On This Date in Sports December 6, 1997: NBA in Mexico
In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The NBA plays its first regular-season game in Mexico. The NBA had previously had preseason games in Mexico and played regular-season games in Japan, but this was the first time they went south of the border in the regular-season game. The game played at Palacio de Los Deportes in Mexico City would be a thriller as the Houston Rockets edged the Dallas Mavericks 108-106. Michael Finley scored 35 in a losing effort, while Charles Barkley scored 19 points to lead the way for Houston.
One of NBA Commissioner David Stern's goals was to grow the sport internationally. He had teams play exhibitions all over the world while expanding into Canada. The NBA began playing games in Japan in 1990, with the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns playing a pair of games at the start of the season. The NBA returned to Japan in 1992, 1994, and 1996, but in 1997 it was Mexico's turn to host a meaningful game. Two teams from Texas were given the opportunity to play one game in Mexico, with the Mavericks giving up a home game as they hosted the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets were off to a strong start at 10-5 for coach Rudy Tomjanovich, while the Mavericks were struggling at 5-12 as Jimmy Clemmons was fired and replaced by Don Nelson as head coach just before the trip to Mexico City. The Rockets were without one of the star players as Hakeem Olajuwon was sidelined after receiving arthroscopic knee surgery in November. The Mavericks started the game strong, as they held an early 13-6 lead. The Rockets would take control of the game in the second quarter and lead by one point at the half, 54-53.
The game was close from beginning to end, as the game was tied 78-78 at the end of the third quarter. The Rockets, with Charles Barkley leading the way, had their big run in the fourth quarter, outscoring Dallas 12-2 to take an 11-point lead. It was the largest lead either side had the entire game. At the end of the game, Dallas made a run but fell two points short of tying the game as Erick Strickland's pass to tie or win the game was off target, allowing the Rockets to hold on to a 108-106 win.
Michael Finley led all scorers with 35 points for the Mavericks. The Rockets, meanwhile, got a balanced attack, with Charles Barkley leading the way with 19 points and 17 rebounds. Barkley added six assists, as Kevin Willis and Clyde Drexler each had 17 points, with Willis adding 11 boards. Eddie Johnson provided a spark off the bench for Houston, scoring 15 points.
The NBA would return to Mexico in 2014, with the Rockets shooting down the Minnesota Timberwolves 113-101.