Mexico City • As much as can possibly be expected, the Utah Jazz’s game against the Orlando Magic in Mexico City will be a pretty standard road affair.
The team is flying in the afternoon before the game, as they usually do, which has the added bonus of mitigating the impact of the altitude on their performance. Mexico City is at 7,400 feet while Salt Lake City is at about 4,200 feet. Mexico City is closer to Salt Lake City than Orlando, so they even save some travel time over a normal trip to Florida.
They’ll bus to their fancy team hotel, enjoy dinner, and then play a game relatively early the next day. They’ll fly out immediately after the game to Houston. In other words, there’s not a lot of time to be a tourist, not a lot of opportunity to experience Mexico City.
But for everyone else, this is a special occasion.
The Jazz’s game is the second of two home games that the Magic are hosting in Mexico City, so Orlando’s players and staff have been around seeing sights and getting involved in some charitable events.
Basketball is the second-most played team sport in Mexico, behind the ubiquitous futbol, and so the opportunity to see players live and up close in their country is a big deal.
“It means a lot for the Mexican fans,” Raul Zarraga, managing director of the NBA’s Mexico office, said. “The real action is the best way for fans to enjoy the NBA game.” Zarraga says it’s a “tradition” they’re trying to start in Mexico, after five consecutive seasons of either one or two NBA regular season games taking place at the Arena de Ciudad de Mexico.
Seeing international players is also a draw for the fans, and the Jazz’s roster features seven non-American players.
“Once we decided that Orlando was coming to Mexico, we started looking for good teams for them to play. Utah has been playing well, they had a great season and playoffs,” Zarraga said. “And right now with Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and the way they are performing, we were looking for the best possible experience for our fans. Utah is one of those teams.”
Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who is from France, knows what it means to have NBA games in an international city.
“The league is worldwide, there are a lot of people around the world, a lot of countries, that don’t have the opportunity to see a game," Gobert said. "So I think it’s great. It’s a good opportunity to promote the game, and for the kids, it’s fun.”
The games here also serve as a focal point for everything else NBA Mexico is trying to accomplish. This month, they’re renovating a school, refurbishing a court and holding special clinics with kids as part of their outreach program through NBA Cares.
The league is also looking to start a G League franchise in Mexico City, something Adam Silver announced at last year’s Mexico City games. Zarraga says there’s not a specific opening date for that team, but it would give the NBA a year-round foothold.
“We are communicating and negotiating the contacts that we need to build that project in Mexico. We have received a lot of interest and traction from local investors and people here in Mexico. We are putting the pieces together," Zarraga said. “There’s not a specific timeframe at this point.” Having Silver in town to push the ball a little bit further only helps.
The interest the fans have shown matters, too. ESPN’s Mexico channel made coverage of Orlando’s first game against the Chicago Bulls a priority, much more than any other game with two sub-.500 teams. But the Liga MX Final — Mexico’s soccer league championship — scheduled for the same time as Thursday’s first game, did get the most attention. Both games sold out.
And while the Jazz will be spending just over 24 hours in Mexico City, some players are excited to show off their skills for the day. When Gobert was asked about his Spanish, he quickly responded, “Que piensas?” Or in English: “What do you think?”