Zoe Zhang/MiC

For the first time since its founding in 1946, a player of Mexican descent won a National Basketball Association championship earlier this month. Juan Tosca-Anderson, or JTA for short, is an Oakland native and forward for the Golden State Warriors. From playing overseas to spending some time in the NBA’s official minor league (G League), JTA’s story of becoming a world champion is nothing short of spectacular. However, JTA’s Mexican-American heritage, in my opinion, makes this hometown-hero story so much more unique and special.

I fell in love with basketball from as early on as I can remember. When I attended my first NBA Summer League game in 2012, I was starstruck at how swiftly the players maneuvered through the court. During warmups, I watched as players threw the ball between their legs and through the hoop. The Golden State Warriors were playing the Los Angeles Lakers at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, and the arena was full of excited fans ready to see the young stars showcase their talent on opening night. But even though I was just as fired up as every other die-hard NBA fan, I couldn’t help but notice that there was little to no one on the court that looked like me — a Mexican. From that point on, I paid close attention to the new faces coming into the league in hopes of one day seeing a star from Mexican descent emerge into the NBA. 

JTA’s family immigrated from Michoacan, Mexico in the 1940s and immediately settled in Oakland. He grew up on 95th Avenue on the East Side of the city. As a tribute to his roots, JTA wears number 95 on his jersey. Though JTA’s mother is Mexican, his father is African American. As a result, JTA is considered Afro-Latinx. While JTA has represented both his Mexican and African American heritage as proudly as he can, JTA has faced racism from both sides, as well. Growing up, many people would tell JTA that he was neither Black or Mexican enough to consider himself a member of either side. I understand what JTA was experiencing: Though I am Mexican, I grew up in the United States. My family that immigrated to the United States constantly urges my cousins and my siblings to tie into our roots more. Instead of speaking Spanish at family gatherings, my American-born siblings and I will speak English to each other and block my Spanish-speaking family from our conversations. According to them, we’re not Mexican enough. However, whenever I enter a white-dominated space, such as the University of Michigan, I feel that my own voice as a Mexican-American is sometimes overshadowed by white legacy students who have historic ties to the University.

Nevertheless, JTA’s mother, Patricia, ensured that JTA and his siblings recognized the beauty of being biracial kids, especially Mexican and Black ones. Patricia would constantly remind JTA and his siblings that they had “two reasons to be proud.” Eventually, the words stuck with JTA, and he understood that he is neither only Black nor only Mexican. He is both and is equally as proud of both of his identities and understands that though he may not fall under a single category, there are younger people from both Black and Mexican communities that have historically been discouraged from embracing their own identities due to America’s racist history that America’s belief that white is right.

Behind former players Eduardo Nájera, Horacio Llamas, Jorge Gutiérrez and Gustavo Ayón, JTA is only the fifth Mexican player in the NBA’s history. As the only current Mexican player in the NBA, JTA represents an underwhelming 0.2% of all Mexican players in the NBA today. As a result, younger generations of Mexican basketball players may be discouraged from pursuing their dreams of one day playing in the NBA because there is little to no one that looks like them playing in the league, and thus, they do not belong. While Mexican representation dominates highly esteemed global sports like boxing and soccer, there is a blatant lack of representation of Mexicans in basketball. The Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional, or LNBP for short, is a Mexican league that JTA played in for five years. Still, many players that also played overseas before playing in the NBA advised JTA not to play in the LNBP because they felt the league did not grant enough national exposure for players with hopes of one day becoming NBA players. In fact, most overseas players with dreams of joining the NBA first start off by playing in leagues in Europe. In ESPN’s list of top basketball leagues in the world outside the NBA, the LNBP was not ranked at all. Regardless, after spending four years at Marquette University, JTA decided to take his talents to Mexico to not only showcase his potential but also to better understand his Mexican heritage. He was eventually offered a spot on the Santa Cruz’s Warriors team in the G League. After spending a couple of years in the G League, the Golden State Warriors eventually took a chance on the native Oakland player and signed him to a three-year contract.

Though JTA’s journey to the NBA was unconventional, JTA still displays pride in his Mexican heritage. Earlier this year, JTA was invited to participate in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in Cleveland for All-Star Weekend. He became the first Mexican-American player to participate in the contest and made sure to represent Mexico as best as he could. JTA represented his Mexican heritage with a custom Mexico-themed jersey and Nike shoes. He made sure the world knew that he was proud of being Mexican and thankful for the Mexican league for taking a chance on him.

When JTA and the Warriors won the NBA championship against the Boston Celtics earlier this month, JTA once again ensured that the world recognized his pride for his heritage. During the championship parade in The Bay, JTA carried a Mexican flag. Many fans in attendance also carried the Mexican flag with them, including a little girl spectating the parade who JTA picked up and had join him. As someone who is Mexican, I felt proud as hell that my culture was being seen by millions of people around the world. For the first time in the NBA’s history, the Mexican flag was associated with winning an NBA championship and was receiving the respect it has historically missed out on. It also made me hopeful that future generations of other Mexican American basketball players would see this as an opportunity to remember that anything is possible.

JTA continues to do a lot for Mexico. Every year, he hosts a basketball camp in Mexico where he personally connects with the Mexican youth in Monterrey and gives them advice on how to take their talent to the next level. He also hosts food and backpack drives in the state of Monterrey to ensure that his community is taken care of. 

It is important to note that, in the NBA, Mexican-Americans are underrepresented. While he has certainly deemed himself worthy of a spot on the Warriors roster, one cannot help but acknowledge that he is the only Mexican player in the league. As someone who is a part of a group that has been historically underrepresented, there is a tendency to feel as if it is your duty to pave the way for generations to come. Regardless, JTA did not let this pressure get to him. Instead, he used his gift of being Mexican and African American as an opportunity to demonstrate just how proud he is of both his heritages. 

Every young hooper has dreams of being one of 450 NBA players in the future. Though becoming an NBA player was something I never really dreamed of, I fell in love with the sport from as early on as I could remember. However I could not help but wonder why there was little to no Mexican representation in the league. As someone who hopes to one day contribute to the field of public policy, an area of academia that has historically been dominated by white people, JTA’s journey to becoming the first Mexican-American NBA champion inspires me to not allow the misrepresentation of Mexicans hinder me from pursuing my own goals. His story reinforces the notion that one’s ethnic culture should not be a determining factor in the outcome of your life. It makes me happy to know that for the first time in its 75 years of existing, the NBA has finally seen a Mexican-American become a champion. I am certain that JTA’s journey to stardom will empower others with similar backgrounds to follow in his footsteps and go against what many have considered to be the norm.

MiC Columnist Irving Peña can be reached at irvingp@umich.edu.