Cover headline: El Primero
Horacio Llamas made history in his rookie year and now he’s determined to make an impact on the NBA
Inside head: El Primero
Horacio Llamas enters the history books as the first Mexican-born player in the NBA
By Ed Odeven
Horacio Llamas has always been a big fella (un hombre grande). One with equally large aspirations. As a youngster growing up in Rosario, Sinaloa, Mexico, he kept telling his parents that he would make them very proud.
“Horacio always said he was going to be somebody,” his father, Horacio Llamas Tirado said recently through a translator.
Just how big Horacio would become remained a question mark to his family. But the long-anticipated answer arrived on March 2, 1997, in Dallas. It was on that spring evening that Llamas’ name was called by Suns Head Coach Danny Ainge, signaling him to enter a game against the Mavericks.
“It was in the second quarter and I heard coach Ainge say my name and I was like, ‘You all hear my name? Wow!,’ ” Llamas said, re-enacting the look of shock on his face. “I got up and I started walking and it was like everyone in the arena stopped. It was like everyone was paralyzed, even the players. I was like in another world — I was walking, but my mind wasn’t there.
“Then I got in and started playing real hyped. Right away I went to the other side of the court and they passed me the ball.I shot it from like the free throw line and I made it, so all the nervousness and all that stuff that went down real quick. Then when they took me out, I was like, ‘Thank you, Lord. Thank you.’ ”
The rookie center, who was signed to a pair of 10-day contracts in February before being inked for the remainder of the season, wasn’t the only one thankful for his brief appearance. Although he played but four minutes in the game, it was four minutes that won’t soon be forgotten by his family, who was in the crowd. And, more importantly, it was four minutes that will go down in the country’s history. You see, with the call to action, Llamas became the first Mexican-born player to appear in an NBA game.
“I’m very honored that Horacio is the first Mexican to make it to the NBA,” Tirado said. “I’m very satisfied to be the father of a distinguished person. It is a gift from God (un regalo de Dios).”
The 6-11, 285-pound center agreed that it is a noteworthy accomplishment, but it also excited to be an inspiration.
“It’s the best feeling because I’m the first one and I’m opening the doors for a lot of young Mexicans who want to make it to the NBA,” he said. “They think they can make it if they have a strong role model.”
As the Suns made their way down the stretch last season, Horacio’s fans back home and throughout the southwest followed his every move. And although he saw few minutes (101 in 20 games), backing up Hot Rod Williams in the middle, Llamas did give the Suns’ starting center some valuable rest and held his own while doing so. He even got a chance to start one game, alongside Williams, against the Houston Rockets. He switched back and forth between Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley on defense — not an easy task for any rookie, to be sure.
Despite being originally signed as another big body for practices, Llamas showed in his short stint that he could contribute — whether it was in practice, as support from the sideline or as a banger down low. His enthusiasm and determination impressed his teammates, coaches and the entire Suns organization.
“He comes out early. He works every night before the game with our coaches and I like that,” said Cotton Fitzsimmons, senior executive vice presidents for the Suns. “I like how hard he’s working and the attitude he has whether he’s in the game or on the bench.”
The impression he left in two months was good enough to earn him a new one-year contract this summer. But Llamas isn’t satisfied with just being re-signed. He wants to prove to everyone that he belongs in the NBA for good.
“The only thing I can do is keep getting better. I’m doing all these little things to get better,” he said, referring to his busy summer schedule that’s included his participation in the Rocky Mountain Review in Utah and Pete Newell’s Big Man’s Camp in Hawaii. “I’m getting stronger every day. I’m trying to get better physically, to lose fat. I can see when I play down low that they push me and foul me and I’m still getting up and making shots because I’m stronger. I want to be here for 10 years.”
From Sinaloa to Arizona
Horacio grew up in a working-class neighborhood. His father is a veterinarian and his mother, Ana Luisa, a teacher. His parents instilled a sense of responsibility in him, his two younger brothers, and an older sister, and let them know the difference between right and wrong.
“They are supporting me since I started playing any sport and now they are happy to see their son doing well and not doing drugs or is a problem child,” said Llamas, who is still mastering the English language. “Since I was a little kid, they told me the right stuff and I listened to them. If they hadn’t raised me how they raised me, I wouldn’t have come out like I came.”
Like many Mexican youth, Horacio grew up playing soccer and baseball. But his first love was karate, which he began taking when he was only 2 years old.
“My uncle would take me and I would just go out with him,” he reminisced with a big smile. “I just kept going until I was 13.”
“I remember when I went to a national tournament when I was 10 or 11 years old and somebody told me that it wasn’t for ages, that it was for sizes. Somebody told me that I was somebody’s father that was in the division, so he wanted me to go to another division.”
Sure enough, the man got his wish and Horacio started sparring against boys three or four years older than him. Even then, he was a man among boys.
It wasn’t until his early teen years that he began playing basketball. He became a fan of the sport watching the NBA playoffs at a friend’s house who had a satellite.
“I started playing basketball for fun,” he explained. “My friends invited me to play in city tournaments. I started going there and liking it. When I was 15 I had to decide if I wanted to play basketball or baseball. I started playing basketball.”
Wise choice, amigo.
Horacio was head and shoulders above the other basketball players in Sinaloa — in more ways than one. His enormous size and raw, rugged ability landed him a spot on the Mexican junior national team which trained in Mexico City at the Olympic Training Center.
While in Mexico City in 1991 on business, former Pima Community College Athletic Director Larry Toledo heard whispers about a guy named Llamas.
“We were informed that there was a young man that had a lot of potential that was a very big man,” Toledo recalled. “But we never got to talk to him. We had an emergency that made us come back to Tucson.”
That didn’t stop Toledo from convincing Pima coach Mike Lopez that Llamas could be a pioneer.
“Larry sold me on the idea way before I talked to Horacio,” Lopez said. “He felt that Mexico had some players. They needed to be exposed so they could go on and get somewhere. Larry had the vision that, ‘Hey, Horacio could be the first in the NBA, and that this can happen through Pima.’ ”
Of course it didn’t hurt that, at the time, Pima had a player from Mazatlan, Mexico, named Francisco Gomez, a friend of Horacio’s. Gomez also kept talking to Lopez and Toledo about the mammoth Mexican. All this hype sparked Lopez’s interest and he decided to give Lopez a call at the Olympic training center.
“Through Francisco, I was able to ask him if he was interested in coming up,” Lopez said. “He wanted to come to the United States to play basketball but, before that, he had to come to visit.”
So Llamas took a day-long bus ride from Mexico City to Nogales, Sonora, where he was greeted by Gomez and an astonished coach.
“When I first saw Horacio, he came out of the bus station,” Lopez recalled. “I thought he was going to be 6-7, 6-8 maybe. He was an awesome, imposing stature and he was dressed to kill. He was dressed in black and had black terminator sunglasses on. He was very, very imposing.
“I thought to myself, ‘We are going to make this man a basketball player.’ ”
Instantly, Llamas took a liking to Pima. His first day in Tucson found him surrounded by competitive basketball players at Aztec Gymnasium, including ex-Wildcat standout Ed Stokes.
“Stokes was a 7-footer with legitimate game,” Lopez said. “I got Horacio to go work out against him and with him. Stokes took him to school, but Horacio liked that the first day he came to the United States he could go meet somebody bigger than he is.”
Lopez was not an overnight success at Pima. During his freshman season, in 1992-93 he was overweight, a little lazy (flojo) and knew no English. Those were three things he needed to improve dramatically.
And he did.
“Even back then before Horacio was very good, he was still big,” said Lopez. “He had to build up his conditioning, his training, his work ethic, his strength, his lifting, and his English. That was one of the biggest barriers for him. Once he was able to do that, he was able to do a good job.”
As a sophomore, Llamas’ desire caught up with his ability. During a game in 1994 against visiting Arizona Western College, he exploded, putting up 52 points. It was a game that truly marked the beginning of his arrival as an impact player. Sure, he has shown flashes of brilliance before but, in this game, he was unstoppable.
After starring at Pima for two years, Llamas transferred to Grand Canyon University in the heart of Phoenix, where he quietly developed into a Division II star. During his senior season, he led the Antelopes in scoring (17.5 per game), rebounding (9.2) and blocked shots (3.7). Basketball Times even selected him as the 1995-96 Division II Player of the Year.
Llamas’ next stop was the American West Arena, but not as a Phoenix Sun. Invited to participate in the Nike Desert Classic in April 1996, the local college product displayed his game in front of NBA coaches, general managers and scouts.
But despite his impressive collegiate stats, a good showing at the Classic and a bulky frame, Llamas went undrafted. That did not demoralize him, however. Instead, it gave him an added incentive. If he wasn’t ready for the NBA, he was going to make himself ready.
Llamas participated in summer leagues in Detroit and Los Angeles and even was invited by Olajuwon, who had heard of him through a common friend, to join him for some private workouts in Houston.
“Olajuwon helped teach me some moves,” said Llamas, who utilized some of those moves when he joined the CBA’s Sioux Falls team last fall. He appeared in 37 games for the league-leading Skyforce in 1996-97 and averaged 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks (fifth best in league) per game.
It was those stats and an injury-plagued Phoenix roster that triggered Llamas’ historic promotion to the NBA.
Long before Llamas made NBA history, he was embraced by Tucson’s Hispanic community. While he was a student-athlete, Llamas was a well-known figure to people of all ages.
“They never saw a Mexican so big and doing so well. They just thought that he walked on water,” Toledo said. “He has been quite a positive inspiration to a lot of the members of the Hispanic community here in Tucson.”
“We took him to meet all different aspects of the Hispanic community here in town and everywhere he touched, he left quite an impression. They loved him. I went to an elementary school to talk and the kids thought he was an incredible hero.”
If he wasn’t an incredible hero then, he certainly is one today. Now, wherever Horacio goes he is a celebrity. People on both sides of the border easily recognize the Sinaloan sensation.
“He’s like the Michael Jordan of Mexico, Air Horacio,” Toledo said. “He’s as big as Michael Jordan down there, maybe even bigger because he’s one of their own. They don’t get all the games on TV, so as far as they’re concerned he’s at the level of Michael Jordan.
“In Mexico, journalists put sports on the front page. A sports figure is more heroic than the president. He can’t go anywhere there that he is not recognized.”
He is especially well known in his hometown. His parents’ house has practically turned into a visitation center for everyone and anyone.
“He’s well known,” Llamas’ proud papa said. “He’s really loved. People always come over the house. The house is open for all the town.”
With the open invitation, people stopped in all the time. ALL the time.
“He’d get up in the middle of the night, and there would be people in the living room waiting for him,” Lopez said. “Some of the people coming over were like some he knew in 1st grade. He couldn’t get any sleep.
“When he did get away, Horacio would borrow a car and just get on the road just to get away from the attraction of people that were coming by. Everyone known him down there.”
If there is anyone in Mexico who doesn’t know him yet, they soon will. He recently signed a deal with Pascual Boing, a Mexican juice company, to star in commercials and has also agreed to become a spokesman for Mexico’s long distance phone company, Telemex. Other possible endorsement opportunities his agent is looking into include a rental car company and a Mexican supermarket chain.
And if that wasn’t enough, Toledo and his son, Pablo, who recently started their own film company, have begun working on The Horacio Llamas Story. The feature film has already been written and Horacio has agreed to play the starring role. Filming is expected to begin sometime next year.
“He broke barriers,” said Pablo, a graduate from the USC film school who will direct the picture. “But he broke them on both sides of the border. Now the kids in Mexico are going to be playing just as intense as American kids because they see that, ‘Hey, Horacio did it.’ He’s the one leading the way.”
And he’s sticking to his humble roots.
“He’s one of the few people I’ve seen attain the level of success, but yet respect everybody from the janitor sweeping the floor at America West Arena after the game to Jerry Colangelo,” Pablo said. “And every kid that comes up to him, he not only signs their stuff, but he talks to them. He actually communicates with them.”
And with only one NBA season under his belt, “Horaciomania” is just beginning. And as his countrymen and many north of the border already know, Horacio Llamas is somebody to look up to — in more ways than one.