NBA VOICES: The Dallas Mavericks are proud to join other NBA teams around the league to celebrate Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month to honor the magnificent contributions of Afro-Latinx, Indigenous, Hispanic and Latinx Americans. The national celebration runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to coincide with the anniversary of independence days in five Latin American countries. Today we spotlight the history-making impact that Eduardo Nájera, a true Maverick, had on the game of basketball as he became the first Mexican-born player drafted in the NBA. To learn more about the NBA Voices initiative, click here. #NBATogether
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico — a city that’s the second-largest producer of silver in Mexico – Nájera began putting the wheels in motion to strike gold in the United States after he and his family moved to San Antonio when he was 17 years old. And Nájera was wise enough to know that using his skills as a basketball player wasn’t the only way to open that pot of gold.
After graduating from San Antonio’s Cornerstone Christian Academy in 1996, Nájera starred on the basketball court for the Oklahoma Sooners. It was at OU where Najera made the Big 12 all-freshman team in 1997, and, in 2000, was first-team all-Big 12, made the conference’s all-defensive team, and also received third-team All-American honors.
But Nájera was so focused on his long-term goals that he also earned a degree in sociology from OU in 2000. Additionally, he was the 38th overall pick by the Houston Rockets in the 2000 NBA Draft, and was subsequently traded to the Dallas Mavericks.
Nájera was the second Mexican-born person to play in the NBA behind Horacio Llamas, and was the first Mexican-born player ever drafted in the NBA. While viewing his historic accomplishments through his lenses, Najera recalls the day he was drafted as if it happened yesterday.
“It was a big celebration not only for me and my family, but for a lot of fans from Mexico, from my city, Chihuahua, the state and our country,” he said. “So even though a lot of people might have thought there was pressure on me, it was an opportunity for me to represent my country, and I knew that I had to do it the right way.
“It was an incredible day. It lasted a short time, because then the real work began shortly after the draft. But it was a special, special, special day.”
Known for his true grit and determination, Nájera epitomizes the hard work that his fellow countrymen are known for. That’s why he is glad folks are shining a bright light on Hispanic Heritage Month all across this country.
“This is a way to celebrate Hispanics around the country, celebrate their importance, being cheered and being a part of the culture,” Nájera said. “People appreciate the Hispanic race.
“We’re proud to be in the U.S. not only representing our country, but now representing this country. We do it with dignity, we do it with integrity and we do it through hard work.”
A 6-8, 240-pound forward, Najera played 12 seasons in the NBA for the Mavs, Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Bobcats before retiring in 2012. Najera’s career statistics – 4.9 points, 3.7 rebounds in 18.1 minutes – weren’t anything that jumped off the analytical charts.
But he was a giant of a man who could affect a game with his frenetic defense, with his endearing hustle and with his giant heart.
“Eddie’s work ethic and humility is second to none,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ general manager and president of basketball operations. “When I was in Chihuahua his coaches told me stories of what he would have to do just to get to practice every day as a youth that would make you cry.
“(OU coach) Kelvin Sampson said he was the hardest worker he ever coached when we drafted him. He surpassed that when he got to Dallas. He took that same fight to the Texas Legends as head coach and GM for three years, and now with the Mavs.”
Among his 619 NBA games, Najera played 243 of them for the Nuggets and 241 of them for the Mavs. And it was clear that he bled Mavs’ blue.
After his playing days were over, Najera became the head coach of the Texas Legends – the Mavs’ G League franchise – for three years. He also worked as a pregame and postgame analyst on Fox Sports Southwest for the broadcast of Mavs’ game.
And it was as an analyst, Nájera said, where he met his match.
“That was a good experience,” Nájera said. “But it was probably the toughest thing I ever did — being in the spotlight constantly.
“I’m the guy that is the enforcer for the superstars, and this time the spotlight was on me. I’m not used to being the go-to guy.”
Now 44 years old, Nájera works as a scout for the Mavs. Because he has four kids ages four, 13, 15 and 18, he says this job works best for his family lifestyle.
“Coaching was incredible, and I had a great time,” Nájera said. “However, I know the sacrifices I had to make with my family, and I had to make a decision on whether I wanted to continue coaching and sacrifice the time with my kids. I have a daughter now going to OU, so time flies.
“When I spoke to (Mavs and Legends owner) Mark (Cuban), he was very helpful. I told him my concerns and that I didn’t want to sacrifice my family like I did when I was a basketball player. So I asked him if there was something else where it wouldn’t be as time consuming, and they were kind enough to give me a different opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity Nájera is very grateful for.
“I had some opportunities to continue coaching in the NBA, but I would have had to move (out of Dallas),” he said. “But I was like, ‘No, I grew up in the city of Dallas, I enjoyed growing up with this community and getting to know this community.
“I never wanted to go anywhere. I was going to put my dream as a coach on hold to focus on family a little more than I used to. As a player it was hard.”
And it wasn’t just Nájera’s work on the court that has been exceptional. He’s also been in the middle of the action off the court in a very positive way.
In 2001, Nájera served as the United Nations Drug Control Programme Goodwill Ambassador for Sports Against Drugs. In 2004, he coached the first-ever Basketball Without Borders Americas tournament during the NBA Summer of Goodwill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In 2006, Nájera received the Chopper Travaglini Award because he demonstrated outstanding charity work in Denver during his playing days for the Nuggets. Travaglini was the legendary and popular trainer for the Nuggets.
In addition, Nájera created the Eduardo Najera Foundation for Latino Achievement, which provides college scholarships for outstanding Latino students facing barriers to their education. In essence, it’s as if everything Nájera touched turns to gold.
“He’s the epitome of success at every level — player, coach, management and ownership,” Nelson said. “Eddie — or Lalo, when we get south of border — is still the Elvis of Mexico as we experience every time Los Mavs hit Mexico City.”
Nájera played for the Mavs from 2000-04, and again in 2010. With his rambunctious playing style and penchant for diving on the floor for loose balls, he was an immediate hit with the fans.
But more than giving the fans something to talk about around the water cooler at work, Nájera wanted to leave a legacy.
“It all starts with education,” Nájera said. “I was proud to not only come to the U.S. at 17 for my last year in high school, but that sort of laid a foundation for me. I got to know the culture of the U.S., and work on the language and on easing barriers that I had as a student.
“Also, my college career as a player was incredible, so was my college career as a student. My degree, even though it was only sociology, I started with business administration, and with a BA degree I went back to my country and was kind of a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico.”
That “bridge,” along with the $36.8 million he made during his NBA career, has made Nájera one of the most popular athletes to come out of Mexico. In the meantime, he relishes the chance he’s had to live The American Dream.
“It was so important to me to finish up school,” Nájera said. “It kept me grounded and it kept me motivated to not only continue to be a basketball player, but also a good citizen and human being outside of the basketball courts, which led me to make the right decisions.
“I feel that the combination of my talents with my hard work with my education was the key to me having a long career.”
And it’s been a prosperous career, Nelson acknowledged, that should be a blueprint for other to follow.
“Eddie is a true Maverick who made history as the first Mexican-born player drafted in the NBA,” Nelson said. “Why this guy is not on a Modelo commercial is beyond me.”
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