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Zeus, in turn, calls Pancho "my son." "Francisco has basketball in his blood," says Zeus. "One time, he dislocated his thumb. I had to pull his thumb back into position. He was almost in tears, but I think it was more because we were losing. He kept saying, 'I'm going in, Zeus.' I said, 'You can't play.' This was the first time he disobeyed me. I was doing something, and the next thing I know he's in the game. They threw him the ball, and it hit his hand and went out of bounds. Finally, he forgot about his hand somehow . . . who knows how he did it? He shook it off and began to shoot, and the ball began going in. Pancho won the game for us.
"When I see a basketball player like that I want to cry."
In the world of Oaxacan basketball, defined by the pure devotion of its participants, Raza Unida is something special. It has invested in the sharpest uniforms of any Zapoteco team, complete with warm-up jackets and pants. Its players pay colleagues to fill in for them on tournament Sundays, but sometimes they just miss work if they can't find a sub. Three players have been fired for this.
Moreover, Raza Unida may have the only coach who shows up at pickup games with a clipboard and play diagrams showing 10 different formations for the offense. To its coach, Raza Unida is more than a team. It is a continuation of a way of life. Raza Unida is the American version of Equipo SAV -- a monument in the new country to the great team and the best moments in the life of Zeus Garcia.
With a healthy brashness uncommon among timid, self-effacing Mexican Indians, Zeus can say: "We are the best."
IT IS STRANGE, AND STILL CONTROVERSIAL in Zapoteco L.A., that Raza Unida has done so well. The team had to break some stubborn customs before being allowed to compete on the same courts with other Oaxacans. The players, after all, had roots in Oaxaca's lowlands, and most of the tournaments are put on by highlanders. The two groups don't easily mix. The tensions between highlanders and lowlanders amount to prejudice honed by years of habit and tradition.
The highlanders usually live nearer the state government and are somewhat more affluent, play on higher-quality courts and end up better athletes. In their favor, Sierra Juarez's players tend to be more self-reliant because of their isolation from government paternalism. Once in L.A., differences remained between lowlanders and highlanders. They took different paths to prosperity. Highland Zapotecos were drawn to jobs in construction, painting, plumbing and landscaping trades. They found cheap housing in South-Central L.A. The courts at Normandie Park, near Koreatown, became their gathering spot. Meanwhile, lowland Zapotecos took jobs as busboys, cooks and dishwashers on the Westside. Over the years, the general rule has been that most of the more competitive tournaments are put on by highlanders.
Zeus himself sees the rationale for some of the friction. "People from the valley are always wanting the government to do things for them, to organize a tournament, say, so they can just show up and play. The highland folks don't want anything to do with the government."
All of this meant that Zeus and Raza Unida were viewed with suspicion when, in 1997, they first showed up at a highland tournament asking to play. "I'm from the valley, but I know the Sierra better from having played there. Everyone knows me," Zeus says. "Yet they said no. I said, 'We're all Oaxacans, suffering discrimination, working the hardest, lowest-paid jobs -- and then, among each other, we discriminate.'"
The captains argued. Some felt Raza Unida would crush the mountain teams. After more discussion, though, they voted to allow Raza Unida to play. It wasn't exactly breaking the color barrier, but it may some day be viewed as a unifying moment for L.A.'s divided Zapoteco community.
The captains' fears were justified. Like SAV before it, Raza Unida laid waste to the competition. It has won every important Zapoteco tournament at least once. Despite Zeus' admonitions about the NBA, Raza Unida is the most American of Oaxacan teams. It defies tradition by using the best players from different pueblos. The players are taller and faster than the highland teams. No one roots for Raza Unida, but the bleachers fill during its games.
Two years after the showdown at the highland tournament, Raza Unida's roll continues, forcing questions about the team's future. Zeus' dream of continuing on in basketball is in danger now, strangely, because his creation is too good. "Maybe we should look for some black teams to play," says Chiquis, after a tournament victory last fall at El Sereno Recreation Center. In a little more than two months, the Thanksgiving Tournament, started by Zeus more than a decade ago, will be here. The way things are going, it might be the team's last one for a while.
The biggest tournament of the year is now upon Zeus and Raza Unida. His team has been training hard and is trying to avoid the dangers of overconfidence and cockiness. But it's not easy once a player achieves the peerless heights of Raza Unida. The future of the team -- and of Zeus -- is at stake. If they lose, the pain and disappointment might be unbearable. If they win, what accomplishments might there be left to pursue?