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NBA's Lack Of Latino Players

Apr 27, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now, it's a big weekend for sports fans, what with the NFL Combine, baseball season and the NHL and NBA playoffs. All these sports have gotten more diverse, but with a growing Latino fan base, the NBA is hoping to attract more Latino players. Esteban Bustillos from member station WGBH in Boston is going to tell us more about that.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting).

ESTEBAN BUSTILLOS, BYLINE: You can't even begin to talk about Latino basketball players without talking about Manu Ginobili.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

BUSTILLOS: The Argentinian shooting guard is widely considered the best Latin American player ever. He spent 16 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs and won four championships. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich says his presence off the court with the Latino community was always something special.

GREGG POPOVICH: He allowed it to happen. He's a very warm individual and understood his responsibility to the community.

BUSTILLOS: Ginobili bowed out last year, but the team retired his jersey last month when the Spurs took on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Billed as Gracias, Manu, the night was a celebration of Genobili and his heritage.

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MICHELLE LECLERCQ: (Singing in Spanish).

BUSTILLOS: Before tip-off, an Argentinian singer performed the country's national anthem. And when it was Ginobili's time to talk after the game, he gave a bilingual speech to the sold-out arena.

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MANU GINOBILI: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLOS: It was a fitting sendoff for the NBA's most successful Latin player in one of the country's most Latino cities.

ARNON DE MELLO: The Latino demographic is the one that grows, I believe, the most in the states already.

BUSTILLOS: Arnon de Mello is the senior vice president and managing director of NBA Latin America. According to the league, Hispanics comprise 17% of the U.S. fan base. That's roughly 15 million fans. In Latin America, NBA programming reaches dozens of countries and territories and is broadcast in four different languages. De Mello says it's even starting to gain ground on that other sport involving a ball and a net - soccer.

DE MELLO: You know, if you look at the Caribbean and Brazil and Mexico, you see that in that region, basketball clearly is a contender for the No. 2 spot, not only in terms of participation but also affinity and popularity of the sport.

BUSTILLOS: But as popular as the game is becoming among fans, Latino professional players are still scarce. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the NBA was only 2.3% Latino last season. That translates to just 11 players. But the league has made a point of focusing on fostering talents outside the United States.

Along with junior NBA programs in Latin America, the league just opened an academy in Mexico City to help develop the region's best prospects. And de Mello says they're trying to get a G League team, the NBA version of a minor league club, set up in the Mexican capital. This is all a big switch from when Boston Celtics center Al Horford was growing up in the Dominican Republic, and basketball was just becoming popular.

AL HORFORD: You going in the yard, and you drive around, and you see everybody, you know, playing basketball out of basketball courts. And people are hungry. You know, they really enjoy basketball.

BUSTILLOS: Horford is using his influence to help grow the game. Last year, the Celtics star was part of an initiative to renovate courts in the Dominican Republic.

HORFORD: One of the things that I want to continue to work on is to continue to help to develop the game over there so - because the passion is there.

BUSTILLOS: Now, as Horford and other Latino players help to carry the torch first lit by people like his father Tito, who was the first Dominican player in the NBA, and Ginobili, Horford is aware of the example he's setting for the community.

HORFORD: It's something that, you know, that I'm proud of - to be a Latino.

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MARTIN: That was Esteban Bustillos in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.