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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 Norteo 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 caero 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 Caeros, 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 Caeros 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 rsum—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."

So on this April Fool's Day, in a country where they've never heard it, David Hinkle hears his name introduced over the scratchy public-address system —Dah-veeed Heen-clay, they pronounce it—and he shuffles onto a sticky cement basketball court wearing the green-and-yellow uniforms of the Navolato Caeros. And he can't tell you exactly why he's doing this again.

"I guess basketball and Mexico don't want me to take off just yet," he offers, but not flippantly. His voice is laden with respect for those forces—for basketball, for Mexico. "I'm kinda hanging around, just trying to do what I do. Because, obviously, this is what I'm supposedto do."

* * *

Lord knows the Hinkle Household, then and still of the OC suburb of Placentia and the Catholic parish of St. Joseph, was no breeding ground for vagabonds, galavanters or men of far-flung destiny. Tim and Jane Hinkle supported their three sons and a daughter on two incomes—he as a medical-supplies manufacturer rep, she as a dental hygienist. Not that the Hinkle kids weren't raised to know and appreciate that there's a wider world out there. But according to Tim and Jane's model, that's what vacations are for.

"My parents have gone to Europe, seen their spots and stuff like that," says Hinkle. "People in my family like to go somewhere, relax, hang out and then get home. They don't want to get stranded. None of them have a real—I don't know—pilgrim's soul or anything. I'm that guy."

Whether or not he was always that guy, David Hinkle can't say for sure. But you can tell he's thought a lot about it. He's thinking about it again this morning in the lobby of the Hotel Francis, a time capsule from the 1950s tucked among the narrow downtown streets of Sinaloa's bustling capital city of Culiacan—itself a 45-minute drive through another time warp from Navolato. The Hotel Francis is Hinkle's latest home away from home.

"When I was a kid and somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answers were anything from a professional baseball player to a priest," he says. "That's how wide a scope of things I could imagine."

Hinkle can't remember ever imagining himself as a pro basketballplayer, though. That would have been dumb.

"I was five-foot-nine as a junior in high school," he explains. "I never played basketball in my life until I was 17 years old."

That was during his last year at Servite High in Anaheim.

"I went out for the basketball team as a senior because I'd grown seven inches since I was a junior," Hinkle says logically. "But you still couldn't say I was a good basketball player. I only got in maybe a minute a game. I was the last guy off the bench."

Hinkle went on to the University of San Francisco. The basketball tradition there is so great—alumni include Bill Russell, who won 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, and Bill Cartwright, who won three with Michael Jordan—that the program was suspended for several years because of the university's audacious violations of NCAA rules. Hinkle played intramurals.

"I had a lot of fun with basketball in college, but it wasn't anything official," he says. "I tried out for the varsity when I was a junior, but the coach cut me. I was like, 'Oh. Yeah. Okay. That's fine.'"

Actually, by then, it wasn't completely fine. Hinkle suspected he just might have improved enough to play college ball. "I considered seeking out another school where I could play," he says. "But, you know, I was already pretty attached to my classmates in the English department."

Hinkle returned to intramurals, and a year or so later, he led his team to an upset victory over an Army all-star squad. "The Army coach came up to me afterward and said he could get me a job playing professionally somewhere, if I was interested," Hinkle says. "I kind of liked the idea. It was the last semester of my senior year. I was going to have a degree in English. It seemed perfect."

 

The coach came back with that job—playing basketball in Germany—only one week later.

"I didn't think it would be so soon," Hinkle says, still sounding kind of apologetic. "I told him, 'It's my last semester. My parents would hang me.' I never heard from him again."

Hinkle remains grateful.

"He changed my life," says Hinkle. "If he could find me a job, I realized there was someone else who could, too."

After graduation, Hinkle returned to Southern California and played basketball in the summer pro league, trying to impress scouts.

"My first year, I didn't get anything," he said. "I was doing odd jobs, working for my father, doing whatever I could to earn money and train at the same time. It was supertough. I can't believe I stuck with it that long, to tell you the truth. But it paid off. My second year, I got a job with a team in Hermosillo. And, you know, from there, one place has just led to another."

The Hotel Francis was considered modern 20 years before Hinkle was born. The only detectable upgrades in the lobby are the cable TV that's always on and the personal computer that rents for 10 pesos per hour. Culiacan seems pretty retro, too, unless you sit down at that computer and type the city's name into an Internet search engine. The first item that comes back is titled "Mexico's Drug Crime Capital."

"Yeah, my parents still worry about me," Hinkle concedes. "I worry about them, too. But none of us really voice it. I don't think they worry so much now. When I started playing in Mexico, they feared for everything—from my safety to my sanity. But a lot of that was quelled when I came back, and they saw who I was becoming. I could speak Spanish, and I had a certain amount of prosperity. I had a whole new group of friends calling the house and a great new perspective on the world."

All those years after people asked little David Hinkle what he wanted to be when he grew up, there are aspects to the life he is living now that do seem to span the athletic-spiritual continuum of his childhood imagination.

"I'll tell you, there are times when the way I use basketball, it's like . . ." Hinkle pauses here because he has become excited and serious—and worried you might think he's just crazy. "It's like missionary work, to tell you the truth."

There are times like last night. Hinkle scored 35 points and played ferocious defense to lead Navolato to victory —banging his body against his opponents and shouting angrily in Spanish at the referees along the way. But afterward, Hinkle lingered for nearly an hour in the little parque next to the quaint plazuela across the street from the old iglesia—getting to know the small, brown farming people of Navolato, who had cheered this six-foot-eight white boy from Orange County like he had always been a Caero.

"On the court, I'm a competitive being, and I'm not gonna deny that," says Hinkle. "But you can't be in a place, live in a place, and expect to just charge money to play basketball. You get out here, and you try to meet as many people as you can. You give part of yourself away, and—oh, I don't know—hopefully, it comes back to you."

* * *

A pretty good basketball player working nearly year-round can pull down about $60,000 per year in Mexico. But nobody gets paid that rate in this league—the CIBACOPA, a.k.a. Circuito de Baloncesto de la Costa del Pacifico—where compensation ranges from $3,000 to $1,500 per month. Lots of players call it a "stay-in-shape league," where they can keep their conditioning while racking up stats and a reputation that can get them better-paying gigs elsewhere.

After 10 years, Hinkle already has his reputation. Besides cities all over Mexico, he has played in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Venezuela, Bolivia and Taiwan.

"What I'm doing here now," he says with a chuckle, "is raising marriage funds."

Hinkle is marrying a woman from Brazil, and their ceremony is scheduled for a tiny town that he describes as "in the middle of nowhere" in the northeastern state of Bahia. "I want my family to come down and see how the other part of the world lives," he says. "I know we're going to have a fantastic time. But we'll have a reception in Orange County, too, for those who just can't manage it."

And so David Hinkle's story just seems to get more far-fetched and far away. Yet this off-kilter perspective is precisely what puts him on the same wavelength with an entire subset of basketball players who have become international athletic vagabonds.

 

Each of the CIBACOPA's eight teams can hire two non-Mexican players. Technically, these guys can come from anywhere; officially, they are called extranjeros, which means "foreigners." However, they usually come from the United States, and the common term for all of them—even the guy from Africa—is norteamericanos.

"Everybody who ends up down here has a story," says Hinkle.

Most are loud and clear about exactly why they're here—to make a living and see the world while pursuing their lifelong dream to call themselves basketball professionals. A few will admit they nurture flickering fantasies of still, somehow, some way, making it to the National Basketball Association (NBA). But they don't say that so loudly.

None of these men grew up dreaming of playing pro basketball in Mexico. Most were high school stars who rode scholarships through major-college programs before realizing they don't have what it takes to make it to the NBA. The best have played for teams in Europe, South America and Asia for single-season salaries of $100,000 and above. The rest of them sometimes struggle to make ends meet. A few are married with children. A couple are divorced. Each has a story about a strained relationship—with an uncomprehending lover, friend or family member. All admit they get lonely. None, however, seem to be able to quit.

Hinkle tried back in 1996.

"I was in a relationship, and she wanted me to leave basketball and be more established. That didn't make her a bad person, you know," he says. "So I kind of lent an ear to it. You know, I was committed, and I told myself I was going to do it. . . . But it just didn't work out. It just wasn't in my heart to leave this. After four months of looking for gainful employment, I found that I just needed to play basketball."

These Americans don't seem to mind they're playing for teams in cities they've never heard of with teammates they may not be able to understand and under conditions they haven't experienced since pick-up games in the park. They tape their own knees before games, treat their own injuries by scrounging through hotel ice machines and often have to keep after team owners to get their full paychecks. Before and after games, they commiserate with one another. "It's not stretching it to say we are a family," says Hinkle.

But during the games?

"We are competitive—scratchingly and clawingly competitive," says Hinkle. "There is something about the code of the game, the camaraderie, that makes you care about your team—that makes it your team, whether you're playing in Navolato or Guasave or Los Mochis or Obregon. All that said, it's the hardest job I've ever had."

There's a rematch in Navolato the next night, and the game will be interrupted twice during the course of the evening—once when some rain comes in and later when the lights go out. But nobody will suspect it is either a coincidence or a curse on the day after April Fool's Day, either. It's just life, funny and unexplainable, as-is—like the guy sitting beneath one basket, completely silent as he waits for an American player to emit an English-language expletive. "Malo!" he scolds each time he hears a "damn" or a "shit" or a "fuck." "Muy malo!"

"You just have to be really thankful for all of this," Hinkle says, slumped exhaustedly on the Navolato bench after another good game and another victory for the Caeros. "Because I think the thankfulness is what leads you to your hard work, which in turn leads you to more things to be thankful for."

Hinkle pulls on his sweat suit, puts a stocking cap on his head and signs a couple of autographs. He gets a little wistful.

"I know that a part of this is coming to an end," he says. "But a few months ago, when my friend Antonio named his baby after me, I realized that Mexico is not just going to get up and leave my life. I've spent so much time here—a third of my life; it's crazy—so there is no way I can separate myself from it. And that's a blessing. So I'm just trying to put myself in the best position, you know, to do . . . whatever. Because what else did I ever do to deserve all this? I'm just some dude who—I don't know—I grew!"


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