One Tough Hombre Gritty forward Eduardo Najera has come blazing out of Mexico to become a star at Oklahoma--and a cult hero back home

January 24, 2000

On most weekends Jaime Rubio will stroll over to the outdoor
courts at Mexico City's Parque Las aguilas and run in a few
pickup games. Rubio is the basketball editor at Reforma, Mexico's
version of USA Today, and lately he has spotted a new trend: More
and more of the park's hip teenagers are shedding their tired
Michael Jordan togs and donning the maroon-and-white number 21
jersey of Oklahoma senior Eduardo Najera, late of Chihuahua, who
is already considered the finest player Mexico has ever produced.
"I don't know where they get them," Rubio says. "They aren't sold
in any stores here, so the kids must order them from Oklahoma or
find them on the black market."

As Rubio and other optimistic hoopsistas know, if Najera
(pronounced NAH-her-ah) is already stirring the underground south
of the border, by this time a year from now the tremors may have
morphed into Najerapture. "If Eduardo gets to the NBA, it will be
an extraordinary chance to cause an explosion of basketball in
Mexico," says Rubio, who believes it's possible for Najera to
have the same effect on his countrymen's nascent love of el
basquet that Fernando Valenzuela had on Mexicans' interest in
major league baseball.

To appreciate Najera is to see the little things he does on the
court--the way he knowingly worms his way inside the lane, hustles
for a follow-up dunk or sets his cinder-block screens--and realize
that he exudes a passion for basketball that Mexicans have
previously evinced only for soccer. "He's one of the most fun
players to watch in the country," says San Antonio Spurs
assistant general manager R.C. Buford, who thinks Najera should
be a first-round pick next June. "He's extremely efficient, and
he's so tough. Very few players have a greater impact on their
team's winning than he does."

Through Sunday, Najera, a 6'8" forward, was averaging 19.4
points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals a game to lead the
17th-ranked Sooners (14-2) in all three categories. This comes on
the heels of a summer in which he was the second-highest
scorer--with 20.1 points a game--at the World University Games in
Mallorca, Spain, where he guided Mexico to a fourth-place finish,
its best ever.

For his part, Najera knows better than to hype the Fernando
comparison--he'll need to improve his 20.9% three-point shooting
to get regular time in the pros--but he hardly shrinks from it,
either. "Those are some big shoes to fill, and I need to work
really hard to get there," he says. "My goal isn't just to make
it to the NBA but to play in the NBA." That's aiming pretty high,
since so few players have even been recruited out of Mexico to
play Division I ball. Indeed, it was only four years ago that
Horacio Llamas became the first Mexican to reach the NBA when he
joined the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately for the 6'11", 285-pound
Llamas, he was best known for his nickname, El Bano (the
Bathroom), because he spent so much time in the john, and he
ended up riding the bench before being flushed out of the league
after only 28 games.

Realizing Najera's potential, the Mexican media are already
showering him with more hosannas than they ever gave Llamas.
Reforma has plastered him on the front of its sports section two
or three times a week this season and runs stories on every
Oklahoma game, while Televisa, the nation's top TV network, gives
a weekly Najera update on its evening news. Another network,
TvAzteca, recently agreed to broadcast four or possibly five
Sooners games over the next three months, and though the network
has struggled to fill ad time for its NBA telecasts since Jordan
retired, advertisers have lined up eagerly for commercial slots
in Najera's games. "Many advertisers are interested in sponsoring
Eduardo next year," says Pepe Espinosa, TvAzteca's international
sports director. "Beer companies like Dos Equis, banks like
Banamex and telephone companies like Telmex. On our network he is
always one of the top five sports stories."

One man who's convinced that Najera will captivate Mexicans,
especially young ones, is Roberto Gonzalez, president of
Basquetbol Mexicano, a Mexico City-based company that promotes
youth basketball. A dual citizen of both Mexico and the U.S.,
Gonzalez was a freshman teammate of Magic Johnson's on Michigan
State's 1979 NCAA championship team, and he was instrumental in
bringing Najera to the attention of Oklahoma coach (and former
Spartans graduate assistant) Kelvin Sampson. "Mexicans can relate
to Eduardo," says Gonzalez. "He's a tremendous worker, he wears
his heart on his jersey, and he's succeeding in a world where it
has always been difficult for Mexicans. He's their blood and
bones."

It's those things that have earned Najera folk-hero status in
Norman too. In a now infamous collision during last year's
Midwest Regional semifinal against Michigan State, he was
steeling himself to set a backcourt screen when Spartans guard
(and former high school quarterback) Mateen Cleaves bull-rushed
him, slamming the top of his skull into Najera's chin. "All I
remember," Najera recalls, "was a horse running through me." Both
players toppled like split firewood, and Najera lay motionless
for eight minutes, a pool of blood running from his chin as
though he were the victim of a particularly gruesome mob killing.
On the sideline teammates Michael Johnson and Victor avila began
softly sobbing until Najera woozily rose and stumbled off the
floor.

Amazingly, Najera returned from the locker room minutes later
and, with a dozen stitches in his chin, reentered the game. Not
that he took any of his wits with him. "Coach told me the play,
but by the time I got out there I forgot it," Najera says. So he
did what came naturally. "The first thing he did was go head-hunt
Mateen Cleaves with a bone-jarring pick," says Sampson. "The
first thing! I'm not talking about tiptoeing in there, either. It
was bam! Over the years I've learned that pain is an opinion, and
some kids have a high opinion of pain. Eduardo has a really low
opinion of pain."

Ask Najera who's responsible for his toughness, and he'll tell
you a story about his father, Servando. A former shortstop in the
Chihuahua state baseball league who was nicknamed El Vikingo for
his long, flowing hair, Servando, 55, toils these days at a
waterworks, despite having suffered a heart attack last July. "He
was really bad for a week," says Eduardo, who was home from
school when Servando was stricken and endured a terrifying
ambulance ride by his side. "They finally gave him a pacemaker,
but I stayed with him in the hospital the whole time. He almost
died." Servando, however, wouldn't let a little thing like a
near-death experience keep him on the sideline. Just days after
leaving the hospital, he played shortstop for his over-40
baseball team.

Servando always wanted Eduardo, the youngest of his and his wife
Rosa's six children, to follow him into baseball, so he shook his
head mournfully when the boy was cut from his high school team as
a freshman. At 15, however, Eduardo discovered a new love. His
neighbor had set up a makeshift basketball goal on Sicomoro
Street, a quiet thoroughfare in Chihuahua's Las Granjas
neighborhood, and one day after playing soccer, the friend
invited him over for a game. Eduardo started playing well enough
that he made the school team later that year, but he watched most
of the games from the bench. "I told myself I was never going to
go through that again," he says, "so I started practicing by
myself and playing on as many teams as I could."

Modeling himself after Scottie Pippen, whom he watched on Chicago
Bulls games that were televised in Mexico, and after a tough,
sharpshooting forward from the Mexican league named Raul Parma,
Najera burst onto his country's hoops scene two years later,
leading the Chihuahua team to the national age-group title in
Puebla. It was there that Chuck Skarshaug, an American who
coached in Mexico, convinced Eduardo that he had a chance to get
a basketball scholarship from a U.S. college. While playing for
Skarshaug at Cornerstone Christian School in San Antonio the
following year, Najera averaged 24.8 points and received
recruiting overtures from Duke, Indiana and Oklahoma State before
he chose Oklahoma.

One giant obstacle remained: Najera couldn't carry on a simple
conversation in English. At Cornerstone, where he was joined by
his best friend and three other Mexicans that he knew, he rarely
had to speak anything but Spanish outside of class. Once he
arrived in Norman, his first year turned into a long nightmare as
he sat out the basketball season--it had taken him four tries to
pass the required standardized test--and struggled with the
simplest tasks. "I was scared to talk to people," he says. "I
started eating at Subway all the time just because I was afraid
to go to the cafeteria."

Homesick and isolated, Najera spent hour after hour in the office
of a helpful bilingual athletic counselor named Veronica
Trujillo. "At one point Eduardo told me, 'I can't do it,' because
he was so frustrated," she says, "but he kept working. I'll never
forget the day he walked in and said, 'What's up?' I remember
telling Coach, 'I think Eduardo's in with the guys now.'"

These days Najera speaks flawless English, gabs endlessly with
adoring fans and looks forward to graduating with a degree in
sociology in May. "When I see Eduardo today, I see where he came
from," says Sampson. "Here was a shy Hispanic kid who didn't
speak the language well, who didn't look you in the eye when you
talked to him, and who spent his first year here taking classes
and sitting alone in his room. I know what he's gone through to
get here."

Comfortable playing in the shadows of Nate Erdmann and Corey
Brewer during his first two years, Najera became the focal point
of Oklahoma's offense last season after several closed-door
sessions with Sampson, who exhorted his Hombre Malo (Tough Guy),
as he calls him, to take charge. "Eduardo has no ego," Sampson
says, "but he listened, and my greatest gift is that our best
player is also our hardest worker."

Things are going so well that Najera's biggest concern is that
he's getting too much publicity in Mexico. The Najeras are
middle-class, but that could change a year from now if Eduardo
makes the NBA. And in Mexico, where the father of soccer star
Jorge Campos was kidnapped and held for ransom last year, wealth
can put a target on people's backs. "I don't want anybody to do
anything bad to my family," Eduardo says, "so I'd like to bring
them to the United States if I get the opportunity."

If that happens, Rosa and Servando may well lead a hoops-related
migration northward. Already their son has sparked the interest
of young Mexicans who want to play college ball in the U.S.
During a recent Internet chat session organized by Reforma,
Najera was bombarded with questions from 75 Web surfers--not as
many as sign on to chat with Mexico's soccer stars, but still
impressive. It was just one more subterranean sign that, in a
futbol-mad nation, the Pied Piper of el basquet is playing an
intoxicating new tune.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL HOME COURT Najera summered in Mexico after starring for his country in the World University Games. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO INSIDE STORY Najera leads the Sooners in scoring and rebounding. COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF REFORMA HEADLINER Oklahoma's trip to the Sweet 16 of last year's NCAAs was big news in Mexico.

"I know I need to work very hard to get there," says Najera,
"but my goal isn't just to get to the NBA but to play there."

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