined from the team's G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, going from video coordinator to director of basketball operations in just one season there. Despite graduating to the parent team in 2019, Lagios had his sights set on being a GM, even if it meant returning to the G League.

"[International] basketball is my passion. I did everything I could to reach out to the G League and agents who might know people in the organization," Lagios said. "I didn't think it was ever going to happen. It just seemed like a dream."

Despite already working with one of the NBA's most prestigious franchises, Lagios spent months lobbying for the general manager position in Mexico City and was eventually hired in May. Since, he's been diligently taking Spanish lessons and visiting the city constantly to get acquainted with what will eventually be his new surroundings. In October, he visited the fabled Estadio Azteca and watched the Mexican men's national soccer team play in a FIFA World Cup qualifier.

"It was just so intense," Lagios said. "The passion was amazing and the ambience was crazy. It gave me goosebumps."

The career move away from the Lakers also meant that Lagios, who grew up a Boston Celtics fan in Maine, could regain some standing back home in the northeast.

"A lot of my clothes right now are purple and gold," Lagios joked. "It's honestly nice to be able to wear different colors."

While Lagios' combination of G League experience and youth put him over the top, it didn't hurt that said association with the Lakers struck a chord with Cosio, who credits Kobe Bryant with inspiring him to put the team together in the first place.

In 2016, Cosio, a film producer and entrepreneur, scored tickets to Bryant's final game. He watched the late Lakers legend put together an epic 60-point performance in a win over the Utah Jazz. Six months later, Capitanes was announced as part of Mexico's Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional, the country's top pro league.

"I firmly believe that without Kobe, none of this would have ever happened," Cosio told ESPN in February 2020, a month after Bryant, his daughter and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash. "Our plan was to eventually invite him down to a game in Mexico City and thank him personally."

Cosio's fandom spawned a successful entry into the LNBP. Capitanes quickly became a fan favorite and reached the league finals in each of their first two seasons. At the Juan de la Barrera, a 5,242-seater that hosted Olympic basketball in 1968, sellouts became increasingly common. In their three years in the LNBP, Capitanes racked up a 78-38 record under coach Ramon Diaz, a native of Spain who is continuing as the team's coach in the G League.

Of the NBA's 30 teams, 28 rely on a G League affiliate -- a group that does not currently include the Capitanes. Per the G League's website, the NBA team retains an assigned player's rights and can recall him at any time. Given that Mexico City is about 850 miles from the closest NBA city in San Antonio, such an assignment seems less than practical. However, Capitanes players can be acquired at any time by an NBA team according to the league's call-up system.

Dream delayed

Several markets were considered for G League expansion, yet Mexico City's established connection with the NBA, as well as its massive population, meant Capitanes had a leg up on the competition.

"Honestly, it was a long, difficult process," Raul Zarraga, managing director for NBA Mexico, told ESPN in January 2020. "This had never been done before, it was all uncharted territory, and negotiations were tough. But [Capitanes] made it happen in the end."

Throughout the process, Zarraga remained a conduit between Capitanes and his bosses at the NBA. At several points, he feared the negotiations could fall through and delay the shared dream.

"I couldn't believe it was all real until the words came out of the commissioner's mouth," Zarraga said. "It was surreal."

As it turned out, Capitanes' official entry into the G League wasn't the storybook ending those involved had envisioned, but merely the first chapter. Since COVID hit, only the United States, Brazil and India have registered more deaths from the virus than Mexico. More than half of the country's population has received at least one vaccination against the disease, yet international travel restrictions remain a lingering issue.

The pandemic's persistence made a Mexico City scenario less probable as time wore on. Capitanes operations were put on hiatus over the summer as several ideas were explored, including delaying the team's debut another year. Finally, on Sept. 13, it was announced Capitanes would play on as scheduled, albeit entirely in the United States.

The uncertainty meant Lagios had a late start on signing players, an added handicap because the team requested he prioritize Latin American players in order to build a cultural bond with fans.

"Everybody else was pretty much set [with their rosters] by the time we started," Lagios recalled.

Ultimately, the team will field a roster with notables such as NBA journeyman small forward Alfonzo McKinnie; Matt Mooney, who starred at guard for Texas Tech during its 2019 NCAA tournament title game run; and Mexican-born captain Moises Andrassi at shooting guard. Lagios' roster includes nine players with Latin American roots.

Capitanes will only play in the Showcase Cup, a 14-game standalone tournament prior to the regular season, which ends in a single-elimination format during the annual NBA G League Winter Showcase. When the competition wraps up in December, Capitanes will once again face a long layoff -- they have no regular-season games scheduled after the Cup -- before potentially enjoying their first full season in 2022.

By then, the hope is the team will have finished its nomadic journey and begin playing home games in earnest. Mexico City itself should regain a similar frequency of hosting duties of top-tier sporting events.

Just two days after Capitanes debuts in the G League, Mexico City will again host Formula One's Mexican Grand Prix, its first large-scale international sporting event since the start of the pandemic.

"We need those big sporting events that excite people," Javier Hidalgo, director for the Mexico City government's Institute for Sport, recently told ESPN Mexico. "The push that sports can give us isn't just for financial gain or to attract tourism, but so we can integrate young people into sports."

If and when Capitanes return to the Juan de la Barrera gym, the project can serve as an early case study on American sports leagues' expansion into Mexico. For local fans, it will mark the opportunity to finally watch a high-level pro basketball team call Mexico its home.

"The Mexican fans, for any sport, are so passionate. I can't wait for our first home game there," Lagios said.

"I just hope we make them proud."