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Basketball Growing in Mexico

December 7, 1997

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Three teen-agers walked up to scalpers outside the Sports Palace, looking for tickets for the sold-out NBA game.

One wore a Phoenix Suns’ jersey, another from the University of Connecticut and the third from the University of Michigan.

The scalpers wanted $37.50 a ticket _ more than three times what the box office charged and 11 times Mexico’s daily minimum wage. The friends walked on in search of a better deal. All loved basketball, and they had to see the game.

``We’ve loved basketball since junior high,″ said Alberto Espinoza, 18. ``We watch it on television. We play it in school. Every day, it gets more recognition in Mexico.″

That was clear inside the stadium Saturday night, when the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks played the NBA’s first regular-season game in Mexico to a packed house of 20,635 _ the biggest basketball crowd ever south of the border.

The noise was deafening. The fans _ most rooting for the Rockets _ jumped and roared at every Houston point and waved their arms and whistled at every Dallas free throw.

``The Mexican fans were wonderful,″ Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said after his team’s 108-106 win. ``They were very knowledgeable about the game and enthusiastic.″

Mexican television has been broadcasting basketball for 20 years, but play-by-play announcer Henrique Garay said interest has picked up in recent years. His TV Azteca network broadcasts 53 NBA games a year, and he travels to the United States to broadcast from courtside during the finals.

``Basketball now gets double what American football does in the ratings,″ he said. ``The Super Bowl gets 10-11 ratings points. Last year we got to 28 points at an NBA Finals game. It still hasn’t gotten up to where soccer is, but it’s growing a lot.″

That was good news for Omar David Linares, 20, who showed up at the game in a Charlotte Hornets cap.

``Before they would only show the Bulls or the Lakers,″ he said. ``But now they put everything on TV.″

A big factor in basketball’s growth in Mexico is that many of the fans are young. After school they play basketball where at one time the game of choice would have been strictly soccer.

``Everyone likes basketball,″ said 15-year-old Sandra Gomora, beaming in a Hakeem Olajuwon jersey. She said she plays at a local gym.

With more games on television, basketball is quickly becoming a major spectator sport as well.

``You see it on television. There are more tournaments. People are getting more interested and involved,″ Espinoza said.

His friend Erik Carmona, 17, chimed in hopefully: ``Maybe in the future we could get a team down here.″

Maybe the best indication that basketball is picking up in Mexico is the rise of that phenomenon so closely tied to it: franchising.

Outside the Sports Palace, Fabian Rosales laid out hundreds of basketball playing cards on a blanket, selling them for 12 cents to 60 cents each, depending on the player.

``I’ve been selling these for three years, and business is booming,″ he said. ``A lot of people think we don’t know basketball here, but they’re wrong.″

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