When looking at the NBA in recent years, it is hard to deny that it is becoming an international sport. Foreign players are starting to become the face of the league as the last four MVPs have gone out to Giannis Antekoumpo (Greece) and Nikola Jokic (Serbia). This trend does not seem to be slowing down, as other players such as Luka Dončić (Slovenia) and Joel Embid (Cameroon) are also right there at the top.
When looking at international players, one group that often gets overlooked for their contribution would be Latino players. While most of them may not be as well known as other players from around the world, Latinos have most definitely had an impact on the world of basketball.
“Butch” in the 70’s – 80’s
Going back to 1978, Alfred “Butch” Lee would be the first Latin American player to be drafted and play in the NBA. Born in Puerto Rico, Lee would find success in basketball early as he was selected to play for Puerto Rico in the 1976 Summer Olympics, dropping 35 points but coming up just short to upset the U.S. team losing by just one point.
His success would continue in college as he would lead Marquette to a National Championship before being drafted into the NBA by the Atlanta Hawks. Although he would have a solid start to his pro career, Lee’s time in the NBA would be cut short as he was plagued with injuries. Before leaving the NBA for good, he would go on to also be the first Latino to win an NBA championship with the 1979-1980 Lakers.
After Lee’s career, it wouldn’t be until the late 1980s that more Latin American players would begin to make their way to the NBA, primarily out of Puerto Rico, Panama, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Although most of these players did not have a big impact in the NBA, they still helped to open doors for many other Latinos and their journey into the league.
Latino Athletes in 1990’s – 2000’s
Fast forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s, Brazil and Argentina would produce extremely solid NBA players. Players such as Leandro Barbosa, Anderson Varejão, and Nenê would come out of Brazil to have successful careers in the NBA. Barbosa would play backup to the Steve Nash Phoenix Suns winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2007 and then going on to help Steph Curry win his first championship with the Warriors.
Argentina would also become a basketball powerhouse around the same time as many Argentines would enter the league and most notably, Manu Ginóbili who would be drafted in 1999 by the San Antonio Spurs. At this point, Ginóbili had already played for Argentina and was currently playing in Italy, and he decided he would continue to play in Italy going on to win a EuroLeague Championship.
He would then join the Spurs in 2002. Ginóbili would find success coming off the bench and being an integral part of the Spurs team helping them to win 4 championships. In 2004 during the summer Olympics, Ginóbili would succeed in defeating the U.S. Olympic team while playing for Argentina. This would put Ginóbili in an elite category being only 1 of 2 players to win a EuroLeague championship, NBA championship, and an Olympic gold medal.
Other accomplishments include popularizing the “Euro Step” layup, 2 All-Star appearances, being considered the greatest “Sixth Man” of all time, and most recently, being inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. Ginóbili left his mark on the world of basketball, and although he may not be the greatest international player of all time, he may have had the greatest basketball career out of any international player ever.
Latinos are still having an impact in the NBA as there are a handful of players from Latin America or who have roots there currently playing. Some notable players are Al Horford, a Dominican who is a former All-Star at the later end of his career but still producing solid numbers, Juan Toscano Anderson, a Mexican American who just won a championship with the Warriors, and even Carmelo Anthony, a likely Hall of Fame candidate is half Puerto Rican.
Latinos have a rich history in the world of basketball producing numerous players who have had successful careers. As the game continues to become more and more international and with Latino countries even challenging the U.S. at basketball, this may hopefully only inspire more Latin Americans to pursue careers in basketball.
Not only that, but such feats as Argentina winning gold in the Olympics and seeing how international players are now some of the best in the world should also encourage the game of basketball to become even more competitive and fun to watch as other countries realize they can be just as good as anyone else.