Growing with the Game

How Arnon de Mello and his team at NBA Latin America bring the energy of the arena to fans in Latin America

By Michael Hernandez

Imagine being twelve years old and playing on your school’s sports team or in a local rec league. Even to the most talented child, the training resources and stars of professional sports are a world away. However, today those dreams are closer to realities than ever before.

“The excitement and enthusiasm around basketball is our brand,” explains Arnon de Mello of NBA Latin America. “When schools and federations partner with us, we bring that extra excitement for kids to pick up the sport and play it. We help them organize it, so it’s not them doing the work by themselves.”

Thanks to de Mello and his team, youth across the region are playing in NBA-sponsored programs, receiving video encouragement from real players, and getting top-notch instruction from the world’s biggest basketball organization. And, most importantly, they’re pursuing an active lifestyle.

As a child growing up in Brazil, de Mello loved the active lifestyle of an athlete, so it was a dream come true when the opportunity to establish the NBA’s office in Brazil came in 2012. Today, as senior vice president and managing director of NBA Latin America, de Mello creates partnerships in Latin America that make it possible for more children to lead active lifestyles and learn to play basketball from the planet’s foremost basketball organization.

“Our job is to promote the sport and a healthy lifestyle, especially to the younger generations,” he says. “And we are a region that loves basketball—that actually plays a lot of basketball—so this makes our work a little easier in this region.”

In programs de Mello oversees, including Jr. NBA, Basketball Without Borders (BWB), and Digicel NBA Jumpstart Camps, Latin American youth have the opportunity to learn the way NBA players do, receive video encouragements, and, in some cases, earn visits from players and coaches. Not only does their curricula ensure that the game is being played safely, it also provides hundreds of practice plans and instructional videos featuring NBA and WNBA players and coaches.

“The excitement and enthusiasm around basketball is our brand. When schools and federations partner with us, we bring that extra excitement for kids to pick up the sport.”

The NBA describes this basketball development strategy as their “grassroots to high performance” system, growing with players from Jr. NBA and NBA Basketball Schools to BWB and NBA Academies. With the Jr. NBA 3v3, three girls’ teams and three boys’ teams adopt the names of NBA franchises and play in a league emulating the NBA, from the draft through the regular season and into the finals.

“We love to partner every year with basketball federations for Jr. NBA,” says de Mello. “The players get the rings, the whole thing. These days we even stream the games on Facebook so they get a lot of recognition in other markets and in other countries. During the draft we even have our players send them messages.”

And that translates to success. Whether you measure it in games on TV, hours of practice, or number of young people playing, excitement for basketball in Latin America is only rising. One of the shining examples of these programs’ successes is Bruno Cabloco, a Brazilian native and a BWB alum from the camp held in Argentina in 2013, who now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies and has become a BWB coach himself.

The key to the programs’ successes? Partnerships.

“We look for partnerships that increase our reach and, as a result, our impact in the region,” de Mello says. “We are only sixteen people in Brazil and thirteen in Mexico, to go with the staff of ten based in the US, so there’s only so much we can do. Through federations and school systems, we get more kids playing basketball. And through brands like Gatorade, Digicel in the Caribbean, Antel in Uruguay, and McDonald’s in Puerto Rico, we’re able to broaden our message to a larger population. I think that’s the perfect partnership for us, when we reach those goals.”

Photo: NBAE/Alexandre Loureiro

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