On January 3 at Madison Square Garden, fans of the New York Knicks enjoyed what was arguably one of the most exhilarating moments of the current season. It was the fourth quarter with the Knicks leading the San Antonio Spurs by 18 points. Argentinean point guard Pablo Prigioni, who was in for injured starter Raymond Felton, patiently initiated a pick-and-roll play with forward Amar'e Stoudamire, drawing the Spurs defense toward the top of the foul circle. When space opened up, J.R. Smith ducked behind his defender. All at once Prigioni zipped the ball to Smith, who, already in midair, grabbed it at waist level and turned it into a crazy reverse dunk. The arena exploded.
Prigioni is a rare bird in the NBA—he is a 35-year-old rookie who has spent the last 12 years playing in Spain, where he moved after playing five years in his native Argentina. He came to the Knicks almost on a whim, when he was recommended by fellow Argentine Luis Scola, who plays for the Phoenix Suns. His European posture is evident. Somewhere between lanky and gangly, he is a "pass-first," reluctant shooter whose game depends more on hesitation and deceptiveness than raw athletic bursts. The nickname he has at times been tagged with by a local TV sportscaster, "Priggie Smalls," is ironic since he has neither the girth nor the unchecked self-assurance of the late legendary New York rapper, Notorious BIG.
But there's not much about Prigioni that suggests hiphop or swagger—he is a quintessential European-style player, a precision passer with no "hops," meaning he's not a high-flying dunker. On one fast break, rather than go in for a slam, he passed far behind him to a streaking JR Smith to finish the play. Possessed with excellent court vision and an uncanny ability to steal the ball from his opponent, he averages only 3.4 points and 3 assists per game in 14.3 minutes, or a little over one quarter of the game. His connection to his teammates, though fleeting, demonstrates a palpable sense of flow and he represents part of a new Latin flava that is infiltrating the Knicks and the NBA as a whole.
Defining what that Latin flava is can be challenging. There are currently 24 players on the league's 30 teams who are from Spain, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina, or of Latino ancestry born in the US. With varying size and skills, they range in playing style from the all-around game of Argentina's Man Ginóbli to the quick penetration of Puerto Rico's JJ Barea and the aggressive inside play of the Dominican Republic's Al Horford.
There's no doubt, however, that the Latino influence on the NBA is growing. The number of Latinos in the league has increased from a handful in the '70s and '80s to around 6% of the league today. In 2009, the NBA launched the website Éne Be A.com, a Spanish-language NBA site, and Noche Latina, a promotional period in March that features teams wearing Spanish-tinged uniforms including logos that read things like "Los Heat" and "Nueva York." This week the NBA announced its seventh annual "Noche Latina" commemorative game schedule, covering 15 games in March in which teams will wear Spanish-language jerseys and hold in-arena festivities to "celebrate the growing support of NBA fans and players across Latin American and US Hispanic communities."
And that Latin infusion is set to keep growing. Since the original NBA Dream Team, which played in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and subsequent international marketing efforts by the NBA, Spaniards and Latin Americans have increasingly become fascinated with basquetból. Deadspin's Reuben Fischer-Baum makes a compelling case that, as US Latinos become more "urbanized" like their ethnic European and African American predecessors, Latino participation in the NBA will increase accordingly. There are already increasing numbers of US Latinos playing in NCAA Division 1, as evidenced by this incident last year involving Kansas State's Angel Rodriguez. In the very near future, highlight videos might become dominated by players like Priggie Smalls.
The Knicks have their own version of that Latin flava. Forward Carmelo Anthony, one of the biggest stars in the NBA, is proudly half-Puerto Rican, and J.R. Smith, who went to high school with New York Giants salsa-dancing star Victor Cruz, though not Hispanic, will occasionally show some Latino love by imitating his friend's dance when scoring the winning basket.
Anthony's ties to Puerto Rico are especially strong, and he flaunts them proudly. He sports a tattoo of the Puerto Rican flag on his shooting hand, and he has built three basketball courts in poor neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, including La Perla and Loíza. He has also outfitted a float in the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York (with rapper Fat Joe as a guest) and is married to Nuyorican TV personality La La Vasquez.
Last September, when Anthony was in the Puerto Rican city of Bayamón inaugurating his third basketball court, he told ESPN's Jared Zwirling that he wanted to honor his father, who died when he was two years old. "I'm sure I have family in Puerto Rico, but I don't know who they are," he said. Even so, he is proud of his roots, and through his foundation hopes to give back to Puerto Rico.
Fans have taken note of the Knicks' Latin influence. "New York is a world-renowned franchise, there are Knicks fans everywhere," said Prigioni. "But it's possible that now there is more of an attraction to the team for Latinos. A lot of people at the games at Madison Square Garden and on the road shout things to me in Spanish. It's kind of a beautiful experience."
In reality, New York basketball's new Latino connection isn't exactly new, and it also involved an intermingling of European and American style of play. The ties between New York and Puerto Rican basketball were significant in the 1970s, when the Puerto Rican Olympic basketball team sent scouts to New York City to recruit. Juan Flores's book The Diaspora Strikes Back features the story of "Johnny," a player recruited from Brooklyn:
"They had never seen our style," recalls Johnny. "In those years, the early-to-mid '70s, a whole bunch of the best Rican ballplayers from the streets of the City...were imported to the Puerto Rican league. There was Angelo Cruz and Georgie Torres, both great point guards from the Bronx, Neftalí Rivera who played for Quebradillas, there was Charlie Bermúdez, who I played with in high school, the legendary Héctor Blondet...and of course the Dalmau brothers." Johnny claims the Nuyorican players were recruited to change the Puerto Rico team's slower, European-style of play.
By 1978, the NBA had its first Puerto Rican player, Butch Lee, who was born in Santurce but moved to New York as a child and played college basketball at Marquette. In recent years, Puerto Rico has yielded a few strong players, such as Carlos Arroyo, who played for Orlando and Miami and now plays in Turkey, and Barea, who plays for Minnesota. And of course there's Carmelo Anthony.
While Anthony and Prigioni may share a Latino heritage, their playing styles are vastly different. Prigioni says that although he communicates well (in English) with Smith and Anthony, they are the kind of explosive players he rarely saw in Europe and back home. His basketball tradition is more closely linked to the relatively slow-footed grace of fellow Argentineans Manu Ginóbli, Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino. "In Argentina we never had a player that I would say, 'I want to be like him." I tried to incorporate things I liked about many different players," said Prigioni.
Although he's not exactly Linsanity and doesn't have Anthony's jaw-dropping highlight reel, Prigioni has made himself a key member of the team, which is not surprising for a guy who was named best point guard in Spain's ACB league three times. During the season he's had several moments when he stabilized the team as it floundered on offense, and he adds a kind of Zen calm to a squad prone to mood swings and inconsistent play. The kind of Latin flava Priggie Smalls brings is like a percussionist anchoring a flashy rhythm section of big city conjunto with a duo of charismatic lead singers. He's the one deciding what to do with the ball, dribbling steadily, keeping the beat.