It is about the basketball, this trip south of the border for the Miami Heat. But these two NBA games this week in Mexico City also are about more, if only because the NBA has become about more.
"The lifestyle component is something that is very particular with the NBA, compared with other sports," Raul Zarraga, the NBA's vice president and country director for Mexico, said by phone earlier this week. "It's just a trendy, fashion-conscious, high-tech profile that it's completely different to the other sports. And for our fans, the access to the digital platforms, it's very helpful to them to follow trends, to follow Instagram, to see how they dress."
That doesn't mean it won't be about the games and results when the Heat play the Nets at Mexico City Arena -- or Arena Ciudad de Mexico, if you prefer -- or when the Nets, the home team for the two games, host the Oklahoma City Thunder there on Thursday night.
It's just that the NBA continues to project itself in these international appearances beyond the outcomes.
For the Heat, while there are practices scheduled for both Thursday at Friday, there also are numerous events, mostly on Friday, including an autograph session, partner clinic and NBA Games Mexico party.
For the NBA the progression has been from exhibitions in Mexico, dating to 1992, to regular-season games there starting in 1997. Earlier this year, the Phoenix Suns played the Dallas Mavericks in Mexico City on Jan. 12, followed by a Jan. 14 game there between the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs, making this the first time that Mexico has hosted four regular-season games in the same calendar year.
"We are looking to extend and expand our activity to other states in Mexico, not only Mexico City, but have this real nationwide footprint," said Zarraga, who previous worked for NFL Mexico and now directs all of the NBA's efforts in marketing partnerships, events, television, digital media and licensed merchandise. "They're always looking for more, and that's what we're here for."
Heat center Kelly Olynyk scored 21 points for the Boston Celtics in a 114-97 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 3, 2015 in Mexico City, with Heat forward James Johnson scoring two points for the Toronto Raptors in a 106-103 victory over the Orlando Magic on Jan. 14, 2016 in Mexico City.
While events such as these tend to raise question of the establishment of an NBA franchise in the country, Zarraga said that is not the focus.
"At this point," he said, "we don't have any plans on the radar to do a franchise or expand or reallocate a franchise to any other place. Definitely, it that was one of the alternatives or if an opportunity arises, we are ready to raise our hands and say Mexico City could be an option.
"Economically, Mexico is very important and very strong. Mexico City could be one of the options. But, again, it's a long road to go. We don't have anything in our plan, just keep doing these kind of games, doing more opportunities with growing our partnerships."
Zarraga said the Heat raised their profile in Mexico with the team's success during the Big Three championship era with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He said it also is not unusual to spot the jerseys of the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs on the streets of Mexico City.
Ultimately, he said Mexico's success on the international stage and in producing NBA players will further boost interest.
Among players Mexico has sent to the NBA have been Eduardo Najera, Gustavo Ayon, Horacio llamas and Jorge Gutierrez. In addition, former NBA point guard and recently deposed Suns coach Earl Watson had played for the Mexican national team. Among those who have coached Mexico's national team have been former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson and former Chicago Bulls championship center Bill Cartwright. To this stage, Mexico's greatest success was winning the 2013 AmeriCup, finishing third in the competition this past summer.
"It is very important to keep professionalizing the sport and keep promoting it," Zarraga said, "so in the future we can have a very good team playing in the Olympics and international competition. We're actually working much more closely with the local authorities to keep detecting that talent."
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