How Horacio Llamas Became the First Mexican Immigrant to Reach the NBA

Alan Chazaro details the former Suns Center's winding path to the NBA – although he never became a superstar, his journey and cultural impact remain an inspiration to Mexican fans.
By    August 18, 2023

Image via Horacio Llamas/Instagram

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When Horacio Llamas, the 6’11” teenager from Sinaloa, Mexico, migrated to Tucson, Arizona, in 1993, he wasn’t the first Mexican to cross the border off the strength of his calves. And though the future Phoenix Sun wasn’t the first Mexican-born athlete to play pro sports in the United States, he was one of the most tantalizing – blessed with a bulletproof frame that could withstand the blows of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley or Hakeem Olajuwon during the NBA’s Golden Age of centers.

If only for a fleeting moment, Llamas was the first Mexican to levitate on the NBA’s hardwood. He was never close to superstardom, but that didn’t matter. For Mexican fans, he was — and will forever remain — el mero mero.

Unlike many of basketball’s Herculean bigs, who seemed pre-destined to become franchise centerpieces, Llamas cut an uncharted path to the league. It took navigating a foreign country’s regulation, differing customs, and language barriers. These things had never been seen in an NBA context, but are commonplace among anyone who has ever stepped out of Latin America in order to reap the opportunities of white America.

The journey began in El Rosario, a “pueblo magico” of less than 16,000 in northern Mexico mostly known for its array of underground mines leftover from a century of colonial Spanish subjugation. By the age of 17, Llamas had suited up for Mexico’s national squad. There was a stint with the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional on Mexico’s professional circuit.

As word circulated about the Sinaloense giant, the University of Arizona began recruiting him, but the scholarship never materialized. Llamas had spent years studying English as a Second Language, but was unaware that it didn’t count towards his college admission. Lacking the transferable credits required to attend a NCAA DI school, the young Mexicano instead played at Tucson’s Pima Community College — a tiny institution whose mascot cosmically depicted an Aztec warrior —- where he received All-Conference honors in his freshman and sophomore seasons. He later transferred to Grand Canyon University, an obscure campus lacking basketball clout, where he became the Division II National Player of the Year.

Even after these accolades, he had yet to prove his value stateside. He went undrafted and remained largely unknown. Like most imported Mexican workers, he arrived here with nothing more than hope tucked deep into his gym short pockets and an attitude to get the job done. Llamas was determined to do something unseen at the time; he provided a unique brand of physical labor, the kind where a border might suddenly begin to disappear with each free throw.

Eventually, Llamas caught the attention of NBA scouts with his indefatigable persistence and Thunderdome work ethic — back when bullish centers could trample their way onto a court with more muscle than finesse. Never the most feathery, Llamas was a 285-pound tractor built to rumble beneath the rim. And as time went on, he began to attract attention from NBA scouts, particularly among teams with sizable Spanish-speaking fanbases. Capitalism never misses opportunities, and here they had a big one. In a position to cash in, Lamas laced up at the opportunity.

The Los Angeles Lakers invited Llamas to their 1996 Summer League games in Long Beach. Soon after, the Atlanta Hawks invited him to training camp, where he spent nearly two months before being cut. Rather than discarding his hoop dream and returning south for the winter, the gigante suited up for the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the Continental Basketball Association.

It’s something immigrants often do — jeopardize everything they are familiar with in order to precariously gain what they’ve only ever dreamed of. In many cases, the ball clanks off an unforgiving rim and the game clock expires. But in a few celestial instances, when the swirl of numbing paperwork, institutional biases, skin tone, skills, opportunity, and preparation align for that perfect look, one’s best shot might actually kiss the net. And for Llamas, it briefly did. During his time on South Dakota’s CBA squad, Llamas earned All-Rookie Second Team honors.

His moment finally arrived. Llamas joined the Phoenix Suns during their 1997 campaign. Suddenly, the largest Spanish speaker in the Dakotas went from practicing his English inside a frigid, semi-pro gym to suiting up in a desert arena next to a fluid trio of generational guards in Kevin Johnson, Rex Chapman and Jason Kidd. With that, he officially became the first Mexican immigrant to claim his locker inside an NBA facility..

It’s important to note that Llamas wasn’t the first Mexican-heritage baller in league history, nor was he the most impactful on the court. In 1981, the Dallas Mavericks selected Mark Aguirre with the No. 1 overall pick. The half-Black, half-Mexican player from Chicago would go on to trailblaze his way toward winning two NBA championships as a key role player with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. The thing about Aguirre is that he never seemingly brandished his Mexican roots openly and declined to play for Mexico during the 1992 Olympics – even after the nation enthusiastically offered him citizenship in order to join their roster. Instead, he sat out while the immortal U.S.A. Dream Team — led by Michael Jordan — swept the globe’s competition in Barcelona. Not that Aguirre’s inclusion on Mexico’s national team would’ve halted U.S.A’s mega-machine, but it didn’t gain him any Mexican adoration.

There’s also Cedric Ceballos, a Mexican-heritage player who snagged the NBA’s Dunk Contest trophy in 1992 with a sick two-handed blindfolded slam. Ironically, the high-flyer later hooped alongside Llamas in Phoenix. But similar to Aguirre, Ceballos was born on U.S. soil and declined to play for Mexico throughout his career. He also Tweeted this cryptically disparaging comment in 2009 about the way parents in Mexico dress their children.

To be sure, there may have been other players of partial Mexican descent in NBA history. But to make it to the league after crossing over El Rio Bravo with a Mexican passport? That distinction goes to the man with a Greek-inspired name that references “hora” or the right time: Horacio Llamas.

His mere inclusion on an NBA roster was enough to get him a place among Hall of Famers (literally, his shorts hang in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame). He didn’t stop there. Upon returning to Mexico in the summer of 1997 to play as part of Magic Johnson’s invitational games in Guadalajara, Llamas was serenaded by a live band like a national hero who had returned home after surviving an overseas special ops mission. Such was the magnitude of his stint playing in the States — both professionally and collegiately. He had made it. And for that, he became a man worthy of his own place in the halls of Teotihuacan.

It’s worth noting that he arrived in the American Southwest to play community college hoops around the same time that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, allowing for easier cross-border transactions of products and services. In 1994, NAFTA removed all tariffs on goods produced by the signatory nations and transnational mobility began to look different — a little more globalized, a little less bordered — than it ever had in North America. Llamas quite literally stood above it all as its anthropomorphic, shot-swatting symbol of labor exchange.

Though his NBA career would only last for two seasons, in which he posted an unnoteworthy 2.1 points and 1.3 rebounds per game, it was about the cultural strides he made — catalyzing players like Eduardo Nájera (whom he clashed with in front of thousands of Mexican fans in 1997 from inside a gym in Chihuahua for an exhibition match televised by TV Azteca), Gustavo Ayón and Jorge Gutiérrez. Juan Toscano-Anderson, a dual-citizen Afro Mexicano from East Oakland, California, who balled as a member of the Mexican national team, is also of that lineage. And most recently, there’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. — the UCLA product who is the highest-drafted player with a connection to Mexico’s national team in NBA lore.

It wouldn’t be so hyperbolic to suggest Llamas’ arrival as part of a larger seismic shift in the NBA’s international landscape as well, at a time when David Stern simultaneously expanded north into Vancouver and Toronto. And though the NBA wasn’t ready to join Mexico, Mexico was primed to join the NBA. Since Llamas’ playing days, Mexico has only grown as a neighboring partner for the NBA, who host their annual Mexico City Game in the country’s sprawling capital. The NBA has also recently opened an official NBA Store in Mexico City and unveiled the only NBA Academy Latin America in nearby San Luis Potosí.

Mexico has long upheld its own professional league with a rabid fanbase, a reality that has benefited U.S. players in the twilight moments of their careers (see: The Worm, Dennis Rodman), who have often saturated the LNBP. 25 years after Llamas’ debut, it seems the NBA is finally starting to realize that Mexico, like Canada, can become a neighboring market and training ground for NBA talent.

A 2019 economic report regarding the feasibility of a legitimate NBA franchise in Mexico revealed that it’s not only possible, but beneficial for the league. With a G League team already in place, a full expansion to Mexico might not seem as out of bounds as in prior years. Think about it: a flight from San Francisco to Mexico City isn’t any more taxing than a flight from Los Angeles to Milwaukee. In fact, Mexico City and Milwaukee are in the same time zone, whereas cities like Cleveland, Miami, and New York City are all further east.

The Horacio Llamas effect shows that if given resources and time to develop, hoopers from anywhere will hoop. Despite fizzling out of the league after becoming a free agent and having a micro appearance with the Washington Wizards, Llamas ultimately didn’t last in the NBA and opted to ball out internationally, returning to Mexico to retire in 2013. He continues to advocate for Mexican players and is currently an assistant coach with Astros de Jalisco in the LNBP. But he left his massive sneaker imprint on the game by way of La República Mexicana — a cultural feat bigger than any amount of points a box score could ever hold.

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