Basketballs Missionary to Mexico

They don't play April Fool's Day in Mexico, which means they really are getting ready to play a professional basketball game in the little parque next to the quaint plazuela across the street from the old iglesia in the traditional center of the tiny coastal farming town of Navolato. No joke. Already the jugadores gigantes are slam-dunking their way through warm-ups while a couple of scruffy loudspeakers overwhelm the tranquil ambiance of the land called El Norteño with the subterranean thud of a hip-hop bassline.

Tonight begins the second half of Navolato's first season with a professional basketball team. Everybody's still pretty thrilled. An hour before tip-off, the local townsfolk and the come-to-town farm families nearly fill the grandstands—the permanent ones of thick, chipped and whitewashed concrete on one side, the temporary ones of rickety, rusty red metal on the other. People buy beer from a skinny guy who lugs the bottles around in a bucket. They buy plastic baggies of chicharones from a small child who offers customers salsa from a bottle that swings from his belt loop. They bob their heads to the hip-hop, while banners of the team sponsors flap like bed sheets over a long cord hung above the court and moths swirl around the tops of the light poles.

Historically, chopping sugar cane has been the most marketable athletic skill in these parts—a bronze statue of a muscled cañero and his glistening machete stands in the center of town. It's a measure of Navolato's pride in its new team that the basketball players are nicknamed Cañeros, too. And there's extra interest tonight because a new player has arrived.

He isn't hard to spot. In a region of short, brown farming people, David Hinkle sticks out like a six-foot-eight white guy from Orange County. He walks unfazed through this you-gotta-be-kidding scenario and plops down confidently among the strangers-turned-teammates on the Cañeros bench. But that's enough to make Hinkle a center of attention. He totally overshadows the man who is spraying a shaken-up bottle of Coca-Cola on the court and spreading it around with a mop.

"Down here, they pour Coca-Cola on cement courts to make them sticky and improve the footing," explains Hinkle with a just-tellin'-ya shrug as he begins to wrap high black braces around his ankles, and then to lace up his black sneakers over them—a hiking-boot effect that looks more appropriate for the back country than a basketball court. "The Coke works for a while. The problem is that the stickiness attracts dust, too, and pretty soon, the cement is as slippery as ever."

Hinkle pauses and smiles long enough to let you wonder how the newest guy in town knows something like that.

"I've been bouncing around Mexican professional basketball leagues for 10 years," he reveals. "Since I got out of college, it's pretty much all I've done. I think I've been to all but one state in the whole republic."

There are 32 states in Mexico, Hinkle can tell you right off the top of his head, although he isn't so quick to come up with his favorite. "To live or to work?" he asks. "For fun or for more of a spiritual experience? To visit with my friends or explore?"

It's like that with Hinkle and Mexico.

"I love seeing everything, everywhere," he says. "The big cities and the small towns—like this one, which I consider a realsmall town. The people are always a treat. And basketball, well, it's basketball. I'm always going to love that."

His footwear secured, Hinkle gets up—gently, so as not to jostle any of the children who've surrounded him, some asking for autographs, others just reaching out small fingers to touch him—and he steps onto that cement court. His shoes squishy-squeak against the soft-drink coating. He pops a few warm-up shots and runs a few drills with the team.

"I just came in a couple of days ago, so I'm still getting my legs under me," Hinkle confides when he gets back to the bench. "They're still not fully under me yet. You know, I wasn't really expecting to be here."

Only two weeks before, Hinkle was in Orange County interviewing for a sales position with a contact lens company. "A regular-man's job," he says, making his voice mockingly low and serious.

Hinkle is about to turn 34. He's getting married in December. He had figured maybe it was time to look into a regular-man's job, especially when the team in the Yucatan that he usually plays for at this time of year decided to sit out a season. But Hinkle didn't get that job with the contact lens company. A regular man did.

"The guy they hired was definitely more qualified than me," Hinkle acknowledges. "Of course, compared to my résumé—a degree in English and 10 years of basketball—that could be lots of guys."

Hinkle does that pause-and-smile thing he did with the Coke-on-the-court story, so you know more is coming.

"The thing is I came home from not getting that job and clicked on my e-mail," he continues, "and sure enough, there was a job offer waiting for me—to play basketball in Mexico."

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