Americans call the Mexican basketball league home

A packed house at the estadio del Domo, where the Osos de Guadalajara played in Mexico's Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional's 2012-13 season. Cioran Castañeda/LatinContent/Getty Images

MEXICO CITY -- Andy Panko’s NBA career spans all of one minute. On Jan. 11, 2001, the then-23-year-old forward was nearing the end of a 10-day contract with the Atlanta Hawks. With 11 seconds left, and his squad comfortably ahead by 11 against the Golden State Warriors, Panko was subbed in by Atlanta coach Lon Kruger.

It would be Panko’s first and last NBA game. The experience was over so quickly, even he has trouble remembering the specifics.

“It was all such a blur,” said Panko, an 18-year veteran of the pro game. “What I do remember is standing at the free throw line, looking around and seeing guys like Chris Mullin, players I had grown up watching. It was surreal.”

Panko’s limited experience in the NBA, however, is just a footnote in an otherwise successful career outside the league.

“I obviously wish I would’ve hung around longer, but it is what it is,” he said. “After I didn’t get a call from the NBA after the Hawks, I headed overseas to provide for my family.”

Panko plays for Fuerza Regia in Mexico's 11-team Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional (LNBP). It's his second season here, after crisscrossing continents to play for teams in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Italy, France, Greece and Spain.

“For us, it’s huge that guys like Panko are with us,” said LNBP commissioner Alonso Izaguirre. A former player, Izaguirre played his entire career in Mexico before retiring in 2014. Last year, he was named league commissioner.

“We’ve had famous players with NBA pasts throughout our history. Many talented players from the United States and elsewhere have called this league home, and we definitely want to be known as the best Latin American league in the world.”

Notably, between 2004 and 2005, Dennis Rodman moonlighted with the Fuerza Regia and the defunct Tijuana Dragons of the semipro American Basketball Association (ABA). The NBA Hall of Famer’s cameos in Mexico spawned plenty of news stories. However, some weren’t confined to the hardwood. After his debut in Tijuana, for instance, Rodman exited the auditorium to find his Cadillac Escalade SUV had been broken into. In Monterrey, he once limited his outing to six minutes on the court before leaving midgame to go to a dance club.

Though Rodman’s time in Mexico was envisioned to give the former great a boost back into the NBA, many hopefuls know the odds of being picked up are slim, despite the geographical proximity.

“No player wants to hear that they’re not going to make it to the NBA,” said Darius Rice, of the Mineros de Zacatecas. “I played with Shaquille O’Neal; I was signed by Miami and Cleveland. I know I can play with those guys.”

Rice, a sharpshooter who played his college ball at the University of Miami, went undrafted in 2004. Despite finishing his three seasons in the NBA G-League averaging double-digits in points, Rice, the nephew of NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, has never once played in a regular-season NBA game.

“No one can outshoot me, I feel. But the NBA doesn’t take guys that are 35 years old,” Rice said.

Throughout his 13-year career, his skills have taken him around the world. “I’ve played in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America. I’ve been all over,” Rice said. His last two stops before Mexico were Macedonia and Qatar.

Now in Mexico, Rice, born in Jackson, Mississippi, relishes what he says is a much quicker pace than the one deployed in Europe.

“I love the Latin American game. In Mexico, it’s tough and it’s competitive. It rivals the [NBA] G-League with the tempo," said Rice, who played in Venezuela in 2006 with the Marinos de Anzoátegui as well as Puerto Rico with the Gigantes de Carolina and the Capitanes de Arecibo in 2009 and 2010.

Rice can also get around the central Mexican colonial city of Zacatecas with relative ease. “I can speak poquito Spanish. Just enough to get by.”

As the closest foreign basketball league from the United States, the LNBP is an attractive destination for Americans. Of the 135 total players listed on the league’s website, more than half, or 54 percent, hold an American passport.

Some of those U.S.-born players are dual nationals who have competed or are eligible for Mexico’s national basketball team, like Lorenzo Mata of the Soles de Mexicali, Idris Dawud of the Toros de Nuevo Laredo, or Stephen Soriano of the Aguacateros de Michoacan.

Soriano, a graduate of Colorado Christian University, has spent the past eight seasons in Mexico, winning a championship in 2016 with the defunct Pioneros de Quintana Roo. The 6-foot-7 forward now plays for Aguacateros de Michoacán, on the Pacific coast.

“I get a lot of friends visiting and watching me play whenever we get close to the border,” said Soriano, a native of Mayer, Arizona. “The LNBP is a great league for Americans in general but also Mexican-Americans. You get a mix of guys who have played NCAA ball with players from Mexico and other countries. The addition of really good Mexican-Americans has made the level of the league that much better.”

Rice and Panko also enjoy the relative closeness from the United States, allowing them to spend more time with their families even as the season wears on. “I’ve had one Thanksgiving and one Christmas at home in my career -- so it’s a good trade-off,” Rice said.

Izaguirre admits the easy travel is a beneficial factor toward attracting talent to his league, though not the determinant one.

“Being close to home is definitely a plus,” he said. “But we know they come here because the league’s level is competitive. It’s not geography in the end. It’s basketball.”

This year, Panko traveled back from Monterrey to his native Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving break. “I mean, I live in the Central time zone, I’m five hours away from home by plane. I can leave at 6 a.m. and be home by noon. It’s a big reason why I’m here.”

The nearness to the United States was also a big reason why Toronto Raptors forward Alfonzo McKinnie found his way to Mexico in 2016, when he joined the country’s summer league, the Circuito de Baloncesto de la Costa del Pacífico (CIBACOPA), and the Rayos de Hermosillo.

A graduate of UW-Green Bay, McKinnie averaged 7.1 points in his college career. After going undrafted in 2015, he moved to Luxembourg, where his scoring greatly improved. Wanting to keep his momentum going, he was referred to Mexico by an old friend, former North Dakota forward Emmanuel Little, who played in the Mexican league.

Quickly, McKinnie settled into a strong team in Rayos that finished atop the regular-season standings and made the final series, falling four games to two against the Nauticos de Mazatlan.

McKinnie remembers his time in Mexico with fondness. “The fans in Mexico were great, every single one of those fan bases are amazing,” he said. “They would wait for us outside the gym for selfies and autographs.”

Not familiar with Hermosillo’s scorching summers (highs in July can reach 103 degrees Fahrenheit), McKinnie recalled getting an assist from a group of Rayos fans when he decided to take a walk out into the city.

“I didn’t speak any Spanish, they didn’t speak any English, but they knew I was playing for Hermosillo, and I knew they were fans. So they offered to drive me where I was going,” McKinnie said.

Emboldened by his positive performances in Hermosillo, McKinnie flew to Chicago where he paid to participate in a public tryout.

“I was doing well, but people don’t usually look at Mexico to find players, so I had to go out and do it myself,” he said.

The tryout got McKinnie on the Chicago Bulls’ G-League affiliate. Following a season in which he made the league’s All-Star Game, he signed a multiyear contract with the Raptors prior to the 2017-18 season. To this day, he believes his work overseas was necessary to make it happen.

“If you got the talent, if you’re doing the right stuff and you have the work ethic, you deserve a shot no matter where you play,” McKinnie said. “I was just one of those guys who got lucky. The NBA is the hardest business to get into, but my work ethic showed and someone noticed it.”

Panko agrees with the assessment. In his second season with Monterrey's Fuerza Regia, he notes the Mexican game is still on an upward trend.

“There’s a big opportunity for the game to keep growing here,” Panko said. “I get asked about Mexico all the time. I tell guys to come and expect a good albeit physical style of play.”

Having just turned 40, Panko isn’t yet mulling retirement. He has, however, begun to look back with fondness on his career to this point, including his brief NBA walk-on.

“I wouldn’t change anything. It was a cool experience, a good story to tell my friends and my son -- that [Hawks] jersey is hanging up there with the rest of them.”