"Laz, what you over there sayin', man!" Gary Payton shouts as I try to interview Sonics rookie forward Lazaro Borrell in Spanish after a recent Sonics victory against the Grizzlies in Vancouver, BC. You can forgive Payton for being unaccustomed to hearing Spanish in the locker room; although it's the second most-spoken language in the US, you're more likely to hear Serbian in an NBA locker room than Spanish.
After defecting from Cuba this summer, the 27-year-old rookie became the hope of Cubans for the same success in the NBA that so many countrymen have had in major league baseball. Although he is shy to admit it, he has become a role model for future Latino basketball players. "I have become more famous after all the things I have done recently," Borrell managed to say in between Payton interjections. "But I don't think of myself as a hero. There have been other players in the NBA, like my friend Andr鳠Guibert from Cuba, Felipe [Lopez], Carl Herrera. There have been a few of us."
Very few indeed. Currently, there are two active Hispanic players in the NBA, Felipe Lopez of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Borrell, who came to the Sonics after defecting from Cuba during this summer's pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico.
"Talk about going from the outhouse to the penthouse," says Sonics head coach Paul Westphal as he watches Laz work on his jumper during a game-day shootaround. "He was living in a leaky-roofed place in Cuba, making eight dollars a week as a PE teacher playing basketball. Now he's going to chartered jets and Ritz Carltons. It's an unbelievable thing. It's a major culture shock for him."
The 6-foot-8-inch small forward has spent most of the season anchored at the end of the bench behind the surprising Ruben Patterson and Rashard Lewis. Borrell has only played in three games and hasn't scored a point, yet the Sonics are pleased with his development as he learns English and gets used to the NBA game. "We never expected that he would just step off the plane and be somebody who would play," says Westphal. "He's making good progress and I think he's going to start getting some time, probably. He's got a real nice way about him. Everybody likes him. He pays attention and learns and he's a real good basketball player. I think he's going to have a nice career in the NBA, and it's nice to see his life take the turn that it has."
Borrell's life began in Santa Clara, Cuba. Like most kids in that sports-obsessed country he played baseball and soccer, but he switched to basketball after a growth spurt. He started playing in Cuban scholastic basketball leagues in the seventh grade and eventually worked his way to the Cuban National Team, earning a degree in physical education along the way.
His official job was as a PE teacher, but Borrell, known to Cuban fans as "El Toro," spent all of his time playing basketball in Cuba's domestic league and in international competition. In 1997, he played in Argentina with Obras Sanitarias after the team struck an agreement with the Cuban Federation. He played there for two years, averaging 25.3 points per game over two seasons. While in Argentina, Borrell received only enough money for living expenses while the bulk of the money from his contract went back to the Cuban Federation.
During this July's pre-Olympic Tournament of the Americas in Puerto Rico, things came to a head. Borrell had decided to defect before leaving Cuba, and he left without telling his family of his plans in order to avoid an emotional farewell. He played the first three games of the tournament, averaging 20 points a game. Then on July 17, the night before Cuba was scheduled to play the US Dream Team, Borrell, three teammates, and a team trainer piled into a van outside the team's hotel. They were whisked away to the home of Andr鳠Guibert, a Cuban who played briefly in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves. From there the group went stateside, where NBA scouts were waiting.
Considered the most talented of the defectors, Borrell attracted interest from NBA teams including Houston, Miami, Orlando, New York, and New Jersey. Once he arrived in Seattle, the Sonics' management was immediately impressed with his height, his big hands, and his 85-inch wingspan. During workouts he displayed a great court sense and moves smoother than a freshly cut Cohiba. "He understood the fundamentals," says Westphal. "He's a good ball handler, he's got all the moves that you would like for a player to have. Then we had him scrimmage and he had a real good feel for the game. He's an NBA-caliber player, for sure."
Although Borrell couldn't speak a word of English, the Sonics were prepared to offer him a contract, something competing teams were unwilling to do. The team's philosophy was simple: English can be taught, but athleticism and a feel for the game—which Borrell has in abundance—can't.
On September 17, the Sonics signed Borrell to a two-year guaranteed contract for the NBA minimum salary of $301,875 a year, an amount that's walking-around money for many NBA players, but for Borrell is more than 700 times his wage in Cuba. "Minimum by the NBA definition is a lifetime salary or more than that, and more than anything he'd ever seen before," says Westphal.
Off the court the 27-year-old spends most of his free time either working on his refugee claim or studying English. "I stay home with my girlfriend, I study English, and I watch television. I watch Christina (a Spanish daytime talk show) sometimes, but not at home because I don't have cable. Now I watch Jerry," says Borrell, confirming that Mr. Springer doesn't require any translation—chair throwing and hair pulling is a universal language.
Despite Seattle's relatively small Hispanic community and even smaller Cuban community, Borrell has managed to make some connections. An owner of a local Cuban restaurant has invited Borrell to visit, and he's already checked out a salsa club. Although he might have made a smoother transition to life in the US if he played in a city with a larger Hispanic community, such as Miami or Houston, Borrell has warmed to life in the Northwest. "It might have been easier in other cities," says Gil Matos, Borrell's translator, "but I think he really wanted to spread his wings and break out. [Coming to Seattle] gave him that opportunity."
While somewhat isolated from the rest of the Spanish-speaking world here, Borrell is being closely followed in his native Cuba. People back home are anxious to see if he can succeed in the NBA, and if he does he will likely raise the profile of basketball throughout Cuba and the rest of Latin America.
Another person watching for Borrell is Grizzlies guard Felipe Lopez. After the Sonics' victory over the Grizzlies, the Dominican-born Lopez tracked Borrell down in the loading bay of Vancouver's General Motors Place and the pair exchange pleasantries and phone numbers. The short postgame chat was a meeting of every Latino player in the NBA. The conversation was nothing unusual—the kind of chatter common between NBA players—expect that it was spoken in rapid-fire Spanish. If Laz has anything to say about it, hearing Spanish in an NBA arena will be something that even Gary Payton will be used to in a few years.