MEXICO CITY – The Timberwolves’ Spanish-speaking backcourt duo of Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea drew a crowd after Tuesday’s practice, so much so that Wolves coach Rick Adelman worried out loud that Barea might not be seen.
It could been have a simple observation about the large number of Mexican media members who came to the new Mexico City Arena to see up close what the NBA really is all about and interview players from both the Wolves and San Antonio Spurs in advance of Wednesday’s Global Games 2013 meeting.
Or maybe it was the coach’s dry commentary on Barea’s modest stature.
“Short joke,” Barea said, “for sure.”
Rubio and Barea were Tuesday’s most popular Wolves, even more so than All-Star forward Kevin Love.
“Kevin gets enough attention,” Barea said with a grin.
They were so because they speak the local language and together are a big reason why the NBA pursued the Wolves to play the Spurs in the first NBA’s regular-season game here since Houston played Dallas in 1997. It will be the 21st NBA game played in Mexico; the other 19 were in the preseason.
In all, 17 international players — 10 for the Spurs, seven for the Wolves — will be on the teams’ rosters Wednesday, the most ever in an NBA regular-season game.
Rubio and Barea each was surrounded by television cameras and recorders after the Wolves worked out for nearly two hours Tuesday. About a half dozen players from each team participated in a clinic with local Special Olympics and a Trique Indian tribe youth team from Mexico’s Oaxaca region that plays barefooted and won an international tournament this fall.
“This is my side,” Barea said. “We’re Latinos here, and they treat me really nice every time I come here. It’s different over here. It’s a good time. I enjoy it. I enjoy it a lot.”
A game to play
Adelman has grumped more than once in recent days about sacrificing a Target Center home game to play in Mexico City, where the Wolves are deemed the “home” team after the NBA struck a deal to pay the team appropriately for one game’s lost gate receipts if they’d travel 1,800 miles south at the end of a three-game trip to spread the NBA gospel.
He wasn’t biting on the topic again Tuesday, the Wolves’ second day in a city whose metropolitan-area population approaches 30 million people.
“I’m tired of talking about that,” he said. “We’re here. We’ve got a game to play.”
A local reporter asked Adelman about the Mexico City experience.
“Well it’s a nice arena,” Adelman said about a 22,000-seat building that opened in 2012 and is expected to be sold out by Wednesday’s opening tip. “They’re going to see a good game.
“The Spurs are very good, and we’re trying to get there. I think it’s going to be a good experience for everybody. They’re one of best teams in the league. They’ve been that way for years. They were in the finals last year and really, probably should have won it. They’re going to be there [in contention] again.”
The Wolves started Tuesday’s practice with a 5-on-5 scrimmage so Adelman could see just what effect Mexico City’s 7,300-foot elevation might have on his players. The city is considerably higher than Denver’s bothersome “mile-high” altitude.
“It’s definitely a factor,” Adelman said. “We scrimmaged to see what it was like, and you could really see the difference. We’re going to have to be very aware of getting guys out earlier than we normally would. I think once they get through it — get out there and start playing — they’ll be OK. But initially, it hits you pretty good.”
By Wednesday’s opening tip, the Wolves will have had more than two full days in Mexico City to acclimate themselves. They have had time to make appearances with the NBA’s Latin American sponsors and explore some of the city, albeit under tight league security.
On Monday night’s travel, his teammates bought guard A.J. Price a stylish, broad-rimmed sombrero that he sportingly wore after Tuesday’s practice.
“We’re having fun,” Barea said about the experience of playing a regular-season game in such a far-flung destination. “I like it. It’s a change for us, changes the rhythm of the season a little bit, see some different fans. I think it’ll be good.”