MEXICO CITY — After a 3½-hour flight from Salt Lake City, the Utah Jazz landed in Mexico City a little after 5 p.m. on Friday for their Saturday game against the Orlando Magic.
A police escort then assisted them to the elegant JW Marriott Mexico City Maximilian, where teammates Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles immediately noticed the higher elevation on the new soil (Mexico City is 7,382 feet above sea level compared to less than 4,300 in Salt Lake City).
“We just climbed like two or three flights of steps and everybody came up breathing pretty hard,” Crowder described. “It’s a difference. You can feel it.”
“There was a lot of steps in this hotel, but hopefully not in our rooms,” Ingles joked.
Before the Jazz could even grab a bite to eat or experience any sightseeing, members of the team were mandated to sign some commemorative jerseys, then participate in media availability in a designated room.
On the eve of the Jazz’s first-ever regular season game in Mexico City, most of the press gathered around Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, who fielded questions in the native language.
“I’m myself in English, but it’s 100 percent myself in Spanish,” Rubio said, “so it feels great. It feels like at home.”
Ricky Rubio on being interviewed in Spanish in Mexico City: “I’m myself in English, but it’s 100 percent myself in Spanish. So, it feels great. It feels like at home.” pic.twitter.com/U5r6cRqXvc— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) December 15, 2018
Derrick Favors was surprised by the lack of service on his cellphone, but viewed it as a positive for the team.
“I think for the first time we don’t have technology around us so it actually makes us become even closer, so I think that’s a good thing,” Favors said. “I think it’s pretty dope and I’m going to try to enjoy the moment.”
Once the group entered their rooms, a special gift was waiting for them on behalf of NBA Mexico. Each member of the Jazz organization received an authentic Lucha Libre wrestling mask in green, gold and navy blue team colors.
All of the players were surprised with their own individual numbers on the masks, with others from the staff receiving more standard ones, as they were homemade in Mexico City. The masks are revered in Mexican culture, as the wrestlers are like superheroes in the community.
Later Friday evening, Jazz players Raul Neto, Grayson Allen, Dante Exum and Royce O’Neale made an appearance at the NBA’s VIP Party along with a few Magic players, but dipped out early to rest before Saturday’s contest. The Jazz’s training staff had offered some tips for the quick trip on how to adjust in the high altitude, and staying up late wasn’t one of them.
Crowder arrived at Arena Ciudad de Mexico sporting his Lucha Libre mask, while Donovan Mitchell also pulled out his exclusive Mexico National Team jersey that he received from Adidas during the World Cup. Mitchell’s custom jersey featured his No. 45 with his nickname “Spida” on the back.
“I thought it would be pretty cool to wear it down here,” Mitchell said.
Adidas gifted Donovan Mitchell with this exclusive Mexico National Team jersey during the World Cup, so he decided to break it out for the Jazz’s Mexico City trip. Mitchell’s jersey has his No. 45 with his nickname #Spida on the back. “I thought it would be pretty cool,” he said. pic.twitter.com/phbde7pAlx— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) December 16, 2018
The arena, with a capacity of 20,011, was sold out.
As the Jazz went through warmups, Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba” song blasted through the arena, with Magic rookie Mo Bamba actually getting prepared on the opposite end. Many of the fans enjoyed the interactive experience of games and sponsorship booths upstairs, but once the ball was tipped, a bunch of them cheered for Utah.
Neto received a DNP-coach’s decision for the game, while dealing with right thigh soreness, but delivered a pregame address to the fans in Spanish ahead of the tipoff. Unlike most of his teammates, Neto was actually familiar with the area after assisting with the fifth annual Americas Team Camp at the NBA Academy Latin America in Mexico City this past summer.
“I didn’t really have an expectation,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I don’t usually hear the crowd very much, so I wasn’t as aware of it, but it’s nice to have that kind of support. It might’ve been because of Raul Neto’s pregame address that he made.”
After leading by as many as 11 points in the second half, the Jazz would loss 96-89 after allowing the Magic to score 41 points in the fourth quarter. Utah shot just 31.5 percent from the field, despite Favors’ 21 points and eight rebounds and Mitchell’s team-high 24 points. They also went 7-for-30 from beyond the arc.
Snyder, Favors and Mitchell represented the Jazz during the postgame media obligations at the podium before the team headed from the arena straight to the airport for their Monday game against the Houston Rockets.
Mitchell’s mother, Nicole, and sister, Jordan, plus Exum’s father, Cecil, were just a few of the familiar faces in the crowd as the Jazz were in town for less than 30 hours total before preparing to hit the hardwood yet again on Monday.
“I think it was a wonderful experience,” Favors said. “It was a lot of our first time here, the fans was amazing, the atmosphere was amazing and I think it’s a great place. We all enjoyed it. I wish we would’ve got a win, but maybe next time.”
Despite the recent on-court struggles during the Jazz’s 14-16 start to the season, players cherished the overall experience. This international trip marked the third time that Utah has competed in the NBA’s Global Games during the regular season after previously playing twice in Tokyo during the 1990-91 campaign.
Guys were already close, but experiencing those moments continues to strengthen their bond as they look to make it translate onto the hardwood.
“You’re with each other a little more, you joke around a little more. You’re out the country for the first time as a team and we’re having fun with it,” Crowder explained. “The travel is a little different because you have to go through customs and stuff like that, but it’s definitely a way to bond, and we’re trying to take full advantage.”