February 27, 2024

When the Orlando Magic face the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday in Mexico City, Jamahl Mosley will be back in the country that launched his journey into professional basketball more than two decades ago. That the Magic head coach will command one of the NBA’s most internationally diverse rosters is also a further affirmation of the league’s new global reality.

This season, a record 125 international players were listed on opening night NBA rosters. Mosley is coaching six of them with the Magic: Australia’s Joe Ingles, Canada’s Caleb Houstan, German brothers Franz and Moritz Wagner, Georgia’s Goga Bitadze and England’s Admiral Schofield. Additionally, reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero is of Italian descent on his father’s side.

“Basketball is an international game,” Mosley said. “So I’m not surprised at all. I went overseas and played against great competition internationally, and I did other things like Basketball Without Borders, and you see that talent level and the passion for the game.”

Like Major League Baseball and the NFL, the NBA is no stranger to testing international waters, having staged regular-season games in France, England and Japan. Last month, the Dallas Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves played two preseason games in Abu Dhabi. In the last four years, similar contests have taken place in China and India. Nevertheless, Mexico and its sizable NBA fan base remain a firm focus when it comes to the league’s international growth, with the country having hosted a record 31 contests of any sort since 1992. Mosley has been a part of two of those games as an assistant coach, just two feathers in a cap brimming with a worldly wisdom that has become commonplace in the NBA.

The 45-year-old Mosley, who went undrafted coming out of Colorado in 2001, instead embarked on an international route — spending time in Mexico on an exhibition tour against the Mexican national team in several cities within the country. Among those he played against was Horacio Llamas, the first NBA player born in Mexico.

“We were there for about a month. [It was me] and guys that were working to go pro and figuring things out,” Mosley said.

After the tour concluded, Mosley set off for overseas stops in Australia, Spain, Finland and South Korea before finishing his playing career in 2005, having never played in the NBA. That year, he joined the Denver Nuggets as a scout and became an assistant coach two seasons later. The ensuing years would mark an influx of international talent into the league that continues to this day. Mosley’s experience abroad served as a coveted asset at coaching stops with the Nuggets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Mavericks, where he connected with stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic.

During Mosley’s final season with the Mavericks in 2021, he filled in as head coach after Rick Carlisle tested positive for COVID-19 in April. The Mavericks would defeat the Knicks that day 99-86, and the team greeted their acting coach with a bottled water bath and raucous cheers in celebration of his first victory.

“It’s not easy to replace the coach right away, but he did an amazing job,” Doncic said afterward. “He managed the whole game perfectly.”

The following July, Mosley was hired by the Magic to replace Steve Clifford as head coach. Banchero was selected No. 1 overall pick the next summer, and Mosley has presided over a mostly young roster whose 34 wins last season were the franchise’s second-most since 2016.

On Thursday, Banchero and other players new to the international experience can expect a surreal reception in Mexico City: a mixture of its trademark altitude — the city is situated 2,070 feet higher than Denver — and eager, exuberant fans hungry for NBA action. The Magic will play their third regular-season game in Mexico City, and the Hawks will make their debut south of the border.

“I’m so excited for our guys that they’re going to be able to go to Mexico City and feel that atmosphere, that passion for the game and it brings people together,” Mosley said. “But we’re coming in early and getting some running in, I can promise you that.”

That excitement is shared by the opposing Hawks. When the game was announced in July, Hawks guard Trae Young posted in Spanish on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, the he couldn’t wait to go to Mexico.

In the run-up to the game, the league posted a video in which Young was informed about the scoring record in Mexico City, currently held by Doncic, who capped off a triple-double with 41 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists against the Detroit Pistons in 2019. Mosley was on the bench for that game as a Mavs assistant.

“Who knows if that’s going to be broken?,” Young wondered with a shrug. “We’ll see.”

For Mosley, the significance of once more returning to a place that set off the chain of events in his professional life is not lost on him. After two decades of pilgrimage, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession — and he knows it.

Though self-critical of his limited Spanish-language vocabulary (“Hablo un poquito,” he said — or “I speak a little”), Mosley’s eagerness to communicate with the gaggle of international reporters in Mexico City and share the exposure of taking in an NBA game abroad with his global group of players is contagious.

“It’s great to experience this, the savvy and passionate fans of Mexico City. I love it,” Mosley said. “I know how much this game gives back to you when you give to it.”

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