MEXICO CITY – Basketball has come a long way in this soccer-crazy country.
When the Mavericks and Houston Rockets played the first NBA regular season game in Mexico City, they had the game at the Palacio de los Deportes, which had the unique feature of a chain-link fence around the court level.
That was Dec. 6, 1997, and much has changed.
There’s a shiny new arena, the Arena Ciudad de Mexico and the NBA production for two games this week is nothing short of expansive. The Knicks play the Suns on Saturday.
It will be a happening. And while it was big in 1997, it was not as polished or as widely publicized as Thursday’s game against the Detroit Pistons will be.
When Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis had media interviews Wednesday afternoon, there were well over 50 local reporters surrounding each player as they answered questions in Spanish.
It was quite different back in the day.
“Back then, we were kind of whacking through the forest a little bit,” Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, who was at that ’97 game. “The venues look a little different now. They’re state of the art, NBA quality. There are multiple arenas. The standards across the board have just been taken to a whole different stratosphere.”
The NBA in Mexico has had some interesting moments. When Houston came for a preseason game in the early ‘90s, Hakeem Olajuwon took a seat on the bench and the chair broke, tumbling him to the floor.
One year, the Rockets and Timberwolves had to cancel a game because of an electrical issue.
But by and large, Mexico City is one of the best international markets for the NBA. Former Maverick Eduardo Najera, who is on this trip, helped make the NBA viable in Mexico.
When the Mavericks came for an exhibition game in 2003, Najera was a rock star.
“It was an electric atmosphere,” Nelson said. “I remember everybody was gathering for warmups, then Eddie walked through and it was like Elvis Presley arrived. It was mayhem. There’s a huge love of basketball down here.”
And Nelson has a great idea how to get a franchise here.
“G-League,” he said matter of factly. “Look, Mexico City would be a great market. I’m ready.”
The Texas Legends, which Nelson is a co-owner of, could be a prime candidate. And there’s always the chance that the G-League could expand.
Meanwhile, when Rick Carlisle had his interview session Wednesday, he reiterated that guard Delon Wright (strained adductor muscle) remains questionable for Thursday’s game.
“Delon is improving,” he said. “I’d still say he’s on the very questionable side for the game. But it’s not impossible. He’s made significant improvement the last two days. We’ll have a better idea tomorrow morning.”