While there isn’t a large number of Latin NBA players today and they may not be as dominant in the sport as they are in U.S. professional soccer and Major League Baseball where they make up over 30% of the league and have a high number of prominent All-Star players, they have made an impact and their numbers have been growing over the years.
Only a handful of players have reached elite status, or been on a team that has lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.
Several players however, have stood out and forced many NBA teams to reconsider talent search in other parts of the world.
Pau Gasol, poster child of Hispanic Heritage
Barcelona forward Pau Gasol is undoubtedly an emblem of Hispanic Heritage in the NBA. In 2001 he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, but was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, where in 2002 he was named Rookie of the Year, being the first foreigner to have received that recognition.
Pau was chosen six times to the NBA All-Star Game, was an All-NBA Team four times and won two consecutive championships, 2009 and 2010, with the Los Angeles Lakers. At present, he continues to play for Barcelona in the ACB League, in Spain.
Emanuel Ginobili, multipĺe championships
Considered one of the most successful Latinos in NBA history, “Manu” left his mark thanks to his outstanding performance for the San Antonio Spurs where the Argentine was able to acquire four championship rings: 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. Without his best weapon – defense, the Spurs would not have achieved those championship rings.
He averaged 13.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game during his 15 seasons in the NBA. While these stats do not by themselves show him as being at the very top of the NBA especially if the focus is on points, Ginobili was considered for several years to be the #1 player in the NBA when looking at Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) which considers the combination of assists, steals, rebounds, points, minutes played, etc., During this time, Ginobili showed that he was a complete player both on defense and offense, considered an eternal headache of some of the best players in the NBA, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Ray Allen, just to name a few.
Butch Lee, Puerto Rican pioneer in the NBA
Butch Lee was not only the first Latino to play in the NBA, he was also the first to win an NBA title. Born Alfred ‘Butch’ Lee in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he was a school yard legend in the Bronx playing for DeWitt Clinton HS, before heading to Marquette where he led the school to their first ever NCAA championship. He was drafted into the NBA in 1978, beginning his career with the Atlanta Hawks, then later that year went to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After leaving the Cavaliers in the 79-80 season, Lee became a Laker, where he shared the court with the magical Kareem Abdul Jabbar-Magic Johnson duo. Although he played in only 17 games, Butch Lee received his championship after the Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in six games during the Finals.
Carl Herrera, the Venezuelan Rocket
The Venezuelan player, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, was part of the repeat championship Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, a legendary team led by Hakeem Olajuwon. While Herrera’s contributions to the Rockets were not the most significant, he is one of the few Latinos to see action in the NBA Finals.
In 1994, against the New York Knicks, he averaged 7.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 0.4 assists during the six games of the series, while in the 1995 Playoffs he only played the fifth game of the first round of the Western Conference against the Utah Jazz.
Marc Gasol, the “Spanish” stalwart of the Grizzlies
Pau’s younger brother made his NBA debut in 2008 with the Memphis Grizzlies. He was a fierce and strong center on the court, and had incredible accuracy as a scorer. He is a two-time All-NBA Team member and a three-time All-Star. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and won an NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors in 2019.
Fabricio Oberto, defensive specialist
Like Ginobili, Oberto was part of Argentina’s Golden Generation that surprised the world at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, with the semifinal victory over the United States, grabbing the Gold in the Finals against Italy.
The fellow Argentinian accompanied Manu to the Spurs where he had minutes in the 2007 Finals, when the Texan squad won the championship by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, and a young LeBron James in his first Finals.
Although the list of Hispanic champions is limited, names such as Leandro Barbosa, Anderson Varejao, Juan José Barea (these three also champions) should also be highlighted, Eduardo Nájera, Nene Hilario, Luis Scola and Gustavo Ayón had noteworthy careers.
Up to the 2020-2021 season, the NBA had registered 98 Latino players throughout its history, a small number considering the 75 years that the league has been in existence.