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Palm Beach Post (Florida)


Goran Dragic has played basketball all over the world. The Slovenian native has been a staple on his national team for more than a decade, reaching the pinnacle last summer by leading his country to its first European championship.

In his travels, Dragic has played in every European country "where basketball is huge," China, Singapore and, of course, the United States and Canada as a 10-year NBA veteran.

Also on the list: Mexico, when Dragic's Suns team played a preseason game in 2009 during his second season in the league.

Dragic, though, was not able to experience the culture and uniqueness of the country. The visit came during a swine flu scare, and the players mostly were confined to their hotel.

"A lot of washing hands," Dragic said. "It was not a fun time."

Early Thursday, Dragic returned to the country along with his Miami Heat teammates for the NBA's 2017 Mexico City Games. But this time, along with preparing to play the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday at the Arena Ciudad de Mexico, Dragic plans to make up for lost time.

"Basketball is a global sport," Dragic said. "For us players it's a chance to play in different countries, different cities. That's big. You can say hello to those fans; you can interact. It's a beautiful city, and I'm looking forward to playing games there.

"I didn't get to see much the last time I was here."

The games are part of a global plan by the league to expand the game beyond its borders of the United States and Canada.

The 2017 games — which also include Thursday's late game between Brooklyn and Oklahoma City — continue a tradition begun with the first NBA game in Mexico, a preseason contest between Houston and Dallas in 1992. These are the fifth and sixth regular season games in Mexico City since 2014, the most recent in January, when Phoenix faced Dallas and San Antonio at the Arena Ciudad de Mexico.

The two games this week bring to 26 the number of NBA games played in Mexico since 1992, the most held in any country outside of the United States and Canada.

The games have not always gone off without a hitch. In 2016, a game between San Antonio and Minnesota was canceled when a generator malfunctioned hours before scheduled tipoff, filling the arena with smoke. The game was rescheduled to be played in Minneapolis.

Commissioner Adam Silver said playing games here is "a further indication of our desire to strengthen our ties to Mexico and Latin America."

The NBA released a fact sheet four years ago that said 13 million people follow the league in Mexico. A year ago, the league determined it had more than 1.2 million follows across social media platforms.

Silver recently said the next step is to bring more games to Mexico and to open an academy in the country. Mexico has a development academy, but Silver wants to explore putting together an academy sanctioned by the league.

"Mexico City has a lot of people playing basketball," said Raul Zarraga, the NBA's managing director in Mexico since 2008. "In Mexico there are more basketball courts than any other sport, including soccer. It's very important for them to offer the most important event of the NBA, which is the regular season games."

Both games are expected to sell out the 22,300-seat arena, and Zarraga said all the events surrounding the games are well attended. Last year, the league held a Jr. NBA event in Mexico City that attracted 1,500 children, and more than 60,000 showed up for the NBA 3-on-3 event that included 163 teams.

"We have to continue working with a base of young players to identify and promote their talent across pro basketball," Zarraga told "There's talent in Mexico. We're still searching for the best model to find these players and project them to the NBA."

There are no Mexican-born players in the NBA. But most recently, natives Eduardo Najera, Horacio Llamas, Jorge Gutierrez and Gustavo Ayon played in the league.

The NBA has been playing games, preseason and regular season, outside the United States and Canada since 1978. Since, close to 100 games, including 26 regular season, have been played in more than a dozen countries.

The first regular season games abroad were in 1990 in Japan. The first regular season game in Mexico City was played in 1997. The Heat have played preseason games in Nassau, San Juan, Santo Domingo, Paris, London, Beijing, Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro. This is Miami's first regular-season game outside the United States and Canada.

"We love these opportunities," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That's one of the great things about the NBA: W e get to compete in the game we love, but it's a global game. We get an opportunity to expand the game and expand the interest of the game of basketball. I love these trips."

Spoelstra, who had never been to Mexico City, is big on bonding, a reason he prefers to take the team out of Miami for training camp. Although this trip is just three days, he believes the unique setting will help bring the team closer. The Heat are on the second stop of a three-game road trip that started with a 117-105 loss at San Antonio on Wednesday.

"I think it's an opportunity for our team to get connected, go through an experience that's different, all of us going out of country," Spoelstra said. "I love these trips, and I'm looking forward to seeing Mexico City. I think it's great to see different parts of the world and do it while we're playing the game we love." Twitter: @tomdangelo44

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December 8, 2017


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