MEXICO CITY — Mexican fans have waited a lifetime for the opportunity to watch their favorite team, the Chicago Bulls, in their homeland. But hardly anyone envisioned that they'd get to see the current version of the team that will face the Orlando Magic on Thursday night amid reports of turmoil in the locker room under new coach Jim Boylen.
Playing South of the Border for the first time in their history, the Bulls (6-22) are the main attraction in a country where the franchise in considered the second-most popular among local fans. Many of them fell in love with the team when Michael Jordan led the Bulls to six championships in the 90s.
But these Bulls arrived in Mexico after losing nine of their last 10 games, and with the worst record in the Eastern Conference and second-worst in the NBA. The terrible start led to the firing of coach Fred Hoiberg, who was replaced by his assistant, Boylen, who is off to a rough start.
After a win over Oklahoma City on Friday and a 56-point loss to Boston on Saturday, Boylen called for a Sunday practice, something that is not allowed by the NBA after back-to-back games. And, according to several reports, players were on the verge of a revolt.
"What I have to do is install this thing and play in the right way to go where I want to go, and outside noise, it's always going to be there, is part of this job and this business. I just take this as a challenge," said Boylen, who worked for the San Antonio Spurs for a couple of seasons under coach Greg Popovich before arriving in Chicago in 2015.
"In San Antonio, they have standards of behavior and standards of play, and we are establishing those in here, but we can't do that without practicing, and we cannot do that without being pushed. We are in a different place, nothing wrong with that, but we are going to work hard," Boylen said.
In the middle of the storm, the Bulls packed their bags to travel to Mexico, where perhaps the change of scenery and the love of the local fans can give them a push toward improvement.
"I think everything got blown out of proportion, but we are in a good state, the team is good and we are all together," Bulls guard Zach LaVine said. "Always going on the road ... in a different country where we can all be together is good because we can bond. I think it's going to be a good time here."
Orlando center Nikola Vucevic expects a tough game from the Bulls.
"It's going to be a challenge to play against a team that is in a tough spot, and they surely will try to bounce back and respond against us, but we are going to be prepared," Vucevic said. "We also have three straight losses, and we want to win as well."
According to the NBA office in Mexico, the Bulls have about 3 million fans South of the Border, a number surpassed only the Los Angeles Lakers with 3.2 million.
"To me, it is endearing. I have been a Bulls fan since I watched them on TV in the nineties, with Jordan and Pippen and all of that generation," said 35-year-old Jonathan Flores, who managed to sneak into the arena to watch Wednesday's practice. "This is not the generation that I yearn growing up, but it's still my team and I'm happy to have them here. It's important for the country."
The NBA is aware of the passion for the sport in Mexico, and maybe that's why they are regular visitors. Thursday's contest will mark the 27th game in the country, and Saturday's game between Orlando and Utah makes it 28.
Only the United States and Canada have hosted more, and seven of the last 26 games in Mexico have been regular-season contests.
The NFL has played three regular-season games in Mexico, and Major League Baseball has organized three regular-season series in the country.
"You can call it love, passion or solidarity, any of those adjectives describe what the basketball culture in this country is, and that is what the NBA has found here," said Raul Zarraga, the director of the NBA office in Mexico.
NBA players who have visited Mexico in the last few years have been amazed by the state of the art Arena Ciudad de Mexico, a glass-clad facility that cost $300 million and opened in 2012. Players also rave about the experience of being able to walk through the streets of Polanco, an upper-class neighborhood where teams stay while in the country. Before and after games, NBA players are often spotted walking down the streets with family and friends without being disturbed.
Vucevic played in a regular-season game in Mexico in 2012, his second season in the league. But back then, he didn't get a chance to go outside much. That's something he's going to change this time around because the Magic are staying until Saturday.
"I reached out recently to Gustavo Ayon (a former Mexican NBA player who was with Orlando in 2012), I asked him for advice on restaurants because I love to travel, to go out and experience the culture of different places," Vucevic said. "You can say I'm a foodie. I love food and will love to taste some Mexican dishes."
Last year, Miami Heat's coach Erik Spoelstra said that he was going to try to use the Mexico experience to bring his team together.
Maybe Boylen can do the same.