Sports

Suns Fans Find Meaning—and Connection—in Devin Booker and His Mexican Heritage

It’s 11 p.m. on the night before Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals, and the space in front of Phoenix Suns Arena is brightly lit. Music booms through two speakers as a DJ and a hype man practice their lines, but the area is virtually deserted. Twenty-four-year-old Gerardo Gutiérrez and his brother, 20-year-old German Gutiérrez, are two of the few people there, sipping the last drops of their Dutch Bros iced coffee and taking pictures of the stadium marquee signaling that their team is hosting an NBA Finals.

They gaze up at the gold lettering and Larry O’Brien Trophy graphics with anticipation and disbelief. They’ve been Suns fans since they were little and growing up in South Phoenix, and they have faint memories of the Steve Nash–led teams of the mid-2000s, as well as fresher memories of the Suns drafting and building a team around Devin Booker. The brothers got their Suns fandom from their father, who came to love the team during the Seven Seconds or Less era. Now, with Booker on the team, they have something even more singular to cheer for: an NBA superstar who, at least in one way, is actually like them.

“I think all of this is even cooler because he has Mexican blood in him, and he’s carrying that with him,” Gerardo said while looking at a marquee that featured Booker in the center. “His mom even has the same last name as us: Gutiérrez.”

Gerardo can rattle off facts about Booker like he’s a walking Wikipedia page: Booker’s mom is Mexican American, and his grandfather was born in Los Nogales, Mexico, a town near the Texas border. To the Gutiérrezes, both of whom are first-generation Americans with Mexican parents, Booker’s background is a source of pride. And many other local fans feel similarly. Gerardo was at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport two weeks ago when the team returned from Los Angeles after clinching a Finals berth, and he recalls fans chanting “Si se puede” (Yes, we can) as the players walked through. And while the Gutiérrez brothers and other Latino fans have plenty of respect and appreciation for a player like Chris Paul, whose arrival last offseason helped turn the Suns into a contender, what they feel for Booker is something much greater: a cultural connection.

In the 1990s, Latinos made up just 20 percent of Phoenix’s population. That rose to 34 percent in the 2000s, and by 2018, that number had jumped to 43 percent, making Latinos the largest demographic in the Phoenix area.

“I’m around [Latino culture] every day,” Booker said the day after winning Game 1 of the Finals. “I always say I’m fortunate enough to live around it, see it around the stands, and see it around the city. … Being able to touch those types of communities in this area makes all this that much better.”

Booker—who grew up near Grand Rapids, Michigan, moved to Mississippi in high school, and played college ball at Kentucky—said recently that he hadn’t been able to fully connect with his Latino heritage until he arrived in Phoenix in 2015, at the age of 18. Slowly but surely, though, Booker’s awareness of—and appreciation for—the culture around him has become more evident. Booker and Phoenix are starting to build the kind of rare star-city relationship that’s been most recently seen between Stephen Curry and the Bay Area. Except this one is not based on just loyalty and winning, but also heritage.

“If you count him as a Mexican, which I’m going to do and I think a lot of us will, he’s the best Mexican basketball player ever,” said Mike Vigil, a third-generation Mexican American who hosts a Suns podcast called The Timeline. “If you just acknowledge it from that perspective, then, then maybe it is OK to make it a bigger deal.”

From his seat inside a suite at Phoenix Suns Arena, Arturo Ochoa can barely hear himself think. It wasn’t long ago that the radio broadcaster was calling games in Spanish for a 19-win team in a nearly empty building. But now, Ochoa is almost levitating as he calls an NBA Finals game surrounded by a deafening crowd. His voice rings into his microphone as Booker hits a tough shot, which Ochoa describes in detail before punctuating the play with his go-to description for the Suns star: “El hombre con herencia hispana!” The man with Hispanic heritage.

This particular remark carries special significance for Ochoa. A native of Cananea, Sonora, a city four and a half hours south of Phoenix in Mexico, Ochoa has been calling Suns games since 2004. His job is to do the play-by-play, but as Mexicans say, sometimes you need to “echarle más crema a los tacos,” or add a little bit of spice to the meal. Noting Booker’s Mexican heritage is part of that—but it’s also a responsibility Ochoa feels on a personal level.

“Imagine the pride of having your team have a guy score 40 points in a playoff game, and he has Latino blood? Mexican blood like you?” Ochoa said in Spanish. “Imagine how I have to paint that picture over the airwaves so that those who listen to us who are Mexican, so that they can feel proud of a guy who shares their blood being an NBA star and who might be the most important player in the city since Larry Fitzgerald.”

Spend some time in Phoenix—especially lately—and that last sentiment rings true. Booker is introduced last among the starters during Suns games; he gets the loudest cheers, and his jerseys are ubiquitous. When the team was at its low point, winning 21 and 19 games during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, Ochoa remembers friends from Sonora asking for tickets to see the visiting Kevin Durant or LeBron James. He’d let them have the seats he got in his contract and then try to help them fall in love with Booker.

“A lot of them, at that point, didn’t know that Booker was of Mexican descent,” Ochoa said. “That would spark even more pride when I would tell them, and they’d end up buying his jersey.”

Now, with the Suns winning and Booker’s background gaining prevalence, Ochoa has noticed an increased interest from Latinos around the city—and even from new fans in Mexico. Ochoa said the data shows that people are listening to his broadcasts on the other side of the border, and the Suns organization has tried to connect with the Latino community, too, sending basketballs and uniforms to kids in Sonora while also continuing to make and sell the “Los Suns” jerseys that were part of the Noche Latina collection that the league created for cities with large Latino populations. Vigil said he didn’t think that the uniforms felt like pandering; rather, it was finally merchandise that represented the largest demographic in Phoenix.

Of course, a lot of this wouldn’t have happened had Booker not shown a willingness to embrace his Latino roots. When you ask people around Phoenix when they became aware of Booker’s Mexican heritage, everyone has a different answer: the 2017 game the Suns played in Mexico, or the one in 2019; through the video the team put out for National Hispanic Heritage Month last year; or just this past season, as the Suns became one of the best teams in the league and Booker became an even bigger star. One fan I encountered just before Game 2 said she researched Booker’s heritage after seeing his face, doing a double take, and saying, “Esa cara no se ve gringa” (“That face doesn’t look gringa”). Now, she’s his biggest fan.

“We’ve already felt the need to defend him for five or six years, because of the trajectory of his career and the way he was talked about early on,” Vigil said. “I think for those of us that are Hispanic, there is even another layer to that. We feel like we have to go even more above and beyond to get him the proper respect that we believe he deserves.”

Ochoa believes that Earl Watson, the Suns’ coach for parts of three recent seasons, is a big part of the reason Booker began embracing the culture. Watson is half-Mexican, from his mother’s side, and, according to Ochoa, was always proud of that fact. Booker, not knowing Spanish, wasn’t as comfortable sharing that side of himself until Watson encouraged him to. And once he did, Ochoa noticed Booker became more comfortable discussing it publicly, like he did when the Suns played in Mexico City in January 2017. “Maybe it’s my Mexican roots,” Booker said with a smile when he was asked how he was able to put up 39 points in back-to-back games there.

“Booker has this charisma that people connect with,” Ochoa said. “I don’t know if it’s because he has Mexican blood, but he has a special charisma that translates without any words being exchanged and translates in his game because he always plays passionately. And he’s been loyal. … So he’s won the people of Phoenix over, especially the Latino community.”

In a downtown Phoenix alley, sandwiched between two streets named after U.S. presidents, stands a snapshot of the city’s Latino culture. A mural, commissioned by the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center and painted by 17 artists, spans a city block and features everything from portraits of Selena, Cesar Chavez, and Carlos Santana to mariachi-playing skeletons and bright red lowriders.

The lowrider car is one of the fixtures of Chicano culture, having originated in East Los Angeles in the 1940s, and on the night Phoenix went up 2-0, a mini caravan of those cars driven by Suns fans paraded down 2nd Street, honking and playing Spanish language music. These fans might have not been at the game, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t keep the party going after.

As Booker has embraced his Latino side, those who’ve long followed his career have seen incremental changes to everything from the way he dresses to what he drives—much of which seems to be a hat tip to this culture. Vigil remembers Booker showing up to an All-Star Week event in 2019 in a pair of baggy chinos, a black flannel buttoned up all the way to the top, Chicano style, and an old-school camcorder in his hand.

“When I saw that, I said he looks like one of my own uncles growing up,” Vigil said. “I see that as a wink to us because I think he knows that’s how we dress. … I think that had a lot to do with being around people like that for the first time. Getting the tacos, like for real—not the ones in Michigan, not the ones in Missouri. The ones in downtown Phoenix, those are a little different.”

Booker has also recently started driving old-school cars and lowriders to games. Ahead of Game 6 of the Lakers series, Booker drove a Grand National to Staples Center. And he drove a 1959 Impala—which he later said was named “Pretty Penny”—to Game 1 of the Finals.

“It increases the fandom, just because it’s someone you can relate to,” said Jason Macias, a lifelong Suns fan who is a third-generation Mexican American. “Someone taking pride in their culture and background is always something that we try to teach kids as well, so that’s a learning experience for them … and it definitely increases fandom for Latinos in general just because it’s someone representing their culture and our people.”

Macias has seen Mexican-influenced murals of Booker and the Suns pop up around the city, including one the Suns commissioned with “Los Suns” jerseys and players painted as Dia de los Muertos–style skeletons.

Just around the corner from the Latino Arts and Cultural Center mural in downtown Phoenix stands the actual center, which is a hub of paintings, models, and sculptures displaying different aspects of Latino culture. If you’re lucky, you might see one of the artists working on a piece when you visit. That’s how one of Booker’s representatives saw Piersten Doctor, a Navajo painter, working on a portrait of Booker last month. Father’s Day was the following day, and the representative asked Doctor if he could paint a portrait of Booker and his dad, Melvin, who played basketball at Mizzou. They needed the painting in five hours for a Father’s Day gift. Doctor said it wouldn’t be his best work, but he’d do it. The painting, according to Doctor, is hanging in the Bookers’ gym.

Isael Lugo didn’t get 20 feet inside Phoenix Suns Arena before he was stopped last week. The 24-year-old Lugo had the one of the most coveted pieces of memorabilia in the house: a custom-made Mexican flag with a Suns logo in place of the shield, and Booker’s face plastered on a prayer candle.

Lugo, who had draped the flag around his back, was trying to get to his seats in the 200 level, but he kept getting interrupted by people asking to take a picture of the flag. Latino fans, in particular, lit up when they saw it. One even stopped behind it and crossed himself. This is exactly what Lugo was hoping to do when he commissioned the flag: He wanted to represent, and to let other Suns fans know about Booker’s heritage.

“With Booker being Hispanic, I think it just opens the eyes to our culture around our Hispanic heritage,” Lugo said. “Especially with him embracing it, I mean, it brings us more attention too—just knowing that he’s Hispanic and he’s not afraid to show it.”

The idea for the flag came during an Xbox night between Lugo and his friends right after the Suns swept the Nuggets in the second round. Their goal was to have it ready for Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, but getting it made wasn’t easy. First, Lugo commissioned a graphic designer friend to mock up the design. That was simple enough: Lugo knew he wanted Booker’s face on a prayer candle, and a Suns logo with the traditional green, red, and white tricolor design. Finding a place that was willing to make the flag, however, proved more difficult. A few print shops didn’t have the right material, and some just outright refused to do it.

“Just because it was a Mexican thing,” Lugo said, “some places just said no right away, and they gave me a weird look.”

Phoenix’s diversity hasn’t made it immune from Arizona’s complicated relationship with Latinos (especially those who have immigrated to the country). In 2010, Arizona passed the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, which allowed police officers to detain people based on profiling their appearance. The Suns, including owner Robert Sarver, spoke out against the bill and wore their Los Suns jerseys in solidarity with the community. The law was eventually partially struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, but the situation in the state is still contentious.

Perla Macias, Jason’s wife and a Mexican national who moved to the States at 6 years old and just recently became a citizen, has been involved with Latino outreach organizations around Phoenix. That’s how she ended up at a Suns game a few years ago on Latino Night and found out about Booker’s heritage. Now she’s a diehard fan who makes a point to go to the players’ entrance before every game to welcome the team. She hopes that as Booker continues to grow into his role as the team’s star and face of the franchise, he’ll also feel confident in speaking out against issues that face the Latino community.

“He’s a young person,” Perla said. “He’s learning a lot. … We’re going to see him do and be more involved in our community.”

At this point, that community knows who he is. As Ochoa puts it, if nine out of 10 Latinos are at least casual Suns fans, then seven out of those nine know that Booker has Mexican background. For those who aren’t fans, Booker’s heritage may be what finally draws them in. And for those who are fans already, well, it’s as Ochoa would say, “cereza encima del pastel.” Cherry on top of the cake.

“Everyone wants to see a little bit of themselves in the athletes that they’re watching on TV,” Vigil said. “Down to just people saying ‘Kobe’ when they shoot a piece of trash in the garbage. … And I think for Latino kids, it’s probably a little bit easier to envision themselves as Devin Booker.”

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Booker’s grandfather was born in Nogales, Mexico; he was born in Los Nogales.

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