Finding Básquet in the Land of Fútbol

A journey into the heart of Argentinian professional basketball.

On the eastern shore of Argentina, tucked into the edge of Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital, is a neighborhood known as La Boca. The name signifies “the mouth,” a reference to La Boca’s location at the exit point of the notoriously dreary, polluted Riachuelo River. Like much of the city, the neighborhood’s history and culture are distinctly Italian. Settlers from Genoa arrived en masse in the 1800s, ultimately building a working-class community around the industrial shipyard.

La Boca is still working-class today, yet its deep history and architectural aesthetics draw a steady stream of tourists. Standard visits include a stroll down the cobblestoned El Caminito (“little walkway”), where brightly colored buildings provide a backdrop to the restaurant hawkers’ aggressive efforts to lure visitors to their tables. Yet what jumps out, aside from the sidewalk tango performances, is the representation of fútbol. Soccer apparel and statues, most commonly that of Diego Maradona, line the street.

In the 1980s, Maradona acquired the status of sports god, the sports god, perhaps the human god, of Argentina. He led the national team to the 1986 World Cup championship, scoring both the “goal of the century” and the (in)famous “Hand of God” strike in a quarterfinal victory over England. On his path to stardom, Maradona spent a year playing for the Boca Juniors, turning them into the champions of the Primera Division (the top Argentinian league) in 1981.

Today, Maradona’s imprint on La Boca is clear. In addition to the statues, his image is plastered all over t-shirts and other items for sale on the sidewalk. Decades after his retirement, Maradona’s presence competes with that of Lionel Messi, the nation’s current transcendent star.

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Maradona statues, and his printed legacy alongside Messi, on El Caminito

Maradona played just blocks to the north of El Caminito at La Bombonera, the Boca Juniors’ home stadium since the early days of World War II. If you’d like to occupy one of the 49,000 seats for a game, good luck. Tickets are available only to Boca club members. That is, the Boca Juniors offer a limited number of “memberships” to fans, and everyone else must buy a highly inflated ticket from a member or tourist company.

On my recent visit to the area, the best I could hope for was admission to the Juniors’ museum, attached to the south end of La Bombonera. It included the usual collection of worn jerseys, title trophies, and video highlights, though I did get a chance to venture into the empty stadium. Among the sea of yellow and blue seats was the “12” that marked where the rowdiest of fans, “La Doce,” took their place behind the north goal.

It was becoming clear that, barring a large reserve of cash and willpower, this museum was the closest that I, and most any visitor, would get to a Primera Division soccer game. Yet the Boca club did not field only soccer teams. Among other sports, the Juniors also played basketball. And it was on the hardcourt that I would catch a glimpse into the less visible corners of Argentinian professional sports.

Clubs and Hoops

Despite their ubiquity across the globe, sports clubs might seem, from an American perspective, quite strange. In the United States, professional teams are just that: teams. For example, the Boston Celtics are a basketball organization overseeing NBA and G-League teams. Though managing the “Jr Celtics” program, they are not specifically training future professional players (the purview of AAU, high-school sports, and the NCAA). While “Club Green” offers well-heeled fans exclusive access to perks, the TD Garden won’t be walled off to non-members anytime soon. And good luck finding a Celtics fitness center available to anyone outside of players and staff.

Yet in Argentina and elsewhere, professional athletics are structured around the club system. A single club will oversee squads in multiple sports, including soccer, martial arts, gymnastics, and even stock car racing. Elite teams are accompanied by the youth sports network, where the next generation of athletes undergo training in club-organized academies. And members may exercise in their own club’s gym. It is an altogether collective-management, holistic model which seems incompatible with the commodified, specialized, spectacularized system of American elite sports.

While soccer continues to dominate (in resources, fan interest, etc.) within the Argentinian club system, basketball has risen to a solidly secondary spot. The local ascent of hoops is, like so many phenomena of our time, a story of globalization. In his Players Tribune essay, Luis Scola recalls the arrival, via VHS and other means, of NBA media to Buenos Aires in the late 20th century. Rising interest in basketball fed into a burgeoning youth club system, and by 2004 the national team was ready to make headlines. Led by Scola and emergent star Manu Ginobili, the “golden generation” Argentinos handed Team USA their first Olympics loss in the pro-athlete era. When they won gold against Italy a day later, it was clear the club basketball system was producing results.

Ginobili statue in Buenos Aires

In the 15 years since, while Scola did carve out a solid career in the NBA, Ginobili has become the face of Argentinian basketball. “Manudona” joined fellow internationals Tony Parker and Tim Duncan to lead the San Antonio Spurs to four NBA titles. He was a two-time All-Star. Heck, he caught a bat with his bare hand. (Hand of God II?) Thus it was little surprise that I stumbled upon a Ginobili statue in Buenos Aires, along a boardwalk lined with the likenesses of other national sports greats.

Yet soccer, from the club level to national teams, is still king in this part of the world, and there is no reason to think that will change anytime soon. Basketball remains in its shadow. By venturing into that shadow, I found a version of professional hoops that bears little resemblance to the shiny gloss of an NBA game. On the other hand, as I came to realize, a gym is a gym.

Rock, Jorts, and Waves: A Night in La Liga

Ginobili and Scola began their careers in La Liga Nacional de Básquet, the top professional basketball league in Argentina. Inaugurated in the mid-1980s, it now features 20 teams that compete during the southern hemisphere’s spring through fall, culminating in playoffs that coincide with the NBA postseason. Unlike the NBA, however, the worst-performing clubs are demoted to a lower division, following the model common to soccer. The Process would not work here.

With that the extent of my Liga knowledge, I ventured headfirst (with my equally enthusiastic wife) into this basketball universe. On a warm Friday night, the Boca Juniors headed to the other side of Buenos Aires to take on Obras Sanitarias. The latter’s name means “waterworks,” the club having been established by state waterworks employees over a century ago. The Obras basketball arena, or “estadio,” is located on the northern tip of the city, in the Belgrano district and largely away from tourist attractions.

This arena is also located away from Subte (city rail, or “Buenos Aires Underground”) stops, so we caught a taxi ride through the thickening post-siesta traffic. There was some risk involved: it had been impossible to buy seats online, which is a common issue in Argentina. Yet the gamble paid off. We arrived at the Obras box office to learn that tickets, good for general admission, were available at a cost of 200 pesos. We walked through the gates for five American dollars each.

Past the club’s fitness center was our destination, Estadio Obras Sanitarias. And through its north doors, the first surprise of the night awaited. If Wikipedia is to be believed, an impressive list of musical acts, from Bob Dylan to a host of A-list metal bands, have graced the Estadio stage in front of a few thousand fans. (Here’s the Megadeth evidence.) As it turned out, music and basketball are not mutually exclusive. Tonight, a three-piece rock band checked their sound courtside as Boca and Obras players ran through layup lines. Far from home, I heard an American cacophony, heavy guitars and drums mixed with sneaker squeaks and the echoes of inflated leather hitting hardwood.

However, my distance from home was still evident enough. Professional basketball, at least in this building on this Friday night, may be described as alt-sport. The arena itself is fairly small, featuring around 3,000 seats that would reach half capacity. Nearly all of those seats are behind and above each basket; sideline views were reserved for the band and, from what I could tell, Obras member-fans. As we settled into the second row, a 20-something fan with long dreadlocks, dragging on a cigarette, hung a yellow and black Obras banner over the rail in front of us. That mild smoky scent would hover in the air throughout the evening.

Down on the court, the club announcer arrived. Exuding youth, his tussled man-bun was accentuated by a black jacket, yellow t-shirt, and pre-torn jean shorts. He strode up and down the half-court line, microphone in hand, hyping the crowd for tonight’s action. Nearby danced and jumped the Obras mascot, Rocky, who can best be described as a very enthusiastic, muscle-bound, vaguely ‘90s-aesthetic teenager. (If this is hard to imagine, just visit Rocky’s Twitter page.) He also apparently shared the announcer’s affinity for jorts. As the hype dudes carried out their performances, two officials crossed the court with a tall metal rod. They used it to confirm each basket’s height. This device could have saved Gene Hackman a little time.

Meanwhile, dozens, if not hundreds, of teenage male basketball players swept into the spectator seats. Many were in their team uniforms. Whether or not their collective scent was amplified by post-playing sweat, a wave of adolescent hormones thickened the air. And it was intensified by that heat, the sort of heat you encounter at a summer-league game in a high school gym. This was the late summer, after all. A particular essence, fed by the humidity produced both within and without this space, seemed appropriate in the home arena of a team named after the waterworks labor force.

Amid this all was, of course, a game. Both teams featured a mix of Argentinian-born and “import” players, the latter coming primarily from the States, including former University of Cincinnati guard Dion Dixon and University of New Haven forward Eric Anderson for Obras. Gameplay featured extensive motions and screens intended to free up shooters, with mixed results. The shooting was, compared with college- and pro-level U.S. ball, lacking. The frequency of dunks was also lacking, though novelty bred appreciation. The sole alley-oop slam of the night drew a great roar from the crowd, especially the young men around us.

Courtside and behind the other basket, the most passionate club fans made themselves heard throughout the night. Boca loyalists tore up paper and threw the confetti into the air as their players were introduced (I experienced a sudden flashback to my years at the University of Kansas). Both groups carried on fútbol-like chants, pacing their sing-song refrains with steady clapping as they jumped and waved team flags. And during each timeout, Rocky ran up and down the baseline, occasionally leading a fan wave from one corner to the other. (If you’d like evidence that this writer participated, look for a conspicuously blue shirt at the 0:41 mark.)

Obras Sanitarias, led by the imports, seemed to be the clearly superior squad. However, their large halftime lead shrank to a few points as the Boca Juniors engaged in aggressive, physical defense. Tensions rose and an American-Argentinian fight nearly broke out, the referees quickly jumping between players who exchanged shoves. Sufficiently sparked, Dixon and Anderson reasserted themselves and led Obras to a comfortable win, punctuating it with the alley-oop just before the final horn. It was a crowd-pleasing, and surely Obras club-pleasing, finish.

We headed back out into the evening air and onto the busy Avenida del Libertador. A mere ten-minute walk would have led to the Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti, the Club Athletico River Plate’s 66,000-seat soccer home and site of World Cup matches when Argentina played host (and won) in 1978. Yet I had little need to go there, as exciting as it might have been. Right here, in the sweaty confines of a gym, I had found a space that was both a bit strange and very familiar. If basketball was an alternative sport, this felt, to a hoop head abroad, like an alternative home.


Steve Marston
Steve Marston
Steve Marston is a columnist at Grandstand Central writing about the intersection of culture, politics, and power in sports. Drawing on a background in cultural studies, he focuses on the ways that ideas form and circulate through social/mass media.


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