Former NBA player Eduardo Najera played his first four seasons with the Mavericks, who will face the Suns in Mexico City on Thursday night.
Eduardo Najera is by far the most prominent NBA player Mexico has ever produced.
However, Najera grew up wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a baseball player in the northern city of Chihuahua. But it was his basketball performance as an exchange student at Cornerstone Christian Academy in San Antonio that paved the way for a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he developed into an All-American under coach Kelvin Sampson.
Najera became the first (and still only) Mexican-born player selected in the NBA draft when the Houston Rockets identified him as a second-rounder in 2000. After a draft-night trade sent Najera to the Dallas Mavericks, he went on to enjoy a 12-season career with the Mavs, Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Bobcats.
Since his playing career ended in 2012, Najera has become a part-owner of the NBA D-League’s Texas Legends, a team he also coached for three seasons. He currently lives in the Dallas area and serves as a scout for the Mavericks.
With two NBA games to be played in Mexico City this week (Suns vs. Mavericks, 10 p.m. ET Thursday; Suns vs. Spurs 6 p.m. ET Saturday), we caught up with Najera to discuss his career and the state of basketball in Mexico.
What attracted you to basketball and how old were you when you began playing?
I was 14 and wanted to try out for the baseball team as a freshman in high school. They wouldn’t even let me try out. I was already 6-foot-8, the same size that I am now. I was already throwing close to 80 mph, but my coach said I was too tall to play baseball and suggested that I try basketball.
I played basketball in elementary school for fun, but baseball was the sport that I wanted to continue — up until this coach kind of killed my dream. But he also created another dream in basketball. I went to try out for the high school team. They saw me, and I didn’t even have to try out because I was so tall. I automatically made the team, and I loved the sport right away.
At what point did you know you had a real future in the sport?
My aspirations were on the educational side, until my high school coach started talking crazy to me. He thought that I was going to be an NBA player. He was being a coach and motivating me. At that time, I was like, “Are you crazy? The NBA is like going to the moon. When is that going to happen?”
Then I had a really good year as an exchange student in San Antonio and I started getting attention from coaches all over the country. Kelvin Sampson promised he would take care of me, because I didn’t speak the language. I knew I needed some extra attention and help off the court, and he promised that. He didn’t promise to show me the blueprint to the NBA. He just promised that he would take care of me off the court, make sure I got to class and make sure I learned the language and became a better student.
In my sophomore year, there was a particular play where I made a shot against Colorado to win the game and my attitude and demeanor changed completely. After that, my confidence grew and grew and grew. I remember that specific moment. Something clicked, and I believed I was going to be an NBA player. After that, I never doubted myself.
What do you see for the future of basketball in Mexico?
I heard this quote the other day: “When you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.” [The Mexican national team] hit rock bottom a few years ago. It was really challenging when I was playing, because there was a lot of corrupt people involved in our sport. Their main objective was to take, not to create or to support athletes or to extend ways to better our basketball.
It seems like in the last few years, new people have come in, and these people are aware of the problems and politics and how corrupt it was for a long time. So it’s changing. I see a big future. I see more players from my country coming out and playing in college and playing in the NBA. It’s just a matter of finding them and also providing a platform for them to develop. It is doable. It’s a lot of hard work, but it is possible.
Also, we have to create a better system to provide that for our boys and girls. Not only do I want to find the next Mexican-born or Mexican-American player to get into the NBA, I want to find the first woman [from that background] to get to the WNBA. I think that we have a lot of talent there. The future is bright.
You played for five teams in 12 NBA seasons. Who was your favorite teammate?
There are so many. I don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings, but Steve Nash was by far the best teammate that I had. He’s got this positive energy that’s very contagious. When you’re on the floor with him, you just know that everything is going to be fine. You know that he will put you in the right position to succeed. Off the court, he’s a lot of fun. He’s just a legit, great human being.
Dirk [Nowitzki] is very similar. One of the differences is that Dirk was a little tight [with money]. He never wanted to pick up the checks. He has alligator arms. Of course, that was when we were young. Now I hear that he takes everyone out to dinners. That’s not the Dirk I remember! He’s great, very playful. A little more reserved than Stevie.
Mike Finley was a great guy to hang around. Very quiet, but also outstanding on and off the court. He kind of reminded me of David Robinson‘s type of leadership and attitude. Another favorite teammate was Andre Miller. Allen Iverson was outstanding. Nick Van Exel was an amazing teammate as well.
Who was the toughest NBA player you ever had to defend?
All of them! When we had Don Nelson as a coach, he wanted to create mismatches. He would throw me in to defend a bunch of people. It went from me guarding Yao Ming and Shaquille [O’Neal] to guarding Kobe [Bryant]. It was tough.
But I would have to say Shaq was the toughest, because he was so strong. When you were pushing on him, it was like pushing on a wall. I’ll give you a good example. I played 19 minutes against Shaq, and the energy that I had to spend just to hold him on the block — and I got in foul trouble, of course, right away — it took me a week to recover. I got sick the next day because my energy level went so low.
With Kobe, it was more so skill-wise. With Kobe, I was always afraid to piss him off, which I did one time when I was with the Nuggets. [Coach] George [Karl] asked me to guard him, and I did have a really nice block on him early in the game, but it just pissed him off. He ended up scoring 40 points and beating us.
The easiest were guys like Kevin Garnett. I could get under his skin. He would get mad at me. That’s the way I would guard him, and I was very successful. His temperament was very different from everybody else’s. He was passionate, just like me. He would get [distracted] with me messing with him — not in a bad way, just playing hard defense.
Another easy one was Yao Ming. I remember the first time when Nellie told me, “You got him.” I’m like, “What?! Are you kidding me?” “Yeah, you got him. Do what you do best. Mess with him.” I was like, “OK, I’ll try.” I ended up with a good game against Yao. I got Yao really, really frustrated. The most important thing is that we won the game.
You were once named one of the dirtiest NBA players in a Sports Illustrated poll of your peers. Do you consider that an insult or a compliment?
If playing dirty means playing hard and not being afraid of getting hurt or sacrificing your body, it’s a compliment. But I never once did anything dirty, other than just hard play or a hard foul, which is common in the NBA.
The last time I played with the Mavericks in the playoffs [in the 2009-10 season], I remember a particular play against Manu Ginobili. And he’s dirty. He went up for a layup, and he knew I was going to foul him. I was preventing the basket. As I did that, he flopped — which he typically does — and the way he flops, he flops with his fist. When he did that, he hit me above my right eye with his fist, and I was really upset. I got the worst of it. I got kicked out of the game.
You coached the Texas Legends of the D-League for three seasons. What did you learn from that experience?
That coaching is much harder than playing. It’s time consuming. The game never ends. For players, win or lose, you go home, have a nice meal and go to sleep. You replay the game in your mind and think about your mistakes. But as a coach, you’re thinking three, four, five games ahead of time. You’re thinking about goals and the big picture, and then in the meantime, you have to watch the mistakes, correct things to get better and watch the next [opponent]. It’s a lot of work. That’s what I learned.
I loved it. I was passionate. I was playing the game on the sidelines. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’m back on the court soon, because I already miss it.