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"Mexicans always talk about discrimination, how they're being portrayed on TV, how unjust things are in the U.S.," says Felipe Lopez, a graduate student in urban planning at UCLA and co-author of the first Zapoteco-English dictionary. "The same thing that's being done to them, they're doing to indigenous people. A lot of Oaxacans have told me, 'I don't want to live in a Mexican neighborhood. I want to live in a white neighborhood.' It's because of how they've been treated by other Mexicans."
That separateness is why Oaxacans need basketball more in America than they ever did back home. It is the one familiar thing in this strange land. When Felipe Lopez arrived from his village of San Lucas Quiavini in 1978, he made straight for the basketball courts on Venice Beach, where young men from San Lucas played. There, his Spanish being poor, he could speak Zapoteco in comfort. There, over time, he heard about work, saw old friends and met new ones. "Despite being so far from your community, you feel so close. You have that sense of being home," Lopez says. "It's really reassuring that you've come to a place where you're accepted -- the basketball court."
Indians in the mountains of Oaxaca have succeeded in turning basketball -- that most hip-hop of sports -- into as much a part of their ancient culture as their language, food and handcrafts. It's not that Oaxacans are obvious candidates for a serious basketball addiction; they are among Mexico's smallest people, though Zeus Garcia is on the tall side at 5-foot-9. Nor did they invent the sport. In the 1500s, Mexican Aztecs introduced a primitive and often deadly form of basketball called ollamalitzli. It paid to get the rubber ball through the stone ring; losers often were beheaded. James Naismith, a Canadian physical-education teacher, invented the modern-day version in 1891 as a way to occupy unruly youngsters cooped up inside a Massachusetts school during the long winter months. In his writings, Naismith did not acknowledge any Aztec influences, though similarities in the games are striking.
The first modern courts were built in the Oaxaca Valley in the early 1930s. From there, the sport ascended the Sierra Juarez, the state's rugged mountain range, which had proved too steep for soccer or baseball fields. This isolation and geography have kept the sport rooted in custom and, at the same time, helped turn it into an obsession. By the 1950s, most highland villages had dirt basketball courts.
Today, at the annual fiesta honoring its patron saint, each Oaxacan village organizes a rodeo, folk dances, a Mass. But what everyone comes to see is the basketball tournament. Much of a traditional Oaxacan fiesta -- rodeos, fireworks and the like -- is illegal, or difficult to stage, in the United States. And although relocated villagers celebrate a Mass here, American Catholic parishes seem cold and foreign, and lack the sense of refuge provided by church communities back home.
So the result is a strange one: Basketball becomes church for many Oaxacans in Los Angeles. Here, the elaborate, centuries-old Oaxacan village fiestas are distilled down to basketball tournaments and a dance at which trophies are awarded. Which is why Zapotecos speak earnestly of preserving basketball tournaments in their New World -- as if the sport were in danger of dying out in the country that invented it. "This is our religion," says one player. Perhaps that's a slight exag- geration. But it is true that basketball here amounts to a secular faith through which Zapoteco villagers find communion in a world where they are outsiders twice over.
ZEUS GARCIA IS THE HIGH PRIEST of Zapoteco basketball in Los Angeles. He has given up two wives and one set of children to pursue it. "Basketball is my life. In my mind, basketball is never over," he says, sitting in the living room of his yellow stucco house on an alley off Centinela Avenue in West L.A. He lives with his 9-year-old son, Ervin, whom he named for Magic Johnson. Much of the décor has something to do with basketball. There are a few trophies, a stereo won as a tournament prize, banners, some team pictures, a ball over in the corner, tennis shoes and a gym bag. Beyond that, the house looks like it belongs to someone easily distracted from happy homemaking. Maybe it's just that he's a bachelor. Guarding Zeus' place and the possessions he's accumulated here are an aggressive rottweiler named Bazooka and an even-tempered husky named Bobbie.
A handsome man, Zeus has a strong jaw, thick hands, a wide smile and a deep voice. His dark eyes grow cast-iron black and fiery when the discussion turns to hoops. He's graying at the temples. His given name was Rogelio, but at age 8 he wore a jersey with the name "Zeus" on it and the name stuck, though not until he was 14 did he realize he had taken the name of ancient Greece's most powerful god.
Because he has no interest in the pros, he can't always remember Michael Jordan's name, nor that of the Lakers' new coach. When his players talk about the NBA, Zeus can barely take part in the conversation. In his theology, the NBA has come to stand for America's corrupt postMagic Johnson ways, and Zeus often warns his flock of its bad influences. "In the NBA they can jump, land, then jump again with the ball. That's a violation. They don't call palming the ball. It's all for show. The NBA is a business," he says.