More than two decades after his final NBA game, Horacio Llamas maintains a never-ending desire to teach and promote the game in his native Mexico.
In an exclusive interview with Talkbasket.net this week, the basketball pioneer discussed his experiences working with Mexican youth in recent years and his hope to secure a more prominent role in basketball in the future.
“For many years now I’ve been doing work with NBA Mexico, helping with the Jr. NBA, Basketball Without Borders and different events the NBA does in Mexico,” said Llamas who turned 46 on July 17.
He added: “I really would love to work permanently with the NBA not only in my country and Latin America, but helping kids around the world.”
The El Rosario, Sinaloa, native embraces the chance to be a role model and expresses pride in staying involved in the sport after retirement.
“I’ve been doing basketball camps and clinics for the last eight years with a friend and great coach, Tomas Canizales, here in Mexico. Different sponsors help us so these camps and clinics are very interesting to all the kids from 8-18 years old as well as to their parents,” said Llamas, who played in the now-defunct Continent Basketball Association for the Sioux Falls Skyforce before receiving his first 10-day contract from the Phoenix Suns in February 1997.
It takes a lot of planning and hard work to prepare for large clinics, but Llamas, the director of Academias Aguacateros, relishes the opportunity.
“We have a national camp in the city of Aguascalientes, where kids from all over Mexico attend,” Llamas said. “We do mini-camps of three or four days in different cities — 18 hours of a lot of work. Motivational speeches for the kids and parents, from north to south of the country.”
Llamas wrapped up a national camp last weekend.
He’s always thinking about the next camp, the next clinic.
Above all, he commands respect within the basketball community in Mexico.
As a result, this opens doors for his pupils, too.
“Last summer I was invited to participate in a national program for kids so they could be in an academy in CNAR in Mexico. CNAR is part of CONADE (Mexico’s National Commission for Physical Culture and Sport),” Llamas said. “Three kids of Michoacan where invited to the finals, one boy and two girls. At the end three girls where in the program until this summer.
“With all the work with the NBA in Mexico, they help me,” Llamas said. “So 200 kids from the state (Michoacan) could assist at an NBA game in Mexico City. The kids and their coaches where totally happy to attend an event of this magnitude. Most of them probably thought they could never attend an NBA game.”
The kids ranged in age from 13-15.
The direct involvement in the NBA’s Mexico City games brought joy to Llamas and reaffirmed his desire to do more.
I inquired about Llamas’ future aspirations.
“I really want to work with the NBA in all the different programs to help kids, especially in Latin America,” he revealed.
Asked if he envisions teaming up with famous Latin American stars Manu Ginobili, Leandro Barbaosa and others, Llamas said it’s probably not a practical plan.
“There are different ambassadors … like Felipe Lopez from the Dominican Republic. Brazil and Argentina, I’m pretty sure they have their ambassadors.”
Horacio’s hoop history
This reporter has known Llamas for more than 25 years. I observed his humble rise from Pima Community College standout to Grand Canyon University star to NBA player and national hero. (He was featured in a cover story in the Phoenix Suns’ Fastbreak Magazine in September 1997.)
One of the most impressive individual performances I’ve seen over the years was Llamas’ 52-point outburst against Arizona Western College in 1994.
Two years later, Llamas was named Basketball Times’ 1995-96 Division II Player of the Year. In his senior season at Grand Canyon University, Llamas averaged 17.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.7 blocks for the Antelopes.
NBA playing days
Horacio Llamas suited up for the Phoenix Suns during the 1996-97 and ‘97-98 seasons, appearing in a total of 28 games. He was the first Mexican-born player in NBA history. Various injuries cut short his NBA career, but the 6-foot-11 big man continued his pro career for more than a decade afterward.
He also capitalized on the chance to attend private workouts with Hakeeem Olajuwon in the summer of 1996.
“Olajuwon helped teach me some moves,” Llamas said more than 20 summers ago.
In the years afterward, he played in some overseas pro leagues. He also competed in the relaunched American Basketball Association for the Phoenix Eclipse, averaging 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds in 2001-02.
A large chunk of his pro circuit was also spent in Mexico, including Soles de Mexicali (2005-10) and the Cancun-based Pioneros de Quintana Roo (2010-12).
In a 2017 interview with ESPN.com while working as a team director for the Hidalgo-based Garzas de Plata, Llamas recalled his encounters with NBA legends Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Oljajuwon, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan.
Llamas made an NBA comeback attempt in the 2002 preseason, but didn’t make the Washington Wizards roster.
Recalling his in-the-paint battles with Shaq, Llamas described the impact of the future Hall of Famer’s brute force.
“I couldn’t move my back,” Llamas told ESPN.com. “It was so stiff. I couldn’t move from defending Shaquille. I can never forget that.”
In the same article, Llamas also remembered seeing how then-39-year-old Jordan prepared for the game.
“He used to go early to practice because he had knee surgery,” Llamas said. “I used to get there early too, so every time I got to talk to him a little bit.”