The city of San Antonio has long been known as a basketball town, and not just because of it’s lone professional sports franchise, the San Antonio Spurs.
San Antonio’s rich basketball history extends to the high school level, where local teams have excelled and have made several trips to the State Tournament.
Lanier High School on San Antonio’s west side has had a storied basketball team, whose success has been marked by the blond locks on the players, and this year, on San Antonio’s mayor Julian Castro.
But well before the blond dye jobs, before producing a Division 1 player in Orlando Mendez-Valdez that is now on Mexico’s National team and well before Rudy Bernal paced the sidelines in his royal blue blazer, there were two state champions that played under “Nemo” Herrera.
In his latest book, When Mexicans Could Play Ball, Ignacio Garcia talked about those teams and several others between 1928 and 1945, and not only their battles on the court, but also battles with racism.
In 1939, a team of short, scrappy kids from a vocational school established specifically for Mexican Americans became the high school basketball champions of San Antonio, Texas. Their win, and the ensuing riot it caused, took place against a backdrop of shifting and conflicted attitudes toward Mexican Americans and American nationalism in the WWII era. “Only when the Mexicans went from perennial runners-up to champs,” García writes, “did the emotions boil over.”
The first sports book to look at Mexican American basketball specifically, When Mexicans Could Play Ball is also a revealing study of racism and cultural identity formation in Texas.
García investigates the school administrators’ project to Americanize the students, Herrera’s skillful coaching, and the team’s rise to victory despite discrimination and violence from other teams and the world outside of the school. Ultimately, García argues, through their participation and success in basketball at Lanier, the Voks players not only learned how to be American but also taught their white counterparts to question long-held assumptions about Mexican Americans.
While San Antonio and the Spurs are synonymous, there are hardwood courts peppered throughout the city where stories are being written and barriers are continuing to be broken. Just as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reminds players about all the work that came before with Jacob Riis’ quote about the stonecutter, Garcia reminds about the 100 strokes that generations players took at their proverbial stone at the local high school level.
The book is published and available for purchase by the University of Texas Press.