Sports

A Mexico City Basketball Team with N.B.A. Dreams Makes a Home in Texas

LEANDER, Texas — The Mexico City Capitanes were fresh off a three-hour bus ride when they found themselves before a curious audience just outside of Austin, Texas. A cluster of children in karate uniforms craned their necks over a barrier at an athletics facility and wondered aloud whether they were looking at “famous basketball players.”

After traveling a winding path to their first season in the N.B.A.’s developmental G League, the Capitanes were getting ready for an afternoon practice and had no qualms about sharing a gymnasium with a bustling martial arts tournament.

The Capitanes are an important part of the N.B.A.’s push into Mexico, but the double-booking was not a problem for them. Not after losing last season to the coronavirus pandemic. Not to a team of (not particularly famous) strivers who had come from across Latin America and the United States to play basketball. And not while they barnstorm the country through an abridged two-month schedule made up entirely of road games.

“It can be tiring,” said Ramón Díaz, the team’s coach. “It’s like you don’t have a home.”

Because of the pandemic, the Capitanes, for now, are based out of an apartment complex in Fort Worth, Texas, instead of Mexico City, and don’t have a home arena. They are already eyeing a future free from a chronic slate of bus rides. Next season, barring another global catastrophe, they will play a full G League schedule with home games in Mexico City in a novel experiment for the N.B.A., which continues to seek ways to expand its international footprint.

Ramón Díaz, the head coach of the Capitanes, has led the team since it was started with a professional league in Mexico.Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

“It’s going to be a huge deal,” said Fabian Jaimes, a forward and one of two Mexican players on the 12-man roster. “I actually can’t believe it.”

On this day, the Capitanes were getting ready for a game against the Austin Spurs. As Díaz gathered his players around him for the start of practice, Rodrigo Serratos, the team president, said the Capitanes had outsize plans for Mexico, including the creation of youth academies to help develop talent. Serratos has been accompanying the team on the road this season to study how other franchises produce their games and engage with fans. The Capitanes already have a mascot: Juanjolote, a wide-eyed aquatic salamander based on the axolotl, which is native to Central Mexico and is a critically endangered species.

Serratos is not shy about sharing his dreams. He wants the Capitanes to build an enormous fan base and become a recognized sports brand across Latin America. He wants them to win games and vie for championships. And there is, of course, his biggest dream of all, one shared by the team’s owners: for the Capitanes to become an N.B.A. franchise.

“It will, of course, be a big challenge,” he said. “But I like big challenges.”

‘Waiting for This Opportunity’

The Capitanes — or at least the seed of the idea that became the Capitanes — was born in Los Angeles in April 2016 during Kobe Bryant’s final game with the Lakers before he retired from the N.B.A. Moisés Cosío and Rodrigo Trujillo, film producers and longtime friends, had landed tickets and watched Bryant clutter the box score with 60 points. Their conversation turned to the basketball scene back home in Mexico City, where several teams in the country’s top league, known as Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional, or L.N.B.P., had been flops in recent years. But Cosío and Trujillo sensed there was untapped potential for the sport to become more popular there.

The Capitanes, practicing the day before a game in Austin, Texas.Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

A few months later, they were part of an ownership group that secured the rights to a new franchise in the L.N.B.P. They called it Capitanes Ciudad de México and made a splash, with the team advancing to the finals in each of its first two seasons while averaging about 3,000 fans at home games. Behind the scenes, the team was engaging in conversations with the N.B.A., which had long viewed Mexico as a market that could one day be ripe for international expansion.

Raul Zarraga, the managing director for N.B.A. Mexico, said the league was encouraged by the Capitanes’ early success and appreciated that the team’s owners were ambitious.

“It was a natural bond,” Zarraga said, adding, “We prefer to have a team that is dreaming big, that is pushing us to be better and to go as big as we can.”

After months of negotiations, the N.B.A. announced in December 2019 that the Capitanes would join the G League for five seasons, starting with the 2020-21 season.

The excitement that greeted N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver’s announcement was quickly offset by the coronavirus pandemic, which scuttled the Capitanes’ scheduled launch last season. Díaz wound up working from home in Spain, where he filled his days with hours of G League film. As the months passed, he worried that the N.B.A. would back out of its pledge to include the Capitanes in the G League because of pandemic-related restrictions.

“You are waiting for this opportunity, and now you’re not so sure,” he said. “Because maybe the N.B.A. changes its opinion and says, ‘Now is not the moment for you.’ ”

‘I’ve Been at the Bottom’

After opening this season with two wins in their first four games, the Capitanes had more than justified their inclusion in the G League as they boarded an early-morning charter bus in Fort Worth. The players exchanged fist bumps before settling in for the 190-mile trip to Austin, their legs draped across the seats in various positions of repose.

Fabian Jaimes, one of the few Mexican players on the team, on the bus.Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York
Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

“I’m feeling old,” Alfonzo McKinnie, the team’s best player, said as the bus trundled past sprawling farms and truck stops on Interstate 35. “Somebody was asking me the other day, ‘Who’s the oldest guy on the team?’ I had to think about it for a second, and I was like, ‘Damn, I think it’s me!’ ”

A 29-year-old forward from Chicago, McKinnie likes to remind himself of his global basketball odyssey by watching clips of himself on YouTube. Clips from his college days at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Clips from his first foray into professional basketball in Luxembourg, where he made about $1,500 a month. Clips from the 3-on-3 world championships in China. And clips, of course, from the 2019 N.B.A. finals, when he was a rotation player with the Golden State Warriors.

After spending last season collecting dust on the bench for the Lakers, McKinnie said, his belongings were in storage in Los Angeles. He had no reservations about returning to the G League.

“I’ve been at the bottom,” said McKinnie, who, for the record, is not the oldest but the second-oldest player on the Capitanes. “So, for me, every opportunity is a good opportunity. You can’t take any of them for granted.”

Given his travels, it is probably no surprise that McKinnie has history with Mexico. For three months in 2016, before he broke into the N.B.A., he played for Rayos de Hermosillo of the L.N.B.P.

“People would come with their shirts off, beating their chests,” he said. “The arenas were crazy.”

With the Capitanes, McKinnie has reconnected with a figure from his past: Jaimes, who played for an opposing team in the L.N.B.P. After that chance encounter, Jaimes spent subsequent seasons charting McKinnie’s progress, which helped breathe life into Jaimes’s own dream of reaching the N.B.A., he said. Now, he feels closer than ever.

Players warm up before a game in Austin on Nov. 14. All of their games are on the road this season.Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

“If I work hard,” he said, “why not?”

Outside of Austin, the players left their bags at a hotel before they made their way to practice and found the facility populated by several hundred pint-size martial artists. At the check-in table, one of the event’s organizers playfully asked the 6-foot-7 McKinnie if he was there to compete.

“You’ve got those long legs!” she said.

McKinnie, just months removed from sharing a locker room with LeBron James, laughed and pretended to weigh the question, then joined his new teammates as they warmed up.

“Vamos!” Díaz shouted.

‘We Would Need to Make Sacrifices’

In February, when the team’s season was still in doubt because of the still-raging pandemic, Serratos left his job as a brand operations manager for La Liga, the Spanish soccer league, to join the Capitanes as their president. Serratos, who is from Mexico, said he was drawn to the opportunity to build something special in his home country. Like Díaz, Serratos spent months working remotely from Spain, aligning his schedule with that of his colleagues in Mexico City by cranking through video conference calls from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.

“It was actually very nice,” he said. “I had the mornings free. Don’t ask my wife about it, though.”

Rodrigo Serratos said it will be a “big challenge” to turn the Capitanes into a franchise competing in the N.B.A., instead of the developmental league, but he’s up for it.Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

In May, the Capitanes poached Nick Lagios from the Lakers organization to make him their general manager, and by September, a compromise of sorts had been reached: The Capitanes would hit the road for 14 games as part of the G League’s Showcase Cup, then play a pair of exhibitions in January against the G League Ignite, the team for top N.B.A. prospects.

Lagios and Díaz sought a mix of players as they assembled their roster: players with Latin American roots, players who relished defending, players with experience who could mentor younger teammates. The team wooed players with the possibility of being noticed by N.B.A. scouts along with the somewhat less alluring offer of a prorated G League salary, which is typically $37,000 for a full 50-game season. Plus, the players could be a part of something new.

“It’s a team that cares about winning,” said Justin Reyes, a former Division II all-American at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y. “So we all knew we would need to make sacrifices to make it work in such a short amount of time.”

Serratos recalled the start of training camp last month and a moment of collective joy: The Capitanes, after so many delays and so much uncertainty, had finally come together. But his serenity was jarred loose, he said, when Tyler Davis, a 6-foot-10 power forward, went up for a dunk in the first minutes of the team’s first practice and shattered the backboard. Díaz rushed over to check on him.

“Tyler, you are a monster!” Díaz told him.

While Serratos began calculating how much it would cost to replace the backboard, there was another, more immediate concern: His collection of nomads was suddenly down a hoop. No more dunking.

‘Win Every Game’

On the morning of their game against the Austin Spurs, the Capitanes were back on the bus — this time, bound for a light shootaround at the arena and another opportunity to form chemistry. The team had been bolstered by a couple of late additions, including Moises Andriassi, a 21-year-old point guard and one of Mexico’s top young players.

Díaz saw his team build a big lead against the Austin Spurs before letting it slip away.Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

“I’m a visa expert at this point,” said Lagios, the general manager, alluding to the challenges of piecing together an international roster in a pandemic.

Serratos, who watched the players run through their offense from a courtside folding chair, was excited about finally having a full roster, no small luxury for a team gritting through life on the road. He noted how his wife, Cecilia Rousset, was the only member of the Capitanes’ traveling party who had been able to enjoy some of Austin’s splendors.

“She’s at a yoga class,” he said.

The game itself was a wild ride. Scattered among the home crowd were fans who wore Capitanes gear and waved Mexican flags. They watched their team build a big lead before letting it slip away in a narrow loss to the Spurs.

Throughout the season, Díaz has tried to maintain perspective.

“I want to win every game, for sure,” he said. “But the first objective is we need to be competitive. And we are competitive.”

The loss did little to dull the enthusiasm of fans like Victor Hugo Pérez Torres, a software manager, who was in attendance with his sister, Lucero Pérez Torres, and her friend, Liliana Ramirez Ferrusquia, who both work in banking. All three are from Mexico City and wanted to support their favorite team in person.

“Next year, we’ll be at every game,” Pérez Torres said.

Outside the arena, the Capitanes bus was idling. The road beckoned once more.

Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

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