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Wolves, Rockets and the NBA take Mexico City by storm

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(Read caption) Rockets vs Timberwolves in Mexico

Emilio Ocampo lets out a quiet “whoop” as he poses for a photo at his first ever NBA basketball game. The photographer, his nine-year-old son Gabriel, says he learned most of the rules to the game in the car on the way to the arena.

“You can’t walk unless you bounce the ball,” Gabriel explains. “And you can’t kick it. Right, dad?”

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The Ocampos weren’t the only first timers in a crowd of nearly 19,000 people who came out to watch the Houston Rockets face the Minnesota Timberwolves last night, the first regular season NBA game in Mexico since 1997.

The game is part of the NBA’s attempt to cement and, if it can, extend its global reach. Already the NBA is America's most successful sporting export, with games broadcast in over 40 languages and to more than 200 countries. In China alone last year, the league earns $165 million a year. Determined to tap into that enthusiasm, the NBA is ramping up games overseas. The Mexico City contest followed 4 pre-season games abroad; another regular season game is scheduled for London.

In Mexico City Arena, enthusiasm for the sport ranged from weathered fans, decked out in team jerseys and cheering for favorite players, to those like the Ocampos, simply giving it a try. It felt vaguely like “US sports” night: Attendees wore T-shirts for US baseball, hockey, football, and basketball teams. And though the crowd seemed to favor the Rockets (who won 113 to 101), the wildest cheers came when the cameras found Mexican soccer player Marco Fabián in the crowd and projected his smiling face on the big screen.

The NBA is not the only US sport association courting fans south of the border. And the outreach makes sense given the geographic and cultural links between the two nations: hundreds of millions of US and Mexican citizens legally cross the shared border each year. The National Football League has held events in Mexico City and a 2005 game drew an estimated 100,000 attendees. And according to the statistical analysis blog, FiveThirtyEight Sports, Mexico has the seventh largest NFL fan base in the world, landing just behind Houston and ahead of Miami, with an estimated 1.5 million football fans.  

There have only been two Mexican-born players in the history of the NBA, compared to 10 from Brazil and eight from Argentina, according to the organization’s website. But that doesn’t mean kids here aren’t vying to bring up the tally.

Eleven-year-old Pico Andrade said last night's game inspired him to practice more so that he can eventually play basketball in the US. “I want to play in Chicago or Miami,” he says of his favorite sport. His mother stands behind him, smiling and shaking her head. “We’ll see about that,” she counters.

Mexico actually got a lot of attention for its basketball skills last year when a team of indigenous boys from Oaxaca – playing barefoot no less – beat the competition at an international youth tournament in Argentina. At the time, El Tri, the national soccer team – a sport far more associated with Mexico – was doing so poorly that some joked perhaps the nation should refocus its attention on basketball instead.

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As the stadium cheered for impressive steals and swooshing three-pointers last night, a young man named Jesus stood chatting with his friend by a concession table selling gummy bears and spiced potato chips. It wasn’t quite the fourth quarter, but he was ready to go home. “I found it a little boring,” says the accountant in his late 20s. “I’d rather watch soccer or American football." 

Gabriel Ocampo couldn’t disagree more. He lists his highlight reel for the night: “The dunking, the shots from far away, the music,” he says.

“And I really liked the popcorn.”