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."