03 May 2011
Turista Libre Tijuana Basketball Game
Mexican basketball? Sort of.
Once upon a time, through the '80s and into the '90s I'm told, the popular athletics of this nation's northern reserves directly reflected those of the picket-fenced Jones on the other side of la linea. Baseball. Basketball. Fútbol americano. The townsfolk pledged allegiance to the major league outfits just across the border -- the Padres, Chargers, Raiders and Dodgers -- as if they were their own, even if their only opportunity of seeing any game for lack of a visa to enter the U.S. was on TV. They also entertained, albeit notably less enthusiastically, a notion of pride for their hometown counterparts. Los Potros. Los Galgos. Los Cosmos. Los Dragones.
With the ongoing migrant influx sending in a constant surge of transplants from other parts of Mexico, where a fútbol is always and unquestionably black, white and round, that eventually changed. The sport went from inspiring colloquial slurs you'd spit at some chilango to becoming Tijuana's unofficial international saving grace via its pro soccer club, Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente.
The love for deportes gabachos still carries on. Plaza Rio Mall includes an entire store dedicated to Padres paraphernalia (something you'd never see for the Potros; gracias, Malinche), and Chargers bolts stretching across the backs of SUVs are just as common here as they are in San Diego. But for the rocky existence of most of Tijuana's past sports teams, building and maintaining a fan base isn't necessarily an easy win.
Meet the Tijuana Zonkeys, the town’s stake in the Circuito de Baloncesto de la Costa del Pacífico. Billed as the “most important basketball league in northwest Mexico,” Most of the 10 teams hail from Sinaloa and Sonora; the rest come from Baja California and Nayarit. Per the league's rules, each team includes three international players, many of whom have played professionally in Europe and Japan. They're also required to have at least one Mexican-American and two or three locals, one of which must be under the age of 21.
Now in their second season, the Zonkeys came to be after their baloncesto predecessor the Galgos underwent an image overhaul and changed their name to the Cosmos in 2005, which soon later went the way of the dodo, followed by the Dragones, an ABA team that folded in 2008. Their inaugural run left them in last place, at 7-32. This year's sizing up to be more of a promising go at the bordertown basketball rodeo, however. They're currently at 8-9.
Named after the donkeys done up to look like zebras on Revolucion -- timeless Tijuana icons for better or worse -- they’re headed by Tony Tee, the notorious and often suspendered TJ party promoter who serves as the team’s director of entertainment and Mother Hen whenever on the road for their two weekly away games.
Home games happen in the city's municipal auditorium, an intergalactic homage to 1980s domed architecture that's located east of downtown on Boulevard Agua Caliente where the crowd averages around 1,500 for weekend games and 300 on weeknights. Not necessarily what you'd call sellout figures. Knowing there's little sense in attempting to compete with what he calls the "beer and tits" of pro soccer, being the newbie minor-league basketball team in town, Tee's gone for a different demographic: the family man.
In lieu of pricey Barbie Doll cheerleaders, he's put the half-time show in the hands of a grade school dance troupe known as the Zonkey Babiez, who pull off a pretty impressive rendition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Then there's Dr. Z, the team's official medic who wears a zebra tail pinned to his lab coat. He performs handstands with the Zonkey Babiez and doubles as a comic relief during timeouts alongside the El Florido piggy.
And, taking the familiar vibe farther than the court, Tee's spearheaded a "Zonkids" outreach program where the team pays visit to elementary schools in Tijuana's lower-income neighborhoods. The guys bring basketballs, sign autographs and play with the kids. Pretty admirable.
He's even curated his announcer persona -- the speed of a high-balling auctioneer, the swagger of a used luxury car salesman and a voice that could fit the supporting tonto-go-lucky character in many a Disney cartoon -- to excite the kids.
That night the Zonkeys barely axed Sinaloa’s Frayles de Guasave 110-109. All in all, in typical TJ style, going with the flow was necessary for the fans.
The scoreboard was on an indefinite siesta, leaving Tee to narrate the game in his typical Spanglish dialect, spitting out the current score as often as possible along with the occasional "¡Va-mos Zon-keys!"
And for some unknown reason the beer coolers hath unfortunately runneth dry, which usually isn't the case. Coca-Cola 1, Tecate and Turista Libre 0. Oh well. We sucked it up. For the niños pues.
Before the game los turistas tore through cactus and queso tacos at Sonora Mia at Sanchez Taboada and Cuauhtemoc Sur in Zona Rio, which foodie blog Street Gourmet LA calls “the best of all the great Sonoran steak restaurants in Tijuana.”
Musha mashaca para todos los mushashos. Say that five times fast, Hermosillo.