Take a walk through Santo Domingo’s Centro Olimpico and you’ll see basketball
courts filled with young men shooting hoops, imitating their favorite NBA stars.
In the barrios or the private clubs scattered around the capital and throughout
the DR, basketball courts are frequented by kids mimicking their AND1 or NBA
idols, pretending to be Michael Jordan, Hot Sauce or Kobe Bryant. The replica
jerseys and baggy shorts hang loosely from their slender bodies as you hear the
sounds of the name brand basketball shoes sliding across the cement courts. On
the sidelines you hear the ruckus, arguments that never end. Players discussing
who was the greatest player of all time, which was the greatest team of all time
or who will be the next great superstar. This is what these players come out for
every day. The hot Caribbean sun beats down on them but they are only concerned
with finding the cutter on the back door screen and getting back to play
Basketball players are a different breed of athlete in the Dominican Republic.
They aren’t anything like their baseball counterparts. To a degree, they have
always lived in the shadow of baseball. These players have always played the
game for love, without ever wondering whether there is a scout in the stands
watching them play, because in the Dominican Republic basketball is not a meal
ticket like baseball is. But regardless of this no one can dispute the game’s
popularity in the country.
With Al Horford’s selection in the NBA’s 2007 draft, Dominican basketball
entered a new era. Horford’s high selection came as no surprise for many fans of
this talented Dominican athlete, but many would be surprised to learn about the
Dominican Republic’s long-standing contribution to basketball on an
international level. This small Caribbean country has long been known as a
baseball powerhouse, providing the world with some of the game’s best talent,
but recent years have demonstrated that Dominicans could now be on the verge of
becoming a dominant force on the hardwood as well. Horford, although the highest
Dominican to be picked in the NBA’s yearly draft, isn’t the first and will
certainly not be the last and has now become the marquee name leading the
Dominican Republic’s new generation of hardwood wizards.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the Mecca of international
basketball. For those lucky few who get to wear an NBA uniform at least once in
their lives they have the honor of saying that they played with the world’s best
players and to date, 10 Dominicans can proudly make that claim. Though other
international leagues provide competitive competition, it’s the goal of playing
in the packed houses of NBA’s arenas that drive the ambitions of young blacktop
The first Dominican to ever play in the NBA was a man by the name of Hugo
Cabrera. Cabrera played his college ball at East Texas State University. Cabrera
was playing for the Dominican team in San Lazaro in Puerto Rico in 1976. His
tremendous performance prompted Milwaukee Bucks general manager Wayne Embry to
select Cabrera with the 8th pick, of the 10th round, in the 1976 draft. Cabrera
worked out with the Bucks that summer but was unable to really make an impact
with the Bucks. He returned to play with San Lazaro and in 1978 tried out with
the New York Knicks, unfortunately not being selected for the squad.
It would be six long years before another Dominican was chosen in the NBA draft.
Frank Rodriguez was the second Dominican to enjoy the honor of being selected
and playing in the NBA. Rodriguez, who played his college ball at New Mexico,
was selected in the 10th round of the 1984 NBA draft. Although Rodriguez’s NBA
career didn’t amount to much, he was yet another Dominican who provided
inspiration for those who dreamed of following in his footsteps.
Tito Horford was the third Dominican selected in the NBA draft. Horford, who is
Al Horford’s father, was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1988 drafts (39th
overall pick) and was the first Dominican to actually play a game in the NBA.
Horford played his college ball at Miami University and left after two years
there to pursue his professional aspirations. He played three years in the NBA
with the Bucks and Washington Bullets.
Jose “El Grillo” Vargas, who played his college ball at Louisiana State
University (LSU) was next on the list of Dominicans selected to play
professionally. The Dallas Mavericks selected Vargas with the 49th overall pick
in the 1988 draft.
Although for a 20-year period the type of Dominican players who were drafted
could be classified as second-tier athletes, it must be understood that the
quality of play achieved in the NBA is only meant for the world’s best and it
wasn’t until 1998 that DR would have the hope of an NBA superstar to call its