A League of Their Own
Photo by Sam QuinonesZEUS GARCIA HAS THIS THING ABOUT BASketball. Back in his village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, he built a dynasty. He and his brothers and cousins walked miles to all-day tournaments. They played on dirt courts and, in their day, brought home the top prizes: 10 bulls, two horses and a donkey. Along the way, Zeus became an idol. Women showed up at his house to photograph his thick thighs. His team had quite a run there in the mid-1970s, never losing more than two of over 250 games.
They played great ball, their triumphs on the court becoming a mythic force in their lives. For years, their poverty didn't seem to matter. They made their own sneakers from shoe parts found in the trash. But the years took their toll, and, tired of being poor, Zeus' teammates, one by one, all headed north in search of better lives. Brother Gustavo went to Westminster. Cousin Alberto left for San Diego. Brothers Isaias and Arcadio went to Mexico City. Zeus stayed behind for several years and played basketball with a variety of teams -- usually the weakest ones -- at fiestas throughout the Oaxacan Valley before he, too, decided to move on to escape poverty and rejoin his family. For a year, he worked at a Chinese restaurant in Torrance, and never once played ball, his world reduced to his small apartment and a job across the street. Unhappy, he returned to Oaxaca, hoping never to return to California. Again, all he did was play ball. Again, women came looking for him. But it was all too much for his wife. She left, and Zeus drowned himself in mescal, staying drunk, by his account, for four or five months.
Feeling abandoned, Zeus headed back to Torrance, figuring he would never again play basketball, but a chance meeting on a bus with a fellow Oaxacan player gave him hope: He learned about regular pickup games for the Zapoteco Indians in West L.A. and started playing all over town. His team never lost.
Now, 14 years later, Zeus can no longer play the game, his knees ruined after he tried to play too soon after surgeries. But he still has this thing about basketball. L.A. is the scene of some 40 to 60 Zapoteco basketball tournaments a year, drawing thousands of players. And at the center of them is Zeus, now a tireless organizer and coach. He rarely loses and has whipped his basketball obsession into a religion. At the end of last year, as his team faced its biggest tournament, he had to wonder whether he finally had had too much of this good thing called basketball. What, after all, is the future of a team that can't find a worthy opponent? And he knows that few of the cheering and screaming fans are rooting for his team. Success has come at a steep price. Now, he has to decide whether to go on.
The victories and tests for his team, Raza Unida (United Race), illuminate a side of this city seen only by the thousands of Zapoteco Indians who have arrived here since the immigration wave of 1970. For them, basketball is more than a game. It is about traditions, and keeping a way of life from being contaminated by what they see as America's soulless ways.
"The sport's purity, that's what I want maintained," says Zeus, a 41-year-old busboy and one of the greatest Oaxacan players ever. "It's the same thing as preserving our language, the food, dance. There's no reason we should lose this part of our roots."
THE LOS ANGELES AREA HAS ONE OF THE world's great populations of Oaxacans (pronounced wa-haw-kans). They began arriving in the 1970s, their numbers growing as Mexico's economy crumbled in the 1980s. Today, an estimated 60,000 to 200,000 -- mostly Zapotecos, the largest of Oaxaca's 16 Indian groups -- live here, having reached critical mass in the 1990s. Most live in ã Santa Monica, Venice, North Hollywood, Westminster, Santa Ana, Long Beach, South-Central L.A. and Korea- town. "It's no longer Koreatown, it's Oaxacatown," says Fernando Lopez Mateos, part of an emerging Oaxacan business class in Los Angeles. He owns a money-wire service and La Gueleguetza, a restaurant on Eighth Street off Normandie Avenue. A decade ago, Oaxacan restaurants were rarities, but now have popped up all over town. On Sundays, the lines are out the door. Lopez Mateos decided a market also existed for a newspaper. Last February, he began publishing El Oaxaqueño, a free, 15,000-copy biweekly.
El Oaxaqueño is in the great tradition of American ethnic newspapers. Yet it is not about people from one country -- like the Hungarian Weekly or the Armenian Observer -- but about people from one state. To Americans, Oaxacans may look Mexican. But they are a group apart; they are Mexico's Mexicans, the cheapest labor in a cheap-labor country. Mexicans often view Oaxacans as ignorant and unassimilated. They call them "dirty indios," "Oaxacos" or "Oaxaquitos." They insult them for speaking their native languages publicly and not learning Spanish properly. When Oaxacans began arriving in Tijuana in the 1970s, bus drivers would make them wait until the "white people" had boarded.
"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.
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."
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.'"
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?
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 Oaxaqueño newspaper; 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.
The final game takes place in bitter cold, yet with hundreds of spectators still on hand. For a while, the Lunas keep things close. At halftime, they trail by only five points. Zeus takes his team aside. The Lunas all have three fouls; four is the limit. "You have to finish them off," he tells them. But Raza Unida cannot. The Lunas don't foul and, though this is their sixth game in a row, start desperately pressing the length of the court. The cold is forgotten. Each basket brings an explosion of cheers from one side of the court or another. Passions run high. "Learn to lose," comes a call from the Raza Unida cheering section. "It'll be the first time," the Luna side responds. In the last minutes, the cold, the draining games it took to get here, and Raza Unida's speed and height wear down the Luna boys. Raza Unida wins the game, 32-23, and the tournament, which ends under the lights at 8:20 p.m., more than 12 hours after it began.
The awards ceremony follows. The hosts of a sports show on Radio KWKW (1330 AM) preside. Zeus has printed certificates of recognition for the referees, the sponsors, and others who helped out. Each is called upon to say a few words. Edgar Ruiz, of the New Oaxacan Alliance, says, "I hope tournaments like this will establish once and for all that we're not 'Oaxaquitos.' Long live Oaxaca!"
THEN ZEUS SPEAKS. HE'S HAPPY that his "We're Oaxacan" standards of amateur basketball have once again been met in this land of hoop infidels. The tournament is over, but for Zeus, it is also a beginning. Basketball is never over. Every detail handled for this year's tournament helps to facilitate next year's. He thanks the crowd and the players. Next year, he announces, he'll be organizing a series of Southland tournaments, with the winners to appear on Thanksgiving in a mammoth playoff tournament. America has given Zeus Garcia something more than a livelihood; it has given him a mission to help his fellow Oaxacans, who need basket- ball as much as he does. With the L.A. Zapoteco community so large, the possibility of a second life in basketball is only now becoming apparent to him. Several teams have asked him to coach. Others need help with their own tournaments. At some point, maybe next year, Zeus wants Raza Unida to tour Oaxaca for a few months, challenging teams around the state. Eventually, though, Zeus sees his current players leaving to form their own squads. He will continue to coach Raza Unida. He hopes it will become akin to a pro team -- where players file through, but the institution remains, and with it the standards of Oaxacan basketball.
Late on the night of the tournament, Chiquis and other teammates sit at a restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. "Are you going to write that we achieved something great?" he asks. Sure. Raza Unida achieved greatness on that cold court at Marine Park on Thanksgiving Day after the sun went down. So did the four Luna brothers and their team, Sierra Juarez. Zeus and Isaias, too. Chiquis spoke once about winning tournaments: "It's like winning a piece of Oaxaca," he said. "To play here with my friends in a tournament is as if I were there in Oaxaca. When I retire, I want them to say, 'That guy, he played.' There's no money, but there is satisfaction from the competition, the game, the desire you put into it. That's what stays with you. Later, they'll say, 'Those guys were good.'"
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.