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Monday, October 14, 2013
Mexican hoops soars as soccer sags

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

The national basketball team, in a country where futbol borders on religion, has never been more successful.

The national soccer team, in a land where hoops goes largely unnoticed, is still flirting with the seemingly unfathomable prospect of missing out on the next World Cup.

So, yes, 2013 is destined to be remembered as the wildest, most upside-down year in the history of Mexican sport.

That's the unavoidable conclusion, really, no matter what happens on the final day of CONCACAF qualifying for soccer's quadrennial championship.

You have Mexico's certifiable sporting institution, universally known south of the border as El Tri, needing a win Tuesday night in Costa Rica to ensure that it gets a last-chance opportunity to earn a trip to the 2014 World Cup through the back door of a two-legged playoff with New Zealand.

Then you have the reborn Mexico's basketball program, dormant for decades, still basking in the wholly unforeseen glow of a championship march at the FIBA Americas tournament that will send Gustavo Ayon and Co. to basketball's answer to the World Cup next summer in Spain for the first time since 1974.

"It's all pretty hard to believe," said Eduardo Najera, coach of the D-League's Texas Legends and, to this day, Mexico's lone basketball export to be drafted by an NBA team.

Gustavo Ayon
Gustavo Ayon, who plays for the Hawks, led Mexico on a fairy-tale run at the FIBA Americas.

Those who follow and chronicle Mexico's sporting fortunes have been dazed in the manner Najera describes since early September. That's when Mexico's unheralded basketball squad went on a fairy-tale run at the FIBA Americas in Venezuela just as Mexico's soccer program was unraveling to the point that an unforgivable home loss to Honduras at the famed Azteca Stadium led to the sacking of coach Chepo De La Torre.

Najera was gathered with friends and family around the TV on Friday night when Mexico substitute Raul Jimenez, keeping alive his nation's hopes of reaching Brazil, conjured up a magical bicycle kick in the dying minutes against Panama that was plenty hard to believe in its own right. Yet it's realistically too late to rewrite the larger storyline. Even the perfect combination of results Tuesday night -- which in Mexico's case would mean victory in Costa Rica combined with Honduras losing away to a last-place Jamaica side with nothing to play for -- can't undo what Mexico's soccer stars have been forced to endure for much of the past month, when they were repeatedly hit with an unprecedented question from their many critics back home:

Why can't you guys be more like the basketball team?

Mexico's sports media didn't fully embrace its newfound hardwood heroes, refusing to dispatch reporters to Venezuela to cover FIBA's Cinderellas even as the tournament progressed into the final stages. But many outlets did happily use the country's first basketball success in more than 30 years, as well as the team-first approach that sparked it, as pointed examples to throw in the faces of their soccer counterparts and jab at the questionable levels of teamwork and unity displayed throughout De La Torre's reign.

"That's something that the media took advantage of," Ayon, in his first season with the Atlanta Hawks, said last week through a translator. "They said good things about us, but they said a lot of negative things about them. The comparison is unfair, just because the basketball team is being successful right now. The soccer team won the Olympic gold medal in London and they were [seen as] the best. Now they are struggling to qualify for the World Cup and suddenly they are the worst thing on Earth. No ... it can't be like that.

"As players, we didn't agree with that notion. [So] we decided that everything we spoke in the media had to be supportive of El Tri, because, in the end, we all represent Mexico."

It's a humble stance that only figures to enhance Ayon's growing stature after a breakout summer in terms of his profile on home soil. A native of tiny Zapoteca in western Mexico, Ayon says he grew up seeing "nothing" of the NBA and only adopted Argentina's Luis Scola as a role model after he took up the sport in his late teens.

Just over a decade later, Ayon has emerged as the game-changing addition to a Team Mexico squad that finished a promising second at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara on the strength of a semifinal win over a Team USA squad comprising entirely D-Leaguers. The 6-foot-10 banger who broke into the NBA with New Orleans during the 2011-12 season, as the lone star on a Mexican roster lauded for its unselfishness and chemistry, wound up averaging 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds to win tournament FIBA Americas MVP honors.

"He was a monster," said guard Paul Stoll, one of five American-born players among the dozen Mexico took to Venezuela.

Sergio Valdeolmillos
With his system and vision, Sergio Valdeolmillos deserves a lot of credit for Mexico's success.

Yet it wasn't Ayon alone who has made Mexico so increasingly dangerously. Coach Sergio Valdeolmillos, imported from Spain, has been trying to assemble a defense-first group with staying power since his arrival in 2011, establishing a level of cohesion that has Najera, now 37, openly envious.

"It's not possible at my age, but I wish I would have been a part of something like that," Najera said. "Everybody who has played [in FIBA competition] knows those tournaments are really hard. So many games, day after day, but [Valdeolmillos] has built a really well-balanced team with a bunch of shooters and a true leader in Ayon."

Said longtime ESPN Deportes commentator Alvaro Martin, who worked many of last month's FIBA Americas games in Caracas: "I've been saying for a long time that Mexico is a sleeping giant in our hemisphere, but they finally got their act together. [The sport] has been incredibly underrepresented in Mexico as far as media and the advertiser world, but there have also been some complicating factors ... incredible fights among various groups trying to run the team. So it's been this terrible cocktail of a lack of exposure and federative fights. But Valdeolmillos has been a tremendous difference-maker.

"[Sports minister Jesus] Mena Campos gave him free rein to run the team as he wished. And Valdeolmillos said: 'I have a system. I have a vision. Line up with us or go.' He started scouting players like Jorge Gutierrez (Cal) and Hector Hernandez (Fresno State) -- Mexicans who came to the States to play college ball -- and Mexican-Americans like Jovan Harris, Lorenzo Mata and Paul Stoll. That was a big step. In [Mexican] basketball, it was a real big departure."

Added Pablo Viruega, who covers basketball and soccer for ESPN Deportes: "The key to the success was that this was the first time that all the players believed in each other and the staff, something that didn't happen in the past."

Acceptance of the naturalized Mexicans was by no means immediate. Stoll says he hasn't forgotten his early days in Mexico colors a few years back, when he and other American-born players were routinely dismissed as pochos amid cries for the team to employ "real Mexicans."

There's also no denying, in terms of the FIBA Americas field, that Argentina and especially Brazil -- well-established as the strongest basketball nations in the region after the United States -- sent weakened teams to Venezuela. (Brazil, in fact, fielded a team with no NBA representation and went winless in its brief four-game stay in Caracas, apparently convinced that it'll receive a wild card to the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain because of its standing in the world game irrespective of what happened in this event.)

You likewise can't forget that Mexico actually failed to qualify for the original FIBA Americas field of 10 and only got a reprieve as a wild card when Panama's chaos-ridden basketball federation was indefinitely disqualified from all international competition.

Yet Mexico found itself against a full-strength Puerto Rico in the FIBA Americas final after following up a loss to Canada with four straight wins. Confronted by the more experienced likes of J.J. Barea, Carlos Arroyo, Renaldo Balkman and the ageless Daniel Santiago, Mexico managed to prevail in a 91-89 thriller even after Valdeolmillos was ejected.

"That's how good a job he did," ESPN's Martin said. "They didn't need him. What people thought [an ever-improving] Canada would do in Caracas, Mexico did."

Gutierrez played well enough on the FIBA Americas stage to earn an invite to the Brooklyn Nets' training camp, where he has impressed with toughness and defense.

The immediate challenge for Ayon, meanwhile, is getting healthy after he suffered a shoulder injury in Atlanta's exhibition opener that will sideline him for up to eight weeks. Falling behind with his new team was the last thing he wanted as Ayon, at 28, tries to use his FIBA Americas success as the platform to finally cement himself as a rotation player in an NBA world that's far more athletic.

There's no time now to worry about Mexico maintaining its first-ever modern burst of basketball momentum. Ayon remains just the third Mexican to play in an NBA regular-season game, along with Najera and former Phoenix Suns big man Horacio Llamas, and knows this is a pivotal season in his attempts to stick in the league after brief stints with New Orleans, Orlando and Milwaukee.

"We enjoyed [Caracas]," Ayon said, "and the most important thing is that it might set a precedent for Mexican basketball.

"But right now, I'm only thinking about the NBA."

Yet for the international basketball community, Mexico's surge to prominence remains an irresistible topic, especially given the desperation that has smothered Mexican soccer at essentially the same time.

Said Martin: "Now comes a new test for Mexican basketball. Can they deal with success? Usually these federative fights [intensify] when there is more money to be apportioned. Can they leave well enough alone?"

The plucky Stoll nonetheless came away from FIBA Americas insisting that the first major championship in Mexico's basketball history was not the most seismic upset of his 2013. After playing alongside Dallas Mavericks rookie Gal Mekel on the Maccabi Haifa team in June that became just the fourth rival club over the past 59 seasons to prevent mighty Maccabi Tel Aviv from winning Israel's national crown, Stoll contends that Haifa's victory was the bigger fairy tale.

"[Mexico] got hot at the right time, but we had a lot of confidence after we scrimmaged Brazil and Argentina [earlier in the summer] and held our own even though we were missing a few guys," Stoll said. "The goal in Venezuela was to qualify for the Worlds [next summer in Spain], but once we knew we were in the top four and we did that, we quickly changed our goal to, 'Let's win this thing.'

"It's been a process, but it's not just this year. We've got a core group of guys that's been together for a while now Since the Pan Am games [in 2011], that's been the whole discussion for our team: 'We've got to change the whole mindset and the way Mexico basketball is seen. We gotta put Mexico on the map as a basketball country. Let's try to change the way people think about Mexico.' "