MEXICO CITY - As the world's top professional basketball league gears up for Sunday's preseason launch in Mexico City, National Basketball Association officials are hinting at permanent expansion south of the border.
Sunday's face-off between the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Hornets marks the 20th exhibition game to be played in Mexico, the most of any country outside the United States or Canada, and the first such game at the brand new Mexico City Arena.
The NBA already has concrete plans to expand its Mexican footprint.
"Next year and the year after that there will be regular season games here, which is really huge," said Cedric Ceballos, a former NBA player turned league ambassador. "Those two years are the big test to see what happens."
Latin America is one of the league's top growth markets, accounting for 15 to 20 percent of international revenues, Philippe Moggio, the NBA's vice president for Latin America, told Reuters.
Given the proximity to the United States, Ceballos said a future franchise in Mexico City would be a natural fit.
"Now that there's a building that can house an NBA team, where we can play regular season games, it's a natural place to be thinking about it," said Moggio.
Ceballos, who played with said a Mexico City franchise could be established within five years.
Meanwhile, the league is focusing attention on local talents like Gustavo Ayon, recently acquired by the Orlando Magic from New Orleans, and only the third Mexican-born player in NBA history.
Orlando's rookie coach Jacque Vaughn announced to reporters that Ayon will start Sunday's exhibition game.
Ayon and other players put on a charity basketball clinic on Saturday, running young, disabled fans through dribbling and shooting drills.
"It's my favorite sport," said a beaming Luis Ramos, 22, shortly after he sunk a basket. "I can't believe I got to meet the players ... and they're so big." (Reporting By David Alire Garcia; Editing by Ian Ransom)