(Watch some highlights from the Indigenous Basketball Association Mexico games.)
“If someone steps on your toes, you just keep playing,” said Melquiades Ramirez, a 10-year-old boy who goes by the nickname “Kevin Durant” but who, at 4-foot-1, is considerably shorter than his NBA idol.
The Triqui (like “TREE-key”) are among the dozens of indigenous peoples who live in the pine-forested mountains of southern Mexico’s Oaxaca state, and for the past few decades, growing up here has involved fairly predictable rites of passage. Teenage boys would follow their fathers and brothers north to pick grapes in California and berries in the Pacific Northwest, saving their money for a patch of land, a bride and maybe even a used pickup. Girls can be sold to suitors at age 13 or 14.
But in recent years, crossing the U.S. border has gone from difficult to dangerous to nearly impossible, and this has thrown the Triqui world out of whack. Fewer Triquis go north. Those already on the other side are stuck there.
The ones who remain behind — often grandparents and children — live by hard-luck farming and government handouts.
What’s left is basketball.
“Their hunger and poverty is their potential,” said Sergio Zuñiga, the tall, soft-spoken outsider who the Triquis call “Coach.”
“It is their way out,” he said.
Not likely to the NBA. The tallest known Triqui is about 5-foot-10. But Zuñiga is in no hurry to burst the hoop dreams of the kids under his care.
His goals are more modest, although still a long shot for a boy or girl from Rio Venado. Learn to read and write Spanish. Attend high school in Oaxaca, the state capital, and maybe even go on to college. Have career options beyond sneaking over the U.S. border or sharecropping a cornfield.
Basketball is just the bait.
“These kids are invisible in Mexico,” Zuñiga said. “They grow up eating one, maybe two meals a day, and sometimes that’s a tortilla with salt or a tortilla with some wild herbs.”
“We are trying to bring them out of the shadows,” he said.
A former Mexican-league professional basketball player from a middle-class Mexico City family, Zuñiga, 43, founded the Mexican Indigenous Basketball Academy three years ago with his wife, who is from Oaxaca.
The state is one of the country’s poorest, and the sport was introduced by U.S. missionaries decades ago.
Basketball — not soccer — became a gravitational center in remote indigenous villages whose ties to the rest of Mexico are frayed by centuries of discrimination and neglect.