By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
His own basketball story begins years ago, 2,200 miles from Los Angeles, in the village of Santa Ana del Valle (pop. 1,000), in the Oaxaca Valley at the foot of the Sierra Juarez range. Santa Ana has been a village of serape weavers since before the Spanish conquest. But nowadays, most of its young men just really want to play basketball. Every afternoon, the court in the center of town is filled with players. It is here that, years ago, Zeus Garcia and his brothers and cousins played. They are scattered across the Southland now, but in their day, the Garcia brothers -- Isaias, once a state MVP, Zeus, Arcadio, Gustavo -- and their cousins, Alberto and Cirino Bautista, made up Equipo SAV, the team of legends.
For the last half of the 1970s, it was the best team in the Zapoteco region of Oaxaca, though not one player was over 5-foot-9. For practices, players ran uphill for two hours with bike-tire tubes filled with sand tied around their ankles and thighs. Too poor for new tennis shoes, the players sifted garbage dumps for Canadian-brand soles and Voltar canvas tops and sewed them together. Oaxaca was then largely cut off from the world. There wasn't much television, no NBA to watch. So Equipo SAV didn't know the finer points of basketball -- nor even the position names, which were irrelevant anyway, since the players were all the same size. SAV's great advantage was its excellent conditioning. While most teams played zone defense, SAV became famous for fast-break, man-to-man full-court-press chaos all game long. "Back then, [Oaxacan] basketball was very stationary," says Zeus. "The older folks didn't really know how to dribble. We could, and we never got tired."
On weekends, SAV headed for remote village tournaments. They'd get up at 3 a.m. to take a bus, then walk for hours and arrive in time to register at noon. They'd play all day, then sleep in a schoolroom at night. Once SAV walked 10 hours to the mountain village of Santa Cruz Yalina. It was the first valley team to play in Yalina. A village official interviewed the team as if they were visiting dignitaries and broadcast the interview over speakers set up around the town plaza. SAV won all six games that day. They also won a 1,300-pound tan bull named Trueno -- Thunder. "We wanted our pueblo to see what we'd won," Zeus says. "We tied a rope around its neck, and we walked down through the mountains for two days and nights. There also happened to be a fiesta in Santa Ana that night. The entire pueblo, in the middle of the party, went to the entrance to town with a marching band. People followed us in, cheering and clapping, while the band played. It lasted all night."
After that, livestock and poultry became common prizes in Oaxacan village tournaments. Equipo SAV won nine more bulls, as well as two horses and a donkey. By 1980, though, SAV's run was up. "Gustavo was the first to go. He didn't want to be poor anymore," says Zeus. But Zeus stayed. "I couldn't give up basketball," Zeus says. "I'd go to the fiestas in each pueblo. The teams would know who I was. I'd play with the weakest team.
"When I could, I'd weave a serape. I'd get up at about 4 or 5 a.m., and by 10 I'd finish the serape. Then, in the afternoon, I'd work out. I ran up the mountain alone, just like we'd done as brothers. I spent about three years doing this, without my brothers. That's when the young guys got to know me."
Finally, though, Zeus too had to head north. He was living with a woman and couldn't support her.
He found a job in one of the Chinese restaurants in Torrance where many from Santa Ana del Valle also had jobs. Torrance Chinese restaurants depend greatly on Oaxacan labor. Some also pay below the minimum wage and demand employees work at least 12 hours a day, six days a week. Working for Chinese restaurants is usually the end of a player's basketball days -- Oaxacans describe it as a kind of island prison colony, cut off from the rest of the world. Zeus worked all of 1984 in a Chinese restaurant in Torrance. He never once played ball. He went home after a year, hoping never to return.
"I devoted myself to basketball," he remembers. "People would say, 'Hey, Zeus is back.' I felt happy that people would cheer me. I remember some girls would take pictures, not of my face, but of my thighs. I had these huge thighs. Girls would warm up water for me to bathe. They'd pay my tickets to the dance. During that whole year, I played basketball, I got to know a lot of women. They came to my house looking for me. They just admired me and came looking for me, hoping I'd go out with them. But I'd be somewhere else playing basketball.
"My woman got mad and took our children and left. I was such a coward that I couldn't handle it. I began drinking mescal and went off on a drunk for four or five months."