Despite Spurs losses, San Antonio and Austin represented in NBA Mexico City game

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The NBA 2022 Mexico City Games revealed the deep cultural connection between the San Antonio Spurs and Mexican basketball fans.

Arena CDMX in Azcapotzalco, Mexico City, is a state-of-the-art house of hoops — with a futuristic-edged design and built-in LED screens flashing that night’s event: the San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat. But the surrounding environment includes exposed brick houses, unfinished rebar, and — in some parts of the nearby neighborhood — unpaved streets. It’s a whole new world of basketball down south.

I’m standing across the street from the arena, in a vortex of noise and pollution, where street vendors are shouting at the rivers of fans who are making their pilgrimage to the 2022 NBA Mexico City Game from all over the map.

For the past few days leading up to the game, this North American hub of Mexican life has been alive with excitement and events for hoop heads like me. Unsurprisingly, the Spurs have one of the strongest presences south of the border — and their fandom was in full effect for both the Austin and San Antonio games.

The reason they’re so popular here? Manu Ginobli. Arguably the greatest Spanish-speaking Latino to ever don an NBA uniform, he made his triumphal run alongside Tim Duncan and Tony Parker at a time when the NBA was growing internationally and including more fans from more places — not least, Mexico.

The Spurs have since become a household name in the Aztec country. (it doesn’t hurt that they’re also the closest NBA team located to the border, outside of the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns). In many ways, the Spurs are among Mexico’s most beloved teams, so being able to see the G Leaguers from Austin on Friday and NBAers from San Antonio on Saturday was a surreal experience for locals.

I wasn’t completely surprised, then, when I spotted a Mexican elder in a wheelchair, wearing a beat-up pair of Air Jordans, rocking a Spurs cap, and holding a basketball and Sharpie on a street corner, outside of the hotel where the Spurs were lodging during their short visit to the Mexican capital.

At various points in the week, the entire Spurs’ family was in attendance. Throwback legend, George “the Iceman” Gervin, appeared at a community basketball clinic. Beloved mascot, The Coyote, battled a luchador midcourt as part of the in-game G League entertainment. Spurs CEO, R.C. Buford, cracked jokes while attending both matches, sitting among the people. And of course, current Spurs like Jeremy Sochan stood out from the crowd — with his neon green head in homage to former Spur, Dennis Rodman.

Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

This was an opportunity to see the Spurs and the entire NBA experience, up close and personal

I’m not going to lie to you: the week was a whirlwind, and though I loved being on the floor for both matchups, the NBA Mexico City experience was just as much about what was happening off-the-court as what was unfolding on the hardwood.

For the Spurs, the final results were less than desired — both Austin and San Antonio were defeated. But the thing about sports, especially when being played in a foreign country in front of a predominantly non-English fanbase, is that the box scores and highlights can only show that: a boxed reflection of what occurred.

Seeing Pop up close as he directed and scowled at his young players — at one point, calling a frustrated time out in the second quarter before halftime, about 35 yards in front of me — was poetic. The hustle was there in both games. The intensity. The effort. You could feel it, and perhaps because of the annual showcase environment and blaring Spanish music and chanting fans, it was even more amplified.

It’s no wonder that both games felt competitive for the majority of regulation, only slipping away in the final moments.

At the press conference after the San Antonio game, Keldon Johnson keenly observed how it was simply a matter of needing better execution in the closing quarter when the veteran savvy of Heat players made the difference.

“They outexecuted us down the stretch. They got to where they wanted to get to,” he said. “Once we get that experience piece and really lock in, we’ll be in good shape.”

In both games, the Spurs weren’t necessarily outplayed by a wide margin; they were simply outperformed in the most pivotal moments — when Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson continued to knock shots down in the stretch, making the right decisions and extra passes until the ball found an open shooter. And that’s where the youth of this current San Antonio squad showed — in creating opportunities for one another in the most heated (pun intended) moments of battle.

Austin was no different. They stuck around — despite giving up a double-digit lead in the first half — by keeping the game close in the final minutes before allowing the size and experience of the Capitanes de Ciudad de México — who were led by 7-footer, and former NBA Lottery pick, Jahlil Okafor — to overtake them. Despite the losses, the Spurs organization represented and seemed more visibly present than the Heat.

Both nights, the classic silver and black unis were noticeable among proud Mexican fans. Even during this lull in the Spurs franchise — in which the team clearly lacks the star power of former years and is in the middle of developing a new corp of hoopers under Pop’s watch — San Antonio has done enough within the basketball community to earn international love.

It’s clear that Mexican fans are as supportive as ever of the historic franchise — win or lose. As the game between San Antonio and Miami went on, it felt like a home crowd for both sides, but somehow — perhaps because of Texas’ proximity, both geographically and culturally — the connection to the Spurs seemed a little bit deeper than the eye could perceive.

There was a special feeling in the air — one that will undoubtedly remain with these loyal Mexican fans, even when their favorite team returns north. And the NBA’s presence will only get bigger down here.

Check out The Step Back for more news, analysis, opinion and unique basketball coverage. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter Twitter and Instagram and subscribe to our daily email newsletter, The Whiteboard.

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