Hispanic Heritage Month: Blazing New Trails

Project Spurs continues celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with a look at past and current Hispanic players to wear the Spurs uniform.  We also discuss ways the NBA can market to the growing Hispanic population.

As Jeff Garcia wrote about on Monday, the Spurs have adopted and embrace San Antonio’s Hispanic culture since they moved to the Alamo City.  But in recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month, we felt it was also important to talk about the players who came to the Spurs before Manu Ginobili was a household name.

You can’t begin to talk about the Hispanic players on the Spurs without mentioning Carl Herrera, better known as “Amigo” in San Antonio.

Carl Herrera

While Herrera’s career took him to Houston, San Antonio, Vancouver and Denver, the University of Houston grad was well traveled before he even stepped onto the NBA hardwood.

Originally born in Trinidad and Tobago, Herrera was the first Venezuelan to play in the NBA. He began playing basketball at the age of 13 and by 16, he was already playing with the Venezuelan National Team. After going to Jacksonville Community College in Texas and one year with the Cougars, Herrera played a year in Spain before getting a call from the Rockets.

The 6-9 Herrera played for the Spurs from 1995-98. He enjoyed his best NBA year with the Spurs in 96-97, averaging eight points and 4.5 rebounds per game. On June 24, 1998, the Spurs packaged Herrera with another Hispanic NBA player, Felipe Lopez, in a trade to Vancouver for Antonio Daniels.

Named one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the Country in 1993 by Hispanic Business Magazine, Herrera was a fan favorite in San Antonio and will always be remembered by Spurs fans for his batman-like protective mask and for playing salsa music.

A year after Herrera was traded, the Spurs decided to use one of their late second round picks on a little-known Argentine shooting guard by the name of Emmanuel Ginobili, who had been playing with Viola Reggio Calabria in Italy at the time. The Spurs decided to keep Ginobili overseas to keep developing, but even the Spurs front office couldn’t have known how much he would improve over the next three years.

In the 2002 FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis, Ginobili took the basketball world by surprise, leading Argentina to a second place finish and making the All-Tournament Team along with Peja Stojakovic. Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming. It didn’t take long for the Spurs to come calling. After a 58-24 the year before and three straight years of not making the finals, Spurs brass realized they needed some help off the bench and signed Ginobili.

I remember interviewing Ginobili the day he came to San Antonio for his press conference. He remarked about how excited he was to come to San Antonio, especially because of the Hispanic culture. It didn’t take long for San Antonio to be excited about having him either. Spurs fans saw his impact off the bench on opening night, and his addition was a big part of the reason the Spurs were able to get over the hump and make another trip to title town.

A year later, the Spurs signed another South American player, Alex Garcia of Brazil. At the time, Garcia was coming off a good year with Ribeirao Presto averaging 17.9 points, four rebounds and four assists per game. Unfortunately for Garcia, he seemed to suffer a series of injuries which kept him off the court.

He ended up playing two games for the Spurs, averaging 1.5 points and one steal in 6.5 minutes per game. After initially protecting him from being taken in the expansion draft, the Spurs waived Garcia. He signed with New Orleans, but the injuries kept on coming. There were rumors that Garcia was being invited to Spurs training camp in 2007, but he never made it back. He currently plays for Universo BRB of Novo Basquete Brasil and is a member of the Brazilian National Basketball team.

Since then, the Spurs have signed Fabricio Oberto and drafted Tiago Splitter. They also drafted and signed several other Hispanic players that never made it to San Antonio or earned a spot on the team, including Felipe Lopez, Luis Scola, Leandro Barbosa, Elias “Larry” Ayuso and Romain Sato.

Marketing/Scouting without Borders

Noche LatinaWith Hispanics becoming the largest minority in the United States, it may now be time to venture beyond Noche Latina and making Los Spurs jerseys and for the NBA to make a concerted effort at marketing to a growing population and a new audience, not only overseas, but in the Unites States. But there is a right and wrong way to go about marketing.

As a Hispanic male living in the United States, I’ve been more offended by some companies who make failed attempts at marketing to this population. This is a new world, where multiculturalism is part of America, and while the term “Hispanic” or “Latino” refers to an ethnicity, it is not one market. The Hispanic population in the United States is made up of several cultures and countries. While something like Los Spurs can be something some Hispanic fans can get behind, using Spanglish may seem like a slap in the face to others.

So what can the Spurs do to step up their Hispanic marketing efforts? Use Spanish. There’s nothing that ties every Hispanic country and culture together like the language they all speak. Other than that, utilizing the players Hispanic fans recognize, like Manu Ginobili, would certainly make a difference over the same old english television ad with a spanish voiceover.

But maybe the Spurs efforts shouldn’t stop at marketing. While this front office has excelled at scouting international players, even recently with having Romel Beck on the summer league squad and brining Anthony Lever-Pedroza into training camp a few years back, maybe it’s also time to look in our own backyard.

With the Hispanic population making up over 60 percent of San Antonio’s total population, these are fertile grounds for scouting without using up any frequent flyer miles. There’s been plenty of NBA talent that has come out of San Antonio and several players that have yet to have that chance.

One such player is Orlando Mendez-Valdez, who grew up on San Antonio’s west side. Valdez went to Lanier High School and was named the Greater San Antonio Player of the Year. After that, Mendez-Valdez moved onto Western Kentucky, and made two NCAA tournament appearances. His last tournament appearance was the last game of his collegiate career. He outplayed Gonzaga’s Jeremy Pargo and scored 25 points, had seven assists and three rebounds, shooting  9 of 12 from the field and made 7 of 10 three pointers. He ended off his senior year as Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year and was named to the 2009 AP All-American basketball team, but no one came calling on draft night, he was not invited to be on anyone’s summer league team and at this writing, he has not been invited to training camp.

While that may be one example, as a basketball fan in Texas, I’ve come across several talented Hispanic players that never got their chance. If Spurs scouts look in the right places, there may just be the next Ricky Rubio, Leandro Barbosa, Manu Ginobili, Jose Juan Barea or Eduardo Najera in the 210 area code.

About Michael A. De Leon

Michael founded Project Spurs in 2004. He started The Spurscast, the first Spurs podcast on the Internet, in 2005. Michael has been interviewed by the BBC, SportTalk, the Sports Reporters Radio Show, MemphisSportLive, OKC Sports Wrap and ESPN radio among others. He is a credentialed member of the media for the San Antonio Spurs and Austin Toros. He is also the founder of Project Spurs' sister sites, Toros Nation and Stars Hoops.

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