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In shadow of NBA, Mexico City's pro team fights for fans

From ESPN - December 7, 2017

MEXICO CITY -- Modern songs blast from the speakers, and cheerleaders perform elaborate dances at midcourt during timeouts. A video screen fills pauses in the action by showing spectators dancing or the ever-popular kiss cam. Merchandise stands sell sleekly designed team gear. Team ambassadors launch prizes and T-shirts into the stands, and millennial celebrities in flat-brimmed caps enjoy the game -- and being seen -- from their courtside seats.

A night at a typical NBA game? Far from it.

Midway through the contest, the home team's hype woman grabs a mic to lead the crowd in a chant of "Va-mos Ca-pi-tan-es" to the familiar cadence of "We Will Rock You." It does not quite catch on in the aging, half-filled arena, and the chant quietly dies out.

This is basketball in the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional (LNBP), Mexico's 11-team professional league.

As the Brooklyn Nets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat prepare for two games this week at the state-of-the-art Mexico City Arena, on the other side of town another pro team is fighting to win the hearts and minds of the city's basketball fans. The expansion Capitanes de Ciudad Mexico -- the Mexico City Captains -- are trying to succeed where team after team before them failed. And they are using the NBA as their guide.

"Growing up, I was a huge Lakers fan," Moises Cosio, one of the Capitanes' founders and owners, said in English (others quoted in this story were interviewed in Spanish). "I studied what Dr. [Jerry] Buss did for Los Angeles during the Magic Johnson, Showtime Lakers era. It was about basketball, but it was also about something much greater than basketball -- the spectacle."

NO CITY IN MEXICO comes close in size, population or importance to the nation's capital. It's the center of government, economy, and the arts -- Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. rolled into one. Yet even with a population exceeding 20 million from which to draw fans, five Mexico City-based teams have folded since the LNBP debuted in 2000.

"I have been a huge basketball fan as long as I can remember," Cosio, a 33-year-old film producer, said before a November home game against the San Luis Potosi Santos (Saints). "Lately though, I have just been watching the NBA because we did not have anything in Mexico City. And so this is something that I think all of us fans here wanted, to be able to cheer for a team from our own city."

The Capitanes' home court is the Juan de la Barrera Olympic Gymnasium, a building steeped in history but one that shows its age, from the uncomfortable plastic seats to the gray concrete walkways. The Capitanes have been averaging around 2,600 fans in the 5,300-seat arena that hosted the volleyball competition at the 1968 Olympics. Excluding courtside seats, which are by personal invitation only, tickets run from 99 to 199 pesos (around $5 to $10).

It's a far cry from the spectacle happening this week on the north side of town, where NBA fans will pack the 22,300-seat Mexico City Arena, which opened in 2012 and cost nearly $300 million to build. Tickets for this week's games range from $22 to $430, quite expensive in a country where the minimum wage was recently raised to 88.36 pesos (around $4.70) per day.

Cosio and his partners, Rodrigo Trujillo and Patricio Garza, recognize that while the Capitanes ca not compete with the NBA, they can learn from it.

"The Capitanes are working in a very professional manner, and they have put together quite an impressive team," LNBP commissioner Alonso Izaguirre said.

So far, Mexico City's first attempt to establish an LNBP team has been its most successful, with the Ola Roja -- Red Wave -- lasting seven seasons from the league's inaugural year until 2006. Since then, four other franchises have come and gone, and the city has yet to field a championship team.

Izaguirre blamed the instability of the previous Mexico City teams primarily on planning and budget, two areas where the Capitanes are exceeding expectations, he said.

"Definitely for us it was really important that the LNBP returned to Mexico City. Obviously it's Mexico's main city," Izaguirre said. "The people are responding to the great team that the Capitanes put together. There was a lot of thirst, a hunger to see the league back in Mexico City. Now the fans are anxious for a championship."

WHEN CAPITANES GUARD Chris Geyne found out that a team was returning to his hometown, he was excited about the impact it could have.

"We play a lot of basketball here," Geyne said. "There's a lot of local leagues all around Mexico City, but there was not anything professional to aspire too. So having one [a pro team], it will give basketball in the city a local boom again; it was a bit lost."

Geyne wears his pride in Mexico City on his sleeves, literally. The coordinates of the city's Miguel Hidalgo borough, where his father was born, are tattooed on his right forearm; the coordinates of his mother's birthplace, the borough of Cuauhtemoc, are on his left.

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