This story appears in SLAM 241. Shop now.
When 22-year-old Mexican point guard Moisés Andriassi competed in youth tournaments around Mexico City, he never imagined he’d one day be playing with NBA veterans and prospects in front of friends and family. But with the arrival of the G League’s Mexico City Capitanes—the first-ever Latin American—based franchise with an NBA affiliation—
hoopers south of the border don’t have to imagine anymore.
“People don’t respect or believe in us outside of Mexico,” Andriassi tells SLAM of the basketball talent in his native country. “But now we’re getting more respect. We got Juan Toscano[-Anderson] on the Lakers and other players in tough leagues around the world. We’re showing them that we can hoop. There’s no doubt.”
Andriassi, the former Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional Rookie of the Year and current Mexican national team member, is considered one of Mexico’s most promising prospects. Despite his childhood friends growing up with fútbol aspirations, Andriassi chose to spend time with his father and two older brothers—who each played collegiate- level basketball in Mexico—putting up shots and training like one of his favorite players, Kobe Bryant.
Now, Andriassi—who has also played professionally in Spain—is elated to represent his home country as a member of the Capitanes in the NBA’s development league. Along with his teammate, veteran forward Orlando Méndez-Valdez, Andriassi is one of only two Mexican heritage players in the league. Their inclusion on the same squad highlights one of the Capitanes’ biggest goals: to showcase Latin America’s skills on the court.
Since announcing their move to the G League in 2019, the team has played one season against US competition. Covid-19 put their inaugural season on hold, and then last season they had to be relocated to Fort Worth, TX, where they played against G League teams in G League markets. This year, on November 6, the franchise finally opened their G League campaign on Mexican soil with a 120-84 win against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. As of press time, they’ve gone 5-3. The inaugural series of games has been, by definition, a historic moment for North American sports, the first of its kind.
Andriassi has been singularly focused on helping his team—and country—stay atop the G League standings, contributing from the bench as a reserve behind two-time NCAA champion and NBA journeyman Shabazz Napier.
Andriassi, Méndez-Valdez and Napier aren’t the only well-traveled players who are ready to make an international splash in El Distrito Federal, though. They’re part of a kaleidoscopic roster unlike any other that has been assembled in basketball, with a combination of former NBA lottery picks like Jahlil Okafor and rising talent from around Latin America, including Brazil’s Caio Pacheco and the Dominican Republic’s Jassel Perez.
“We have the most international visas on any NBA G League roster every year. Eight countries are represented, including our staff,” says Mitchell Thompson, an assistant coach for the Capitanes who also works as a trainer for NBA Mexico during the offseason. “It feels like we’re at a point of transition, where the NBA is developing and the game is more present [in Latin America]. The guys here understand this isn’t a normal situation—they’re pioneers.”
Although the idea of an NBA franchise in Mexico may have once seemed far-fetched, it’s now coming into clear focus, like a bold cross-court pass that could turn the momentum of a game. For starters, Mexico City is the most populous metropolis in North America (larger than even New York City) and is home to some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere, including Polanco—Mexico’s Beverly Hills—where Capitanes players currently reside and visiting teams stay. The massive city represents a growing base of “baloncesto” fans that align with the NBA’s mission, which has identified the region as an ideal entryway into the Latin America market.
Flights from cities like San Francisco, Dallas and Salt Lake City to Mexico City are not only easily accessible but also relatively shorter trips—or equidistant—when compared to other US markets with NBA franchises. In many cases, flying to Mexico City for teams in the Western Conference would be easier than taking a trip to Philadelphia or Miami. And for those who think having a Mexico-based NBA franchise is impractical, look no further than the Toronto Raptors, one of the NBA’s most popular franchises with a diehard Canadian fan base that was invigorated when they became champions in 2019.
Further appeal for a permanent US team in Mexico includes the food, the history and the abundance of cultural wealth that the vibrant nation and its local fans offer. There’s a grassroots passion and zeal that has already emerged during the team’s first few home games to start the ’22-23 season, the second of a five-year-minimum plan with the NBA.
On opening night, Arena CDMX attracted 7,391 fans, making it the highest-attended G League opening game of the 2022-23 season. One staff member on the Capitanes said the experience of playing in front of Mexican fans is unlike anything they’ve witnessed stateside. Prior to the regular season, the team had to petition the G League to allow fans to bring drums into the arena, something typical to other leagues in Mexico but nothing ever seen at games in the States. The G League allowed it, and it ensured that Capitanes’ homes games bring energy on the court and in the stands.
“The Latin American fans aren’t sterile and on their phones,” Thompson says. “There is a soccer fanship here that translates over to basketball. Hopefully, we can keep that Latino fan identity with us and not sterilize it. Standing and shouting the whole game is part of the environment.”
Picture a bus full of basketball players pulling into a world class arena. There are colorful outdoor markets, tianguis, with vendors marching along the streets, calling out daily specials and hawking merchandise amid a vortex of excitement. Fans are gathered in a rally, as they might for a soccer match. It’s an environment that puts the players in new and exciting situations, something that former Chicago Bulls forward Alfonzo McKinnie, an Illinois native in his second year with the Capitanes, relishes.
“Mexico is a proud country, they’re big basketball fans,” he says. “You hear about the dangerous stuff, but that’s not the experience for us athletes. I’m not gonna lie, I was a little nervous at first because you read all this stuff, but then you get here and it’s dope. I’m from Chicago and we have a lot of stigma, too. But you can’t believe what you hear. You gotta go and experience it for yourself.”
An average day for a US born player like McKinnie, who admittedly speaks “terrible Spanish,” is training in Mexico’s Olympic facility—where Mexican boxers and gymnasts train, often pulling out their phones to take photos of Capitanes players—and then exploring Mexico’s trendy avenues and enjoying the perks of an international lifestyle.
“I feel like they’re very embracing, even with the language barrier. They see us and know we’re not Mexican, we’re not from here, [but] they just signal that we play basketball,” says McKinnie while demonstrating a hand shooting a ball, imitating how locals greet him. “The fan base is very interactive with us and that makes the transition for us as easy as possible. I’m just experiencing how the food and culture is here. It’s been great.”
Of course, there are challenges and inconveniences, too. Because of Mexico City’s dense traffic, for example, police escorts are required for each game. There’s also the frequent need to replace used nets after practices. And then there are also the little things, like not being able to drink water from the faucet. A lack of national infrastructure to cultivate top-tier basketball talent within Mexico is noticeable, too.
“This will take years of investment,” says Thompson. “There’s people playing basketball in Mexico, but we need more structure and coaches in place. Most people are surprised to hear that Mexico City has more basketball courts than soccer fields, but in the US we have kids playing basketball with good high school coaches around the country. That system just produces great basketball players. Mexico doesn’t really have that happening yet. That’s the next step, structurally.”
For now, the Capitanes are planting the seed of hope for future fans to build a relationship with the sport. A fastbreak dunk here. A no-look pass there. It’s all part of the game plan. And for the first time ever, fans in a Spanish-speaking country will have regular access to an NBA product. It’s no coincidence that Mexico is also home to the only NBA store in Latin America, as well as the NBA Academy Latin America, located five hours north of Mexico City in the state of San Luis Potosí.
Arguably no other international destination is more primed for an NBA moment than Mexico City right now. The Capitanes’ logo, Monumento a la Revolución, isn’t just about celebrating Mexico’s national revolution; it symbolizes the revolution of basketball in Latin America and the squad of hoopers from all over the map who represent them.
“These guys, at the end of the day, they just wanna hoop,” Thompson says.
And that’s exactly what they’re doing, with Latin America’s diverse fan base eager to be along for the ride on this historic step forward.
Photos via Getty Images.
The post The Mexico City Capitanes are More Than Just Another Pro Sports Team—They’re Elevating the Game in Latin America appeared first on SLAM.