By: Elvis Jocol Lara
Our Director of Digital Media is in Mexico City for the NBA Global Games featuring the Boston Celtics. While there he’ll be providing behind the scenes coverage of the game and the best Mexico City has to offer. Follow his travel blog on ElMundoBoston.com and on the El Mundo Boston Facebook, Instagram (@elmundoboston), Snapchat (elmundoboston), and Twitter (@ElChapin)
Let’s start by saying this game was by no means the talk of the town. After two days in Mexico City and speaking to the locals, the game was more of a blip on the local calendar. It didn’t help matters that across the city at el Estadio Azteca, Club America and Los Pumas del UNAM engaged in a highly anticipated playoff soccer match right before tipoff of the NBA Global Games. Mexico is a soccer mad country, and despite the NBA’s stated desire to make basketball the number one sport in Mexico City, it’s not likely to change anytime soon.
That doesn’t mean that this wasn’t highly anticipated among fans of the NBA. Greater Mexico is a region of more than 20 million people and there does appear to be a substantial portion that is a fan of the game; otherwise the NBA wouldn’t keep coming back.
The Celtics, as the winningest franchise in NBA history, are among the most popular teams in the country (other popular teams include the Spurs, Bulls, Heat and… umm, Lakers. Yuck). So it came as no surprise that Mexico City Arena was overrun by green. The rare sighting of Sacramento Kings purple was enveloped by Celtics fans almost as quickly as it appeared.
Upon arrival outside of the arena, makeshift stands lined the streets across the building in a fashion all too familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a mercado anywhere in Latin America. Vendors shouted at fans passing by while potential customers bargained for the best price possible. It was a scene I’ve never seen before and will likely never see at an NBA arena again but it was uniquely Mexico and it provided the foundation for the carnival like scene outside.
Of course, the vast majority of merchandise on sale was green. Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and even Larry Bird jerseys lined the markets and fans were eager to buy their new gear and wear it into the arena. Interestingly, the vendors we talked to didn’t know much about basketball. When asked why they decided to sell Celtics merchandise instead of Kings’ they all answered similarly: “I don’t know much about basketball, but I do know that the Celtics are the biggest team and this is what people are going to want.” Green runs deep, for sure.
From the exterior, the arena appears massive and imposing. Located in a non-descript area of the city, it almost seems misplaced. Walking into the building, which was constructed in 2012, was an experience unto itself. I’ve been to the American Airlines Arena in Miami, the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and of course the TD Garden, but neither of those buildings compare to what Mexican fans have here.
With a capacity of nearly 23,000, the building is larger than any NBA facility and offers all of the modern amenities, including VIP lounges, a massive scoreboard (think: Cowboys Stadium) and an outdoor balcony bar overlooking the front of the stadium. Most would likely be surprised to see Mexico City has this type of facility. I was.
Inside, the game lacks the fan culture and atmosphere of an NBA arena for a regular season game although that is to be expected when you only get one game per year. It’s evident that a basketball culture among fans is still developing in Mexico.
I did my best to talk to as many Celtics fans as I could. The excitement was palpable among those I was able to connect with. Multiple generations awaited their opportunity to see the Celtics up close and personal and I got the sense many fans had spent decades waiting for this very moment. Larry Bird jerseys were just as common as Pierce and Garnett jerseys and many fans admitted to falling in love with Celtics basketball back in the days when Larry Legend was calling the shots at the old Garden.
Celtics players and ownership appeared to be just as excited about the opportunity to play in Mexico City. The Celtics didn’t spend too much time in the Mexican capital, having flown in on Wednesday and flying out immediately after the final buzzer but prior to the game, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck noted, “Fans all over the world know about Celtic pride, and we couldn’t be more proud that we’re adding to our legacy by bringing our game and our team to Mexico.”
Let there be no doubt that this was a special night for Celtics fans and personally for me as a Latino fan who has followed the team for 20 years. Despite a slow shift towards recognizing their sizable Latino fan base, the team has come around of late, beginning with the first ever Noche Latina at the TD Garden last year (Editor’s note: the event was presented by El Mundo Media).
The team took it a step further this year by going abroad to one of the largest cities in Latin America. Now, granted the NBA Global games are an initiative of the NBA league office, but teams do have the opportunity to decline an invitation. The Celtics, however, by all accounts chose to jump at the opportunity.
A terrific performance by the team only served to endear the Celtics to the already friendly Mexico City crowd. Those in attendance will likely tell their children and grandchildren of the time they saw the Boston Celtics play in Mexico City.
To these fans, there was no concern that there were no “stars” on the court, though the loudest cheers of the night went to Isaiah Thomas. To them, the name on the front of the jersey was much more important than the name on the back (think Real Madrid or FC Barcelona).
A jubilant crowd exited the arena following the Celtics 114-97 trouncing of the Kings. The game really didn’t offer much in the way of drama given then Celtics opened a big lead early and held on to it throughout. Contrary to what one would see in an NBA arena, the fans stayed to the end and even as the game ended around 11:30 pm local time, many didn’t appear to want to leave (the traditional Mexico City traffic may have actually made it impossible for some). Fans hung around, snapped pictures and enjoyed their brief taste of NBA basketball for the year.
Last year at Celtics Noche Latina, I said that the Celtics might be Irish but on that night they were undeniably Latino. For yet another night, in Mexico City, that sentiment rang true once again (ok, maybe undeniably Mexican).
Elvis Jocol Lara is Director of Digital Media at El Mundo, Founder and President of Casa Guatemala and an experienced Marketing professional who has worked with some of the world’s leading brands. A child of Guatemalan immigrants, he was born in Boston and raised in Waltham, MA. Follow him on Twitter @ElChapin.