On International Women's Day, teenager seeks to elevate women's hoops in Mexico

MEXICO CITY -- Mariana Valenzuela, who will spend Friday's International Women's Day honing her basketball skills, still can't decide what her favorite part of this year's NBA All-Star Weekend was.

The 15-year-old from Mazatlan, Mexico, said she loved the slam-dunk contest and its accompanying spectacle from the stands of Charlotte's Spectrum Center. She was enthralled by watching young phenoms duke it out in the Rising Stars Challenge. The All-Star Game itself, of course, was a massive highlight.

"It was all just an amazing experience," she said.

Valenzuela was more than a mere fan taking in the sights of the NBA's midseason exhibition last month. She was also there to participate.

As part of the fifth annual Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, Valenzuela was one of 63 elite youth basketball players from 31 countries who were selected to descend on Charlotte, North Carolina, for the event. A trio of NBA stars joined the campers as honorary coaches -- Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic and Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns. Ayton, the No. 1 overall selection of 2018 NBA draft, was himself part of the BWB Global Camp in 2016.

"It was great to meet girls from around the world who have the same dream as me," said Valenzuela, the only player from Mexico at the camp and a member of her country's U-15 national squad. "To be a part of something like that is an honor."

On Friday, Valenzuela will be one of 25 girls from across Latin America who will participate in the NBA Academies Women's Program in Mexico City,

"We're excited to be able to teach these girls and share our experiences," said retired WNBA player Allison Feaster, a Harvard grad who will serve as an instructor and guide during the camp. "It's about helping them not only become better players, but better people as well."

Valenzuela's ultimate goal is to reach the highest echelon of the women's pro game, the WNBA. To that end, Basketball Without Borders receives support from NBA Academies, the league's training center for players outside the United States. Since 2016, NBA Academies has launched chapters in Australia, China, India, Senegal and Mexico. Entering its second year of operation, the NBA Academies Women's Program Mexico has already spawned success stories. Karla Martinez, a camper in 2018, earned a scholarship to the University of San Diego following her performance.

Many of Mexico's most recent athletic successes have been women. Dating to the 2000 Summer Olympics, female athletes have been responsible for 15 of the country's last 27 medals in the Games, despite accounting for only 40 percent of the country's total delegation. Retired golfer and LPGA Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa remains the only person to receive Mexico's National Prize for Sport three times.

Despite the triumphant headlines created by Mexico's female athletes, sports like basketball remain in need of breakthroughs. On the men's side, only four Mexican players -- Horacio Llamas, Jorge Gutierrez, Gustavo Ayon and Eduardo Najera -- have reached the NBA. However, no Mexican woman has ever suited up for a WNBA franchise. Further, only a handful of women from the country have gone on to play college basketball.

Mexico's women have never qualified for an Olympic basketball tournament. The team's last of three appearances in a FIBA Women's World Cup -- with no medals to show for their efforts -- came in 1975.

Bego Faz, a former star with Fresno State and Duke, finished her collegiate career as a two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, leading the NCAA in blocks as a sophomore following the 2015-16 season.

Faz was scouted by Fresno State following an international tournament with the country's national team, which she described as somewhat serendipitous.

"There's talent down there, but no one knows where to scout or how to project [those players]," the native of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, said in a 2017 interview with ESPN. She also decried the lack of financial support that sometimes pervaded the women's team.

"It was tough. We'd sometimes wait at the airport [prior to traveling to a tournament] and we wouldn't have our uniforms or our travel arrangements set," Faz said.

Valenzuela, who is 6-foot-2, wants to buck the trend by expanding on the footsteps of those who came before her.

"I would love to attend a good university in the United States," she said. "I know that to reach the WNBA, I need to play for a Division I school and do well."

Though Valenzuela has always found support from her family in her endeavor, she laments the lack of encouragement sometimes present elsewhere.

"In this country, we need support from everyone. The media, girls' families, the government -- everyone," she said.

Envoys from the NBA and WNBA are aware of the difficulties facing young women in Latin America. Feaster said the leagues hope to serve as role models and supporters for those looking to carve a path to the pro game.

"I've gone overseas and played in Spain. You're challenged to learn another language and another culture, and it's a great opportunity to help you connect better with the girls," Feaster said.

Counting Valenzuela, Friday's camp includes 11 girls who hail from Mexico. Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela are also represented at the camp. All campers are looking to develop their game in the presence of top ambassadors such as current WNBA player Natasha Cloud and former University of San Francisco head coach Jennifer Azzi.

"This is such a great opportunity to learn, to square up against other players and realize what you need to work on," Valenzuela said. "We need these camps so people realize what supporting young girls can do."

Feaster agrees.

"To do this on International Women's Day sends a message to girls for them to follow their dreams and achieve their goals if they work hard," she said. "I saw a T-shirt that said, 'Girls can do anything.' Really, I think that's what this whole thing is really about. To instill that belief in them."

As Valenzuela watched some of the world's best hoop it up in Charlotte, she couldn't help but fantasize about being on the other side of things someday and channel Feaster's sentiment.

"Sure, I know I can do it," she said. "If I keep working, I'll accomplish all of that and more."