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
FOR WEEKS, ZEUS HAS BEEN PREPARING FOR it, lining up teams and staying out until morning. He's taken three weeks off from his job at the Beach House restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway to handle all the details. The Oaxacan government provided four amateur-sanctioned referees.
Now, finally, it's the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the 15th annual Thanksgiving Oaxacan basketball tournament at Santa Monica's Marine Park begins with a fanfare. An honor guard of uniformed players carries the Mexican and American flags onto the court. The national anthems of both countries are played. To Zeus' delight, the presence of the referees turns the pre-tournament captains' meeting, which often lasts more than an hour, into a concise explanation of the rules of amateur basketball. This is also the first Oaxacan tournament in L.A. to have sponsors, including El Oaxaqueñonewspaper; MTS (Money Transfer Service), a Oaxacan-owned wire service in L.A.; two restaurants; and a market, who together have come up with uniforms for prizes. Zeus welcomes the players. One of the referees hears the players' oath to play hard and fair. Marcial Santiago, a local union activist, officially inaugurates the tournament. A guitar duo plays "Hymn to Sport," a song written by Isaias, who shoots the cere-ã monial first free throw. Only after all this pomp -- lasting half an hour -- do the games begin.
Raza Unida is well-prepared. The team has run on the beach, instead of the track at Venice High, and practiced three times a week. So the first day's results are predictable: Raza Unida beats two teams by a combined margin of 55 points and qualifies for the finals. No one roots for them, not even at their own tournament. A cold, brisk wind during the day approaches gale force at night and blows Coke cups and pine needles across the court. The nets are at 45-degree angles, and every free throw becomes an adventure. The action ends at around 9 p.m.
The Thanksgiving Day finals draw the largest crowds. The weather is mercifully mild. The refs are vigorously enforcing all traveling and charging violations, and calling technical fouls on those who protest. Zeus couldn't be happier.
To one side stand the four Luna brothers, none taller than 5-foot-9. The team, called Sierra Juarez, is the only one to have beaten Raza Unida lately, defeating it twice in a tournament at Normandie Park in July. Anticipating a rematch, the brothers have added Mario Garcia, who at 6-foot-3 may or may not be from Oaxaca.
The Luna team is one of the oldest in the L.A. area. Back in 1972, Fidencio Luna arrived from Luvina, a woodcutting village in the Sierra Juarez region of Oaxaca, where people played on dirt courts with balls made of leather sewed around a ball of rags. He left as a young man and spent a few years in Mexico City working as a welder. At the age of 23, he made his way to Orange, where a relative lived, and worked as a gardener. He brought his family two years later.
In 1978, his team -- himself, a brother and some cousins -- had its first tournament. Now, Fidencio coaches his sons and nephews, and the team has become one of the best around. It's mastered the fast break, and Fidencio's 24-year-old son, Benito, has an unstoppable stutter-stepping drive.
At 2 p.m., the Luna boys face Raza Unida. This is the game of the day: lowland vs. highland, L.A.'s best team vs. the team best able to beat them. But before it begins, Zeus questions whether Mario Garcia is from Oaxaca, or of Oaxacan parentage. If not, according to tournament rules, he cannot play. Zeus is unpopular among Zapoteco crowds, in part because he's a stickler on fine points. "He's always complaining. He doesn't like it when another team is equal to his," says one man in the crowd, which is now three deep around the court and chanting for a ball game. Finally, Garcia is allowed, though his provenance is never made clear. An announcer is brought in to call the game.
Both teams start nervously, missing many shots. Then they loosen up. Low-post play gets brutal, with Homes and Nacho slamming against Sierra Juarez. The crowd hangs on every shot. Benito and Israel Luna carve through the Raza Unida defense, dishing to Mario Garcia, who gives the Lunas what other teams lack, an imposing and agile center. Still, Zeus' brother Chiquis is having the tournament of his life, cutting and passing off to his big men. He and Julio Aquino foul out with seconds left in the game, and Raza Unida ends up with four players on the court, but victorious: 30-24.
In this double-elimination tournament, each team must lose twice to depart. So the rest of the day is spent waiting for the rematch. Raza Unida gets a scare playing against Colosos, a team of Westside restaurant workers from the mescal-making village of Matatlán. Meanwhile, the Luna brothers reach the finals through superhuman effort, playing five games nonstop beginning about 5 p.m. -- and winning them all. They now must face a rested Raza Unida, which has played only twice.