Their Southern California itinerary is a 10-year-old boy’s dream: Disneyland, a Los Angeles Lakers game and a visit to Santa Monica Beach, yet most of the players from a basketball academy in the mountains of southern Mexico have not heard of Mickey Mouse. Having grown up in isolated villages, basketball is a ticket to a better life for them.
At home in Oaxaca, Mexico, the youngsters are so poor that they play without shoes, but they were all wearing sneakers on Friday as they got to slap hands with Lakers players. After winning an international tournament in Argentina, they have been dubbed the “barefoot giants of the mountains.”
“Despite having everything against them, these children have shown their strength on the basketball court and won,” said Gerardo Vasquez, president of a federation of Oaxacan immigrant groups in Southern California. “They’ve shown the world that despite their circumstances, they are a light of hope for Oaxacans and Mexicans.”
While many Mexicans are soccer fans, in the rugged hills of Oaxaca State there are more ball courts than soccer pitches. Some say that the modern game echoes the traditional ceremonial game of ulama, which was played to the death in stone courts that now stand in ruins.
At home in southern Mexico, the seven to 11-year-old team members live at a boarding school, study Spanish and their native language of Triqui, and attend daily three-hour-long basketball practices.
The 17 players come from some of Mexico’s poorest areas, where “it looks like they’re stuck in the 18th century,” said Sergio Zuniga, chief coach and founder of the Mexican Academy of Indigenous Basketball in Oaxaca.
“To see children who only have one meal a day, sharing a plate of beans and one tortilla between three people, isn’t rare,” he said.
Zuniga said his program uses basketball to teach discipline and pride, to help children graduate high school and perhaps even attend a university.
On their first US tour, the boys are playing teams from Los Angeles-area Catholic schools, recreation leagues and even an ad-hoc team of reporters from Spanish-language media. They arrived on Tuesday last week and will leave after Christmas
The children are usually shorter than their opponents. Zuniga and his team of coaches, teachers and social workers cannot do anything about their genes, and even the 11-year-olds look like they are ages away from a teenage growth spurt.
On Wednesday night last week, while Zuniga shouted from the sidelines in Spanish and Triqui, the boys played a scrappy game and kept the score tight against their taller rivals in the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles to ultimately claim victory.
Team member Tobias de Jesus Bautista, 11, said he was undaunted by his opponents’ size.
“We have to give double, triple the effort, but I think we can compensate for our height by concentrating on our free-throws, by being in better physical condition and by being more sure of what we’re doing. We can reach our dreams,” Bautista said.