FRISCO, Texas — During the first round of the 2010 playoffs, in his second stint with the Dallas Mavericks — the team and the city he always called home no matter where roamed in the NBA — Eduardo Najera decided to shake things up.
The Spurs were doing a number on the Mavs in Dallas and the muscular, 6-foot-8, 240-pound power forward had seen enough of the slap-and-hack defense on Dirk Nowitzki. So when Manu Ginobili drove the lane, Najera collared him and Ginobili crashed to the floor. The foul deserved to be and was called a flagrant 2, garnering an automatic ejection. But Najera had grabbed everyone’s attention.
“It was kind of frustrating to watch some of them hit Dirk in the face,” Najera would say. “So I just came in and tried to prove a point that we’re going to fight back. And that’s what’s going to happen.”
As a player, Najera, still the only Mexican-born player ever drafted in the NBA, never had to search for an identity. He simply was physical, intense, hard-nosed and unrelenting. Don’t mistake the Ginobili foul; Najera wasn’t a dirty player, but he wasn’t afraid to take the fight to the opponent.
These days those attributes don’t translate so well wearing a suit. As a rookie coach of the NBA D-League’s Texas Legends, developing an identity, a sideline demeanor, just doesn’t come as naturally.
“I am pretty intense,” Najera said. “I really believe that my identity as a player has carried on to this level as a coach. Yes, I call it the way I see it. I don’t treat players differently, they are all the same to me and I go off on one through 15, and that includes my assistant coaches.”
With one month left in the D-League season, the Legends are fighting for a playoff spot. At 16-19, they are currently out of the mix, a 12-game, mid-season losing streak being the culprit. Before and after the streak, the Legends are 16-7. Najera has gotten a hard lesson in the perils of D-League coaching and continuity. Players such as Mike James and Chris Douglas-Roberts got the call-up to the Mavs, Christian Eyenga left for a lucrative deal in China while another solid contributor left for South America.
The Legends’ stats page lists 21 players, yet only eight have played in more than 18 of the team’s 35 games.
“I feel that as coach, I learned more from the losing streak we had earlier in the year,” Najera said. “That really made me understand the game better, made me get everything out of me and made me motivate these kids in a different way.”
He said he’s borrowing traits from a Hall of Fame-type list of coaches he played under — Don Nelson, George Karl, Larry Brown, Rick Carlisle and Paul Silas –while digging into his experiences as a player to relate to his players.
“Me having a career in the NBA has actually been helping me, it’s to my own benefit,” Najera said. “These kids actually listen. They’re trying to accomplish what I did and they understand that they’re not going to be a superstar in the NBA; I wasn’t a superstar in the NBA, but they’re trying accomplish the same career that I had. And I think that’s where my credibility comes from.”
Najera, 36, has spent half his life motivating others by breaking barriers. He grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, following in the footsteps of his father, playing baseball in a baseball-crazed family that included five brothers and a sister. At 14, Najera tried out for his high school baseball team.
“I grew about 6 inches that summer and I remember in high school, the Dodgers came and took two of my friends to their academy in the Dominican Republic,” Najera said. “I remember I wanted to be a part of that so bad, but at that time I grew so many inches and then I went and tried out for the baseball team and the coach was like, ‘You’re too big, why don’t you go try out for basketball.’ So I tried out for basketball and I loved it.”
At 17, Najera, then a senior in high school, left his family and headed to San Antonio as an exchange student.
“I started talking to my family and said if anything, I go and learn a different language, I play at a high level, I learn how to play better and then I come back and I dominate Mexico [professional basketball league], right?” Najera said. “I never went back.”
Drafted 38th overall in 2000 by the Houston Rockets and then traded to Dallas, Najera was perfectly positioned to become a hero in his nearby homeland. And he did. Only his success over the next dozen years didn’t open the floodgates for Mexican boys overcome with basketball fever.
Grassroots efforts still don’t exist in Mexico. The government pours money into soccer academies to train future generations, with baseball being a distant second. While countries around the world continue to develop NBA-caliber players, Gustavo Ayon, a raw, 6-10 forward with the Milwaukee Bucks, is the only Mexican-born player to break into the NBA since Najera entered the league. Ayon, 27, started playing basketball at age 20 and spent several years playing in Mexico and then Spain before getting a chance in the NBA last season.
“That dream kind of gets squashed at a young age because a young kid growing up in Mexico who starts thinking about basketball, there’s not really a platform, there’s not a foundation, so at some point they forget about it and they start practicing soccer or baseball,” Najera said.
“There are a lot of tall Mexicans in the country,” Najera laughs, “and there could be a lot of talented players in Mexico. They’re just hard to find.”
Najera’s influence now emanates from new areas within the game. He is the first Mexican-born coach under the NBA umbrella. He’s also a minority owner of the Legends, which is co-owned by Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. And when he finds time away from coaching, Najera has been integrated into the Mavs’ front office to assist Nelson and owner Mark Cuban with personnel decisions.
Najera isn’t sure if he will ultimately prefer the grueling lifestyle of coaching or the decision-making and number-crunching that comes with front-office work.
“I’m in no hurry to make a decision,” Najera said. “I’m in a good position financially, but the reality is that I think I want to leave all the doors open and I want to explore all the possibilities, and why not eventually do both? I can explore both situations and pick and choose which one best fits me and which one I love the most.”