Cleared for landing Mexico ready for NBA: Interest in basketball is strong and growing in Mexico City, the world's largest city. So, when will the league expand there?

November 01, 1995|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

MEXICO CITY -- His back to the basket, 15-year-old Sajid Saucedo stands 20 feet away, taking the time to measure his dunk. He'll bounce the ball between his legs before running and retrieving it in midair. It's tricky, but with a crowd gathered simplicity won't suffice.

While in the air his Patrick Ewing model authentic game jersey, worn over a black Michael Jordan T-shirt, will flap through the air, but his purple Toronto Raptors knit cap will somehow remain snug around his head.

So what that the rim's only 9 feet high. And so what that he misses his dunk attempt. Saucedo is a die-hard basketball fanatic. It just so happens that he lives in Mexico City.

"It's the best," Saucedo says through a translator. "I like the Chicago Bulls, I like Michael Jordan. In my school, basketball is the most popular sport and we play every day."

That makes it sound business for American professional sports leagues to explore opportunities here that could mean expansion south of the border.

Saucedo is not alone in his love for the game, and the numbers are growing. There's no question that soccer is the sport of choice in Mexico City. However, there are more than 22 million residents in the world's most populated city, which means there are a lot of interests to cater to.

The NFL has already tested the waters here, last year drawing a crowd of 112,000, the largest crowd in league history, for a game featuring the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Oilers.

The Continental Basketball Association had a team here last year, the Mexico Aztecas, that set a CBA single-game record with a crowd of 12,587. It was not for lack of interest that the team moved to San Diego, but because of the problems in an economy where the average person might make $8 a day.

The just-concluded NBA Challenge '95 was held here for the fourth straight year.

"In a lot of places around the world, soccer is the parent sport, but basketball is a hit in the age of 20 and under," said Rick Welts, president of NBA Properties. "Basketball is really parallel to soccer in a lot of markets, in terms of what kids call their sport."

4 Enough of a parallel for the NBA to expand here?

"What has happened here recently [with the devaluing of the peso] has been a bit sobering," Welts said. "But there's 22 million people here, bigger than any city in the United States.

"Outside of [the U.S. and Canada], Mexico City may be the only possible alternative for an NBA franchise," Welts said. "But it's a ways down the road."

NFL expansion here is a ways down the road, too, even though the league's games dominate the airwaves here on Sundays.

"We were unable to do a game there this past summer because of the state of the economy, but we intend to follow up when conditions are right," said Greg Aiello, director of communications with the league.

An affordable game

Because basketball is a relatively new fad here, the number of basketball courts throughout the city is surprising. Most parks with ample space will include a soccer field and several basketball hoops.

In all of Mexico, over the last three years, more than 10,000 basketball courts have been constructed by the Mexican Basketball Federation. Another 10,000 will be constructed by 1998.

The rationale is simple: all it takes to play the game is a ball and a court, important in a place with both a growing population and a depressed economy.

"I play all over the city now because they're building all these courts," said Fernando Dominguez, 14, wearing a Charlotte Hornets cap and a pair of Nikes. "And whenever basketball is on TV, we watch it all the time."

In the past, the NBA was televised here just once a week. But on Friday, the NBA signed a two-year deal with TV Azteca that included live coverage of the two games over the weekend, and will also bring a game of the week from Jan. 22 to the end of the season, a new 30-minute show similar to "NBA Inside Stuff" and live coverage of the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Finals.

"When we started televising a game of the week, it started out really weak with maybe two or three rating points, because the game was not that popular," said Ricardo Salina, president of TV Azteca, which also broadcasts American Football Conference games. "But it really started to pick up, and the ratings during the Finals were about 12 points. To compare, we will probably average 12 points for a regular soccer match, 30 to 40 points for a soccer final. So with the sport just getting started here, we're pleased with how we've done."

The kids are just as pleased, their appetite for the sport so voracious. Clearly, wearing the gear of professional sports teams, particularly basketball, is a fashion statement. Even more impressive is their knowledge and appreciation of the players and the sport.

"I'm a big Chris Webber fan," said Julio Cesar Luna, 16, whwore a Phoenix Suns hat and a Chicago Bulls jersey. "He's very fast, he's got a lot of power in his dunks and I can relate to it when he gets mad and plays hard."

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