You might say the NBA is helping Mexican kids keep alive part of their ancient heritage. For centuries before the Spanish conquered Mexico, Mayan men played a game called pok-a-tok on a walled court surrounded by fans. It consisted of getting a firm rubber ball through granite rings.
Today the US-based National Basketball Association is working with the Mexican government on a program that in its inaugural year last fall saw 4 million Mexican boys and girls from 9 to 17 dribbling, passing, and shooting their way to a better understanding of basketball. Playing a fast, skills-oriented game called "2ball," two-person teams from more than 40,000 Mexican schools vied for a spot at this April's NBA all-star game in Cleveland.
The 2ball contests, already played in the United States, Canada, and Europe, were such a hit with Mexican youth that the Mexican government is hoping they become an annual event. The NBA wants to expand the concept to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.
The program "benefits both of us," says Ivar Sisniega, president of Mexico's National Sports Commission. "For the NBA, it allows a deeper penetration into the Mexican market, especially among the young people who will be tomorrow's fans. On the other hand it promotes sports and participation in sports. It gets young people involved," he adds.
Soccer is the king of sports in the region, but NBA officials say their efforts have helped make basketball a strong rival. "Clearly we're the No. 2 sport behind soccer," says Angel Gallinal, director of marketing and media programs for NBA Latin America.
Elsewhere in Latin America, support for basketball is high. Argentina, Brazil, and Puerto Rico had basketball teams in the 1996 Olympics. And Venezuelan Carl Herrera plays for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. Some Latin Americans, however, worry about the draw of the NBA. "Especially in the north [along the border] you find a much higher awareness of the NBA than of our own Mexican league, says Sisniega. "On the other hand, the NBA provides good role models; you find more kids wanting to excel like their favorite players."