This marks the eighth NBA season that I could be a fan. Before then, the people in the NBA front offices didn’t know how to reach someone like me. I watched a lot of soccer, maybe the occasional baseball game, some boxing. Sports that could really get me riled up. Not that I didn’t try to enjoy the game; I sat emotionless in front of the television and watched dunk after high-flying dunk bring down the house, whatever. Not impressive. Basketball just didn’t have what I needed from a sport, and I didn’t know what I needed until it happened. What I needed was for the players to wear jerseys that were exactly the same, except they had “Los” or “El” in front of the name of the team on the front. That’s when it clicked. I’ve been an increasingly avid hoops fan ever since.
In actuality, I’m a Cuban-American from the suburbs of Miami, where Spanglish is the main spoken language. We should have been consulted on this application of our mother tongue. I’ve been watching El Heat since before I could dribble (let’s suspend disbelief for a second and assume that I can dribble.) I can’t tell if I’m the exact person that the NBA’s Hispanic Heritage Appreciation campaign intends to reach. I don’t know if they understand how mad it makes me that we lost to the Spurs by 24 yesterday because they made LeBron wear the sleeved EL HEAT jersey. Have they ever gained a fan this way? Has anyone ever purchased a LOS BULLS or a LOS KNICKS jersey? Has there ever been a prospective young Latino/a fan, sitting on the fence about whether to keep watching basketball, who was swung by this promotion? Is the Wisconsin Hispanic community clamoring for LOS BUCKS merchandise? I contemplated this during last Sunday’s nationally televised Knicks-Bulls game, during which the typical broadcast music was replaced by the first result in the AV intern’s “salsa music” iTunes search.
A very empirically sound and scientific poll of all of the Hispanic people I asked about this came out unanimously: it’s pandering. After all, it’d suspiciously nice of the league to turn into such big Hispanic culture buffs just to learn more about, say, icons like Cesar Chavez or Menudo. So why do they do it? Ostensibly because the NBA is always trying to expand the reach of the game internationally, and they felt like they could do some more reaching into Latin American countries. The most prominent visual approach they chose to achieve this end was clumsily slapping Spanish articles before English words, making it look like a product of the episode of “Full House” where Danny Tanner dates a Spanish teacher and tries to roll his r’s. I have doubts that the American public would have been too scandalized by an occasional LOS TOROS jersey or a significantly more unwieldy LOS LAGUNEROS jersey. If they were to make that one relatively minor and low-risk move, then I’d be writing about how spring training reminds us of our innocence this week instead.
The most pressing question to be asked here, though, is who in these countries, or among the tens of millions of Hispanic-Americans in the United States, is going to look at this and feel like their culture is being adequately acknowledged? Who decided that Hispanic culture even needed to be honored by the NBA, except someone who saw it as a way to game the demographics? It’s the hoops equivalent of confusing 7-Eleven taquitos with a skilled rendering of Oaxacan cuisine. If baseball, the stodgiest and most traditionally racist of the major American sports, could find a way to grow a gigantic, rabid Hispanic fan base well before it stooped to a LOS METS abomination, then surely the NBA’s best effort at engaging this sector of the population could be something significantly less on-the-nose. To enjoy the game, Hispanics do not need to be “appreciated,” we do not need our own Jeremy Lin (although I envisioned myself in this role once when I hit five threes in a pickup game in high school), and we do not need you to involve us in this sleeved-jersey mess. Not our idea. In fact, it should be remembered that Spanish speakers beat the NBA to the iffy-translation game long ago. It’s been called “basquetbol” for decades already.