Friday, July 1, 2011

American athletes find fans playing for Mexican teams

As the players run on to the court, the excitement begins to build in the arena full of fiercely loyal basketball fans. It's a small arena with capacity for only 1,200 people, not counting standing-room-only tickets. As the members of the team are introduced, fans jump up to cheer them on, clapping and chanting, full of team spirit. "I've been yelling my heart out!" says a fan who arrived early for the game.
The team is "The Miners" and on a recent night it was playing at home in Cananea, a town of 33,000 in northwestern Mexico, known for its large deposits of copper and other metals. One of the largest mining companies in Mexico operates in the town about 35 miles south of the Arizona border.
It's an unlikely place for foreigners, but not when it comes to sports. Davin White, 29, is an American immigrant in Cananea and a star forward for the Miners. White attended California State University in Northridge and has also played in Serbia, Italy and Qatar. But Cananea is much closer to his native Phoenix. "The town is very small, but the people are very energetic when it comes to basketball," says White.
He doesn't speak Spanish, but that doesn't seem to be a problem on the court. Teammate Brandon Brown, another immigrant athlete, says he has learned a few words. "I don't think you want to hear what I've learned in Spanish," Brown says with a smile. The 25-year-old from New Orleans -- who attended the California State University, San Bernardino -- says he has fallen in love with Mexican food, especially carne asada, or Mexican-style grilled steak.
Communication among team members is made possible by head coach Andres Contreras, a Mexico City native and former player in Mexican leagues, who is bilingual. Other teammates are bilingual as well. "It's a good challenge because I have to talk in Spanish and in English at the same time sometimes," says Contreras.
The Cananea Miners are one of 12 teams in what is known as CIBACOPA (the Spanish acronym for Basketball Circuit of the Pacific Coast). Dozens of foreigners play on the league, with teams in most of the northwestern Mexican states, including Nayarit, Sinaloa, Baja California and Sonora, home of Cananea.
Under Mexican law, each basketball team is allowed no more than three foreigners on the roster. The law also allows one additional foreigner born to Mexican parents per team. Roberto Laporte owns the Hermosillo Rays, another team in the northern Mexican league. He says communication has never been a problem for his team. "Other team members usually speak both languages. If they don't, they're used to playing with American players and I always look for coaches that speak both Spanish and English," says Laporte, who also speaks fluent English.
His coach is Dan Tacheny. The 30-year-old worked for five years in the NBA as a scout for the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Tacheny says that some Americans play in Mexican leagues to stay on top of their game while looking for other opportunities. "Obviously money is a factor. It's a job to have in professional basketball, first of all. But second of all, being in Mexico is close to home for Americans," says Tacheny, who has a home in Las Vegas where his wife lives.
Five-thousand dollars a month, the average salary for a foreign athlete at this level, may seem terrible in the United States, but that kind of money can go a long way in Mexico, where minimum wage is less than $5 per day. To survive, a team needs to spend about $350,000 per season. It doesn't sound like much, but it becomes a challenge when fans in Cananea pay just over $6 per ticket. Sponsors bridge the gap.
The season in northern Mexico is four months long. Some players use the rest of the year to play in Eastern European and South American leagues.
In a country that sends countless migrant workers to the United States every year, some find it ironic that they're being entertained by migrant American athletes. "Migrant workers from here go look for a better future in the U.S. In this case, these guys are coming here to keep on doing what they love for a living," says Orlando CaƱedo, a Miners fan.
As the game draws to a close, Davin White scores another three-pointer, clinching the victory for the Miners in an action-packed reminder that a good ball game knows no borders.

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