Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Latino Basketball Month

Latino Basketball Month
Art Garcia Mar 3 2009

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Manu Ginobili starts left, contorts his body and somehow finishes strong before crashing gracefully under the basket. The frenetic ballet of Argentina's favorite basketball son has been replayed nightly across NBA floors for most of this decade.

There's flair in his game, a style reminiscent of a matador's. A natural assumption might be that's Ginobili's sense of the dramatic is a product of his culture, and a common thread among players with Latin blood pumping through their veins.

Don't others such as Pau Gasol, Rudy Fernandez and Leandro Barbosa share a similar panache?

"I really don't notice it," Ginobili said. "We're very passionate. That's the only thing I can tell. That's probably because of how difficult it is for us to become successful basketball players.

"When we have the option, we really try to squeeze it. Besides that, it's different players, different countries and different leagues where we come from, so it's hard to find a common denominator."

Noche Latina 2009
Noche Latina, which recognizes players and fans from across Latin America and U.S. Hispanic communities, tips off in March. With that in mind, here are some multimedia highlights from notable Latin players in the NBA today.

All-Star Latin Flavor
NBA TV's Ahmad Rashad documents the impact of Latin players at the 2009 NBA All-Star Game.
Real NBA: Viva EspaƱa!
The Latin influence on the NBA is quite prevalent in today's game.
Real NBA: Marc Gasol
Pau's younger brother is making a name for himself with the Grizzlies.
Real NBA: Jose Calderon
The Raptors' star point guard talks about his emergence as an NBA player.
Real NBA: Rudy Fernandez
The Blazers' high-flying rookie has made a big splash in Portland this season.

While the Spurs' sixth man isn't going to cast his countrymen or Latino allies under one convenient label, singling out their shared passion cuts across country and language. As does their common experience of reaching the most competitive basketball league on the planet.

Seventeen players of Latin descent grace NBA rosters this season, with Argentina and Spain leading the charge with five each. Brazil boasts three, two hail from the Dominican Republic, and Mexico and Puerto Rico each have one. The league is recognizing their contributions to the game with a series of games this month dubbed, "Noche Latina."

These Latin Nights began in 2007 and are also aimed at honoring the league's Latino fans. Eight teams were selected this season, up from four last year, to wear special uniforms recognizing Latin American and Hispanic communities. The program also includes partnerships with top Hispanic agencies and Spanish-language radio stations, and it includes local grassroots events in each market and in-arena activities.

While it may seem a marketing gimmick, an excuse to sell jerseys with Nueva York, Los Lakers and El Heat across the front, the players are quick to point out the program's significance.

"It's a wonderful thing, of course," said Gasol, the Lakers' forward from Spain. "I appreciate it. It's good to get a Latino and Spanish flavor to one of the games. I think it's a beautiful thing. I had a couple of them back in Memphis and I enjoyed it. It's a nice initiative and it's a tribute to my country and to the Latino community."

Added Mavericks guard J.J. Barea of Puerto Rico: "I appreciate it. We appreciate. We have a lot of Hispanic fans that love basketball."

The numbers back that up. The league has 20 million Hispanic fans ages 12 and up, according to a survey provided by the NBA. The league also owns one of the fastest growing Hispanic fan bases in sports, with 33 percent growth since 2005.

Hispanics make up 57 percent of the adult fans at games in San Antonio. It's 44 percent in Miami and 36 percent in Los Angeles. Other markets with high Hispanic concentration include Phoenix (28 percent), New York (24 percent) and Dallas (20 percent).

"What I can see is that they're at every single game I've been to," Ginobili said of Hispanic fans. "I can always hear somebody tell me something. You can tell they are Latin. It's good to recognize them and make them feel important, because they are."

Basketball is also becoming the top team sport played by Hispanic teens in the U.S. According to the Simmons teen/adult combined study conducted in 2007, some 2.2 million Hispanic teens play basketball, followed by soccer at 1.9 million. The trend isn't just in the United States.

"Every time I go to my hometown in Brazil, I'm surprised by more and more kids playing basketball," Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao said. "Brazil has always been a soccer country and volleyball is going really good, so it's good to see that."

Don't forget the current crop of Latino players were once kids, too. Fernandez began picking up dunk tips while most of his friends were still fast asleep in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. "When I was younger, I'd wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning and watch the NBA," the Blazers' rookie said. "I remember it was difficult to watch Spanish players or Sudamerican players, and right now it's a big opportunity for us."

Portland teammate and fellow Spaniard Sergio Rodriguez said: "The NBA is the best league in the world and everybody wants to play here. We want to play against the best players, and the international players are good now and we're improving."

Latino players take their responsibility to fans in their NBA cities and back home seriously. Ginobili enjoys a rock star following in his hometown of Bahia Blanca and throughout the country. Argentina's vast international success includes Olympic gold in 2004.

Basketball won't ever be as big soccer there -- "Not even close," Ginobili said -- but its popularity continues to grow with every breathtaking drive from the Spurs' guard nicknamed, "El Contusion."

"It's something new," Ginobili said. "Before in Argentina I never would have dreamt of the possibility, so they cherish it. It's hard for them for them to identify with a team, but they have great respect for us and they want us to do good. In Spain or Puerto Rico or Brazil, they do the same."

In some ways, the respect fans have for the players gets back to the way many Latino players play the game. It's got nothing to do with style points. Andres Nocioni, Nene, Luis Scola and Eduardo Najera are just as comfortable mucking it up in the trenches as Barbosa is gliding through the lane.

"I don't want to compare the way we play with the way they play here, but the only thing I have to say about us is we play with heart," Varejao said. "In my case, I give everything. I don't care how many points or how many rebounds I get. I'm just going to play hard and try to help my team get a win."

While it's probably just a coincidence, 12 of the 17 Latino players are on teams in the thick of the playoff race, with most manning significant roles. Their impact is being felt. And just as many European or African players have enjoyed a natural friendship over the years regardless of their nationality, Latino players also feel a kinship.

"There's a bond, for sure," said Barea, in the midst of a breakout season as Jason Kidd's backup. "When we see each other or play each other, we make sure we say hi and talk to each other. It's somebody to talk Spanish with. The language is a big thing. You just want to talk Spanish with somebody."

And not just Spanish. "It's nice to joke in Portuguese with Barbosa," Varejao said of Brazil's official language. "And it's nice to practice my Spanish sometimes. Whenever we play against each other, we always talk. 'How is everything? How is life here? How is the team?' I believe that's really good. It's always good when you're in a different country and you're not the only one.

"You can talk a little bit about what's going on and take some good tips from them, learn from them, too."

In a small way, Noche Latina helps acknowledge those ties. Though not every Latino player is wearing a special jersey this month, they all realize they're part of something bigger.

"I don't think it's only about recognizing us, but Latin fans," Ginobili said. "It's a huge fan base for the NBA and they're very important for the league. We know that, so it's a way to thank them."

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