Originally published on April 13, 2009
Believe it or not, basketball wasn’t the first love of Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, now one of the best players in the NBA.
Nor was it for Charlie Villanueva, a starting forward for the Milwaukee Bucks.
For both players, that distinction belonged to baseball.
But it makes a little more sense when you learn about their heritage. Anthony’s father was Puerto Rican, and Villanueva’s parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic.
In fact, Anthony, whose mother is black, started playing basketball only when he no longer had the option to play baseball.
“Once I got to high school, the school I went to didn’t have a baseball team,” he told HispanicBusiness.com.
Now, they are two of just six U.S.-born Hispanics in the NBA.
If the NBA has anything to say about it, Hispanic kids participating in athletics will rank basketball first. Perhaps more importantly, the league hopes, so will Hispanic sports fans.
Of course, the league isn’t simply crossing its fingers. It’s throwing resources at the problem — flooding the zone, so to speak. And it appears to be working.
The Hispanic viewership of this year’s All-Star Game in February surged by 13 percent over last year, with 472,000 Hispanic households tuning in, according to Nielsen ratings. Particularly pronounced was the one-year jump in male Hispanic viewers between 18 and 34: from 166,000 last year to 249,000 this year — a rise of nearly 40 percent.
The NBA isn’t the first American mega-business to recently gain full appreciation of the golden opportunity presented by the burgeoning Hispanic market.
This year, Wal-Mart announced that it will open two stores that cater expressly to Hispanic customers, and Coca-Cola released a new nationwide ad in Spanish.
According to the U.S. Census, from 2000 to 2007, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population grew from 12.5 percent to 15 percent. In raw numbers, that translates into 10 million more people.
The NBA has been working hard to reach them.
From inviting Hispanic entertainers to sing the National Anthem to broadcasting more and more radio and TV games in Spanish, to trotting out its small-but-growing number of Hispanic players at public-outreach events, the campaign officially launched in 2000, but has ramped up recently.
Three years ago, the NBA launched Noche Latina, a kind of “Hispanic awareness month” for the NBA that occurs every March.
As part of the program — which doubled in size this year to include eight major Hispanic markets — the players don uniforms emblazoned with the Spanish version of their team names.
“The Miami Heat” becomes “El Heat;” the San Antonio Spurs, “Los Spurs.”
The league is also tapping more international Latin players.
Since 2000, the number of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino players from outside the United States has grown to 17 from five. (One player — Eduardo Nájera of the Denver Nuggets — is from Mexico.)
To get Latin American countries stoked on basketball, the league stages pre-season games in those countries. Thus far, it has played 25 such games since 1992.
The league also enlists the Hispanic players themselves to spread the word.
Villanueva last summer personally delivered 10,000 pairs of shoes to indigent kids in the Dominican Republic, from where his parents emigrated. Some were so poor they couldn’t afford shoes, he told HispanicBusiness.com.
“Seeing people out there walking barefoot; that’s unacceptable to me,” he said. But the reception, he said, was fantastic. “People are just so excited to see one of their own doing something positive for the Dominican Republic.”
Of course, in the high-profile world of professional sports, a star can be a liability as well as an asset.
Anthony, for all his talent, has had his share of PR troubles, not least of which included a 15-game suspension for cold-cocking Knicks player Mardy Collins in the face as a brawl between the two teams was winding down.
To his credit, Anthony — who recently tied the league’s record for points scored in a single quarter (that’s 33) — also has donated millions of dollars to charities, including an education center for inner-city children and a new practice gym at Syracuse, his alma mater.
Like Anthony, Villanueva got started on baseball, due, he said, to being raised by Domincan Republican parents. Villanueva said he started playing basketball only because he idolized his older brother, whom he described as a rebel.
“My brother always wanted to be different, and I always wanted to be like my brother,” he told HispanicBusiness.com on Friday.
Villanueva, too, is something of a rebel. Not unlike Shaquille O’Neill or Dennis Rodman, he openly talks about someday pursuing interests outside of basketball.
For instance, Villanueva has always wanted to become a detective, and said may one day pursue that dream.
“One thing about me is I love solving things,” he said. “I think I’ve got a good feel for people — interrogating them and whatnot.”
Another thing about Villanueva is he is technologically savvy — so much so that it recently landed him in some hot water. His crime: Twittering to his fans from the locker-room during halftime.
(Twitter, too, was introduced to Villanueva by his brother, who works as a highlights editor for ESPN.)
After the half-time Twitter, the 24-year-old was chewed out by Bucks coach Scott Skiles, who said the hi-tech shout-out — which took Villanueva 10 seconds to perform from his cell phone — made him seem unfocused. But when it comes to reaching out to fans, Villanueva might also be ahead of the curve.
A day or so after Twitter-gate hit the papers, the number of subscribers exploded, from about 900 to 7,300. Now, just three weeks later, his virtual audience has swelled to more than 19,000, which could very well make him the most Twittered-up player in the league. (Click here to see his Twitter page.)
With recent studies showing that Hispanic youth take to Internet technologies faster than non-Hispanics, there’s a good chance that Villanueva is unwittingly doing double-duty in his efforts to help the NBA’s reach out to Hispanics.
As for the coach’s order, Villanueva demurred, but also openly pondered the difference between signing autographs at halftime – which is allowed — and Twittering.
In any case, Villanueva said his halftime Twitter was an innocent occurrence, not a calculated attempt to market himself.
“It was all over the TV; everybody was talking about it,” he said. “The reason why is it was something new that nobody had done before.” He added, with good-natured resignation: “I will always be remembered as the guy who Twittered during halftime.”
It might not be the same as setting the NBA record for points scored in a single quarter. But when it comes to the business of basketball, it might be just as valuable.
Maybe instead of detective work, Villanueva’s second calling is marketing. In 10 or 15 years, the NBA might do well to recruit him a second time.