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A a la Dominicana: The DR is breeding a new generation of athletes
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 defense.

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 ballers.

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 own.
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