Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  By PHIL ERVIN  |  Last updated 12/4/13
If you've never heard of Gustavo Ayon, that's OK.Perhaps the name Eduardo Najera rings a louder bell. For themost knowledgeable of NBA aficionados, Horacio Llamas also belongs in thisexercise.That's because he, Ayon and Najera are the only Mexicans toplay in an NBA game. Ayon, a center averaging 15.6 minutes and 4.1 points pergame for the Atlanta Hawks, is the only active one.Spain has Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and the Gasols, to namea few. Puerto Rico has Rubio's Timberwolves teammate J.J. Barea and CarlosArroyo. France, Tony Parker. Germany, Dirk Nowitzky. Argentina, Manu Ginobili.The list stretches from here to the southern Texas border.But Mexico claims only Ayon, Najera and Llamas as past andpresent NBA representatives. American talent evaluators have devoured the globein search of talent the past 30 years but have yet to establish a pipelinebetween the States and their immediate neighbor to the south.While Mexico has yet to infiltrate the NBA on a broadpersonnel spectrum, though, the NBA has done everything in its power to buildand maintain a presence in Mexico.Hence Minnesota's Wednesday matchup with San Antonio atMexico City Arena in a contest featuring a league-record 17 internationalplayers."Having regular-season games here demonstrates ourcommitment to this market," NBA vice president for Latin America PhilippeMoggio told FOXSportsNorth.com.The Timberwolves-Spurs game will be the league's 21st playedin Mexico -- but just the second regular-season clash and first since Houstonand Dallas bumped heads in 1997. Through scouting, merchandise sales, TV dealsand digital marketing, the NBA's recent mission has been to grow the game indozens of foreign countries, but Mexico is a source of particular emphasis.No other nation except the U.S. and Canada has played hostto more NBA games than Mexico. The league dedicates a bevy of resources topromoting its brand there, Moggio said, starting with multi-tiered televisioncontracts and a hard-hitting social media campaign.Why Mexico? Because it's close, ethnically intertwined anddownright ardent about hoops, Moggio said."Mexico makes sense for a lot of reasons," Moggiosaid. "It is close in proximity to the U.S., you have an expandingAmerican-Hispanic population, and the passion for basketball among this fanbase here creates great potential for basketball in this market."Aside from soccer -- which reigns king in Mexico and alwayswill -- basketball is the second most-practiced sport in the country. Almostevery school has a court and a team. Organized tournaments are becoming aSunday-morning pastime for Mexicans of all ages and genders. Some native womenin the state of Chiapas are even known to engage in fierce pickup games,usually wearing traditional skirts while they play.It's not by accident. The NBA has ensured its exposure byworking agreements with seven different television carriers -- most notablyESPN International -- and a strong digital media push. As of June 2013, morethan 3,000 Mexicans had subscribed to NBA League Pass, and the NBA's Facebookpage is liked by more than 500,000 users who list the country as their nativeland, according to the league.In 2009, the NBA launched a website called ne-b-a, aSpanish offshoot of NBA.com (a story about Ricky Rubio is featured prominentlyon the homepage at the moment). There's also an NBA Mexico Twitter feed withmore than 9,000 followers.Every season, television viewership increases, according toMoggio. More LeBron and Durant jerseys and adidas caps are purchased.And David Stern's master plan takes deeper root in Mexico.It's part of the departing commissioner's tenure-defining goalof greatly upsizing the league's global footprint. At the start of the season,a league-record 92 players from 39 countries and territories possessed an NBAroster spot. International television, merchandise and ticket sales revenuesremain negligible compared to the multibillion-dollar league's overall worthbut are reportedly growing at a rapid pace.And Mexico plays a large role, even if it's yet to producetalent like Spain, France and former Soviet Union countries have."We have huge momentum going for us," Moggio said."This is a great time for us to be able to really reward our fan base herewith an NBA regular-season game of this caliber."Wednesday's important Western Conference matchup atone-year-old Mexico City Arena isn't the only basketball ticket in town.Sixteen teams currently comprise the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional.It's a league that's growing in talent, according to Barea,who has several Puerto Rican teammates that play professionally in Mexico."Oh yeah, it's competitive," Barea said."Those guys can play."Mexico basketball has become more prominent on aninternational scale, too. Led by Ayon, the Mexicans bested Barea's Puerto Ricosquad in the FIBA Americas Championship finale in September and clinched a spotin next year's FIBA World Cup in Spain.Najera, a retired 12-year journeyman who now coaches the NBADevelopmental League's Texas Legends, has made it a personal goal to getMexican prospects more looks by NBA scouts. There's even been talk of one dayadding an expansion team in Mexico, though Moggio says that's all it is at thispoint."It's hard to say," Moggio said. "There arejust too many elements you have to take into consideration when you explorethat scenario. Our focus is to have our games we play here executed well andto, in turn, grow this market. Over time, if you continue to see thedevelopment of a market like this, it becomes easier to say it couldpotentially house a team."Wednesday, what's expected to be a near-sellout crowd willhave to settle for Spanish-speakers Rubio, Barea and Ginobili in a matchup ofthe two most international-laden teams in the NBA.But chances are there's a kid or two in the stands whospends his afternoons and weekends emulating Ayon.Mexico may never be a basketball hotbed. But it's already aprime target market for the NBA.And thats why Minnesota was asked to sacrifice a home gameand represent the league as part of its ever-increasing efforts atglobalization. Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter
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