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
In 1986, Zeus again left Oaxaca for Torrance. ã This time, though, he had a fortuitous meeting aboard the 444 bus with another Oaxacan player, who told him that north of Torrance, in West L.A., were gyms and playgrounds with regular Zapoteco pickup games. Shortly thereafter, he left Chinese-restaurant work forever. He left to work in Westside restaurants and play basketball. Thus he settled into American and Zapoteco-immigrant life, and hasn't returned to Oaxaca. Zeus was part of a larger Zapoteco migration to the Westside restaurant industry that accelerated mightily in the mid-1980s. Today, Zapotecos from the Oaxaca Valley are prevalent as busboys, cooks and dishwashers in West L.A., Venice and Santa Monica.
To Zeus, Los Angeles was a cornucopia of pickup games. Driving anywhere for good hoops, he arrived at an intimate knowledge of the public recreation spots in Venice, Santa Monica, South-Central. "That was the first time I played with black guys," he says. "I liked playing with them because it was really hard basketball. They're arguing all the time. But I liked playing with them because they were tall, and I liked trying to fight them for the ball. [White guys], you can't run into even a little, because they'll turn and say, 'Are you all right?' They're very worried about you. Blacks don't care about that."
Zeus and a brother, Isaias, organized a now-annual Thanksgiving tournament at Marine Park in Santa Monica as a way of bringing the Zapoteco community together. Three other Zapoteco groups now run tournaments on Thanksgiving, and the holiday is transforming into a major day for Oaxacan basketball.
The tournaments, where fruit drinks and tacos are sold, help players retain ties to their homeland. Proceeds are sent to Oaxaca to pay for community needs such as plaza, church and school renovations.
BY THE MID-1990s, AFTER YEARS OF PLAYground ball, Zeus could barely jump, and it hurt to run. His knees were giving out. He had operations on both, but returned to the court too soon and ruined his knees forever. Suddenly, after more than 20 years, Zeus Garcia could no longer play basketball. "The first days I couldn't play, I left the gym in a really bad mood. From that, I got the idea that I'd help another team -- to coach," he says. "It's all you can do. You can't give up basketball."
He began haunting the courts, watching the younger guys play. They were now his lifeline to basketball; without them he was out of the game forever. One of the players was his second cousin, Francisco Morales. He was called Pancho by his family. Now 25, Pancho is a cheerful guy with two children and a pompadour. In Santa Ana del Valle, Zeus and Equipo SAV were his heroes. Pancho grew to only 5-foot-6, but he developed a Zeus-like obsession for hoops. "After school every day I'd go to the court," he says. "The older guys would play until dark. It's a poor pueblo, and we didn't have lights. We'd play in the dark anyway. That was the only time they allowed us to play."
At age 16, Pancho left Oaxaca for California. He spent his first years in San Bernardino, working in restaurants. Several years later, he heard of pickup games in Venice with guys from the Oaxaca Valley. He began driving out to play on his days off because the games were good.
By now, Zeus was hanging around these games as well. "They were afraid to speak to me," Zeus remembers. "They thought I'd make fun of them because they speak Zapoteco. I speak Zapoteco, but not as well as Spanish. One day I volunteered to be their referee. I got someone to keep score. Finally I said, 'How about if we put up $5 each, and whoever wins gets the prize.' They liked that idea. We'd get together $70. Then, with part of the money, we'd buy a trophy." After this had gone on for several weeks, Zeus asked whether they wanted to form a team. This was all Pancho needed to hear. He quit his job, and moved his wife and child from San Bernardino to Venice. Chiquis, Zeus' youngest brother, moved from Long Beach, where he had been working at a Chinese restaurant.
So Raza Unida was formed. It is the first and only Zapoteco team in Los Angeles whose members are from different villages, Zeus says. From Union Zapata come the Aquino brothers -- Julio, Miguel Angel and Nacho, who is 6-foot-1 and probably the best Zapoteco player in L.A. Abel Jimenez, also 6-foot-1, is from Matatlán. The others -- Piedra, Tomas, Eladio -- are from Santa Ana del Valle. All work in Westside restaurants: Il Fornaio, Panda Express, Remi, La Cachette. At its heart is the scrappy general Pancho Morales, sometimes point guard, sometimes center, and a busboy at Joe's Restaurant in Santa Monica.
Pancho has become a younger version of his boyhood hero. Like Zeus, he named his son Ervin, also for Magic Johnson. ("Magic was never envious. He gave the ball to others. He made the team better.") "The first thing in my life is my family. The second is basketball," says Pancho. "I've been hurt -- the ankles, the back. They tell me not to play anymore. But it's never been enough for me to say, 'That's it, it's over.'"