A “Zach to the Rack” Adventure Abroad
Last week, I took my family on our first vacation in a year and spent a few days down in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where I drank 100 beers, became way too sunburnt after falling asleep by a lazy river, and tried to remember as much of my high school Spanish as I could. As soon as we landed in town, I made it a priority to find a decent place to buy some cheaper tequila and beer before I settled into the Puerto Vallarta Westin, where prices would undoubtedly be doubled. I kindly asked our taxi driver a simple question that I’m sure he had heard a million times before:
“¿Donde esta compro una cabra?” I proposed.
“You wanna know where to buy a goat?” He responded.
I guess my Spanish was a little rusty.
My First Encounter with Liga MX Fans
After arriving at our hotel, I found the first bar that I could in order to watch last week’s Miami Heat versus Denver Nuggets
game, feeling good about my Denver (-4) pick
even after Jamal Murray’s injury. Unfortunately, I was about to be met with some of the most resistant die-hard sports fans I have ever come across… The fans of Liga MX
, the professional soccer league
in Mexico. The game they were watching on the bar’s six TVs was between two teams I had never even known existed, Juárez and Tigres UANL, and I quickly felt my chances of watching the Heat-Nuggets game disappearing faster than the tequila shot I had just ordered.
This spot was a loyal Tigres UANL bar, and these local guys were analyzing every single kick, breakaway, penalty, and goal in the same way I over-analyze basketball
. I guess it doesn’t need to be mentioned what happened once I asked if we could turn ONE of the television screens to the NBA
game… The bartender laughed in my face and responded:
“Será mejor que te vayas, tonto Americano.”
The whole bar laughed and I made it back to the hotel where I watched most of the game alone on my laptop. When I translated the above sentence into English, I found out that it meant:
“You better go, you dumb American.”
Mexico is not unlike most Latin-American countries in that its national obsession is soccer, and not the NBA, NFL, or the impossible to watch this year MLB. Down south, soccer is king – and if you’re an NBA-obsessed super fan like myself, you might find yourself lost in translation amongst die-hard fans when you travel to these places, like Mexico.
[caption id="attachment_13025" align="aligncenter" width="512"]
Good luck competing with these guys for a TV.[/caption]
The Lakers-Celtics Game
Luckily, two days later, on Friday, I had found an Americanized version of a sports bar tucked away down a side street that was actually open for inside dining. I straddled a barstool next to a married couple named Mark and Mary from Carlsbad, California, and breathed a sigh of relief. Like me, they had come to the bar to watch the Lakers-Celtics game and had repeatedly told me how terrific the homemade chorizo nachos were. I ordered a plate and a few beers and watched two beautiful quarters of basketball having conversations like, “Once AD and LeBron come back, this team will become unbeatable,” and “I heard Jayson Tatum still hasn’t fully recovered from when he had COVID.”
Mark and Mary appreciated my basketball banter, and we took to the night deep in conversation, even though when Mark told me that he was a “pipefitter” for a living, I assumed he was making a reference to the adult film industry. As it turns out, “pipefitting” is actually a real job. Just one you don’t hear about much when you live in Hollywood.
The Fourth Quarter and Return of the Liga MX Fans
The game rolled into the 4th quarter, and Jaylen Brown was flirting with a 40-piece. The Lakers looked poised to make one final run to try and steal the win, even though they were without their two superstars. And then, just after Alex Caruso hit a crucial bucket, a bunch of locals arrived and began doing shots and chanting words that I only faintly recognized as “fútbol cheers.” I suddenly got nervous.
They began group singing Ole, ole ole ole… or some intonation of the same chant you’ve heard any time you watch international soccer… They went into that familiar White Stripes guitar riff you hear at every sporting event… It became crowded. Mark and Mary threatened to leave if he changed the channel. Jaylen suddenly hit 36. Nobody cared.
I sipped my beer and asked the owner – who spoke serviceable English – if by any chance these guys were here to watch some impending soccer match.
“Si señor,” he responded. “Necaxa is playing, and Mazatlán is playing against Atlas.”
He reached for the remote control. My heart jumped. Within two minutes, the 4th quarter of the Lakers-Celtics game was turned off and 100 screaming, chanting fútbol fans had taken over our TV screen and were toasting to Club Necaxa.
Mark and Mary weren’t too thrilled with this maneuver and eventually walked out on their tab claiming they would leave a nasty Yelp review. The bartender wasn’t too pleased.
“Lo siento, amigos – I’m sorry, but soccer pays my bills,” he said. “Maybe if they had LeBron healthy we would have people watching, but nobody cares about the Lakers in this bar.”
One of the Most Intense Athletic Events I Have Ever Experienced
Rather than go home and stare at yet another NBA game on my laptop, I decided to stay at the bar and check out the fútbol match. It turned out to be one of the most fun nights I've ever had watching a sporting event. This was one of the most INTENSE athletic events I've ever experienced. I met a couple named Montserrat and Alejandro who were die-hard Necaxa fans. We began doing tequila shots, and suddenly I found myself rooting for Necaxa, who Alejandro called the “peor equipo de la liga,” which meant the “worst team in the league.” But he didn’t care. He was from Aguascalientes, where the club was based, and his fandom ran so deep that he even had a “loyalty tattoo” on his arm. It was the Necaxa shield.
I began going absolutely nuts as Necaxa battled against Querétaro. After a few tequila shots, the other Necaxa fans began calling me “El Jinete Pálido” – the Spanish translation of my former basketball streetball name, “The Pale Rider.” Even though the Lakers-Celtics game was getting good, this was actually WAY more fun than hanging out with Mark and Mary. (I did have one eye on my phone for updates.) It was so exciting to watch the two fútbol teams struggle to score that I now understood why ONE goal generated so much excitement. In basketball, people score all the time. In soccer, not so much.
The game ended in a 0-0 tie.
“Shit, another tie, that’s our 8th this season,” Alejandro said.
When all was said and done, I was exhausted. I ended up in a pedicab falling asleep on my way back to the Westin.
[caption id="attachment_13022" align="aligncenter" width="650"]
A beautiful place for a midnight nap.[/caption]
And oh, the Celtics beat the Lakers 121-113. Jaylen Brown hit 40.
A Mexican First in the NBA
Meanwhile, in an under-the-radar NBA story from this past week, Golden State Warriors player Juan Toscano-Anderson just made history by becoming the first player of Mexican descent to score 20 points in an NBA game. When I heard this statistic, I couldn’t believe it. The FIRST? Looking it up, it was 100% true. Going further, it occurred to me that there have only been a handful of Mexican-American players in the league…In fact, I could only find FIVE. The only familiar name was Eduardo Nájera. And you have to be a real NBA fan to even remember his short career. His career scoring high was 19 points... twice.
Why Soccer Is Still King in Mexico
SO why hasn’t Mexico become a huge hotbed of NBA player activity and player grooming? All across the globe, the NBA has taken over – from Canada to Israel to, well, Greece. Kids across the world are growing up emulating the high-flying athletic stars from the NBA that they have come to idolize and respect. Currently, in the NBA, there are 107 international players representing 41 different countries. 17 of those players come from Canada. Until the Warriors brought Toscano-Anderson up from the G League, ZERO were from Mexico. Toscano-Anderson technically isn’t even FROM Mexico, but he identifies as Mexican, even though he grew up in Oakland. Meanwhile, Canada is our other bordering country, and clearly, they have caught onto the NBA popularity train… Why not our friends to the south?
The simple answer is that soccer is just too popular in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Also, I’m guessing that there aren’t many 6’9” guys hanging around soccer fields in Mexico City who basketball coaches can recruit and train. Most Mexican-born athletes prevail in two other sports, baseball and – of course – soccer, but perhaps, with the proper facilities, Mexico can begin producing professional NBA players. Still, would it matter? Based on these crowds in the bars I’d been in who lived and died by Liga MX… nobody would even care.
[caption id="attachment_13021" align="aligncenter" width="2560"] Why would you want to play in the NBA when you could play for almost 100,000 fans in Estadio Azteca?
My Return to the United States... and to the NBA
Saturday, I woke up slightly hungover and didn’t even try to watch any NBA games. I spent the morning at a swim-up taco bar constantly checking my phone for scores and fighting off the impending anxiety that was reminding me that I had to fly home that afternoon. After denying the opportunity to buy into a Westin timeshare (they start you at $65K per year. And you can use it 10 times!!), I paid my bill and left to return home to the states where reality awaited. Luckily, so did the NBA and the masses of basketball-obsessed people that I constantly need to be around for life to make any sense.
By the way, after turning down the timeshare offers, they ended up offering me the same deal for $5K and added a two-week free vacation, discounted golf, and limited “blackout dates.” When I turned that down, they went down to $3K. Eventually, they tried to sell me a coffee mug for $25.00. Again, I said no, took the money I saved, and bet on the Jazz to beat the Lakers later that night.
I landed around 5:30, rushed home, and caught the end of the game. Amazingly, the Lakers shut the Jazz down in overtime and won by 12 points. Sure, I lost, but I didn’t care. I was back in America, the NBA awaited, and even though I lost money on the bet, I was back in a country where I wouldn’t have to cheer for Necaxa again.
Although, that soccer game was so freakin’ exciting to watch.
Maybe I’ll head out later and get a loyalty tattoo…