The calendar provides ample reason for basketball's Phoenix Suns to rename themselves "Los Suns" in their playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs tonight: It is Cinco de Mayo. But in truth, the calendar is merely providing the cover for the Suns' protest against the tough new Arizona immigration law.
"It's important that everyone in our state and nation understands that this is an issue that needs to be explored," Mr. Kerr said. "So, we're trying to expose it."
The prospect of the Suns and their players making a bald political statement on the hardwood is rare enough. Blurring the line between sports and politics risks offending diverse fan bases, so it generally doesn't happen.
But the decision also highlights a broader nation that holds splintered and often contradictory views toward its Hispanic community in general and illegal immigration in particular. For example, a majority of Americans support the Arizona law, according to several polls. But a majority of independents – who occupy America's political center – support some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country, according to a recent poll by Ayres, McHenry & Associates, Inc.
An American ambivalence to Hispanics?
Conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review, puts it this way: "People are not interested in a message on immigration that seems personally hostile to immigrants, even to illegal immigrants," according to the Daily Caller online newspaper.
Others see the reaction to the Arizona law, which allows police to ask those suspected to be in the state illegally for documentation, as part of a deeper ambivalence. This ambivalence "reflects a politically divided nation, but [it] is also within individuals themselves, where there's a real love-hate relationship [with Hispanics] … that comes out in the way people are responding to Arizona," says Juan Flores, author of "The Diaspora Strikes Back."
"And sports itself is an example of that juncture between America and Latin America and how it's challenging US culture," he says.
Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks have already been picketed during a recent game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, and there is some talk of organizing a boycott of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Phoenix next year.
For their part, the Suns' decision to become "Los Suns" Wednesday night is not unprecedented. In the past, various teams, including the Suns and Spurs, have used the Spanish version of their names on team jerseys as a way to market the sport to Latino fans.
But this time is clearly different. The spontaneity of the decision as a protest rather than a celebration of Cinco de Mayo is evident in the fact that the Spurs wanted to join in with "Los Spurs" jerseys of their own but ran out of time to make them.
The rise of Cinco de Mayo
The fact the the Suns even have "Los Suns" jerseys is a testament to the steady rise of Hispanic influence on the nation's sports, food, television, and – with the popularity of Cinco de Mayo – even its unofficial holidays.
Virtually unknown a few decades ago, Cinco de Mayo celebrates a ragtag Mexican Army's unlikely victory against the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. More recently, it has played a major role in the acceptance of Hispanic culture and people in the US.
These days, Cinco de Mayo ranks alongside St. Patrick's Day and Oktoberfest among voluntary cultural holidays. Celebrated even at the White House (George Bush invited a mariachi band one year), Cinco de Mayo is, in fact, a bigger holiday in the US than in Mexico.
At last year's White House celebration (which Obama mistakenly dubbed "Cinco de Quatro," or "Fifth of Four"), the president harked back to President John F. Kennedy's visit to to Mexico. "When one of my predecessors once visited Mexico City, he said that 'while geography has made us neighbors, tradition has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies... two great and independent nations, united by hope instead of fear,'" Obama said.
It's in that spirit that the Suns, on a plane trip back from Game 1, decided to don their "Los Suns" jerseys. Even the player's association has endorsed the idea.
Says Mr. Flores, also a professor at New York University: the jerseys are a "significant gesture."