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One Tough Hombre
Grant Wahl
January 24, 2000
Gritty forward Eduardo N�jera has come blazing out of Mexico to become a star at Oklahoma—and a cult hero back home
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January 24, 2000

One Tough Hombre

Gritty forward Eduardo N�jera has come blazing out of Mexico to become a star at Oklahoma—and a cult hero back home

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Servando always wanted Eduardo, the youngest of his and his wife Rosa's six children, to follow him into baseball, so he shook his head mournfully when the boy was cut from his high school team as a freshman. At 15, however, Eduardo discovered a new love. His neighbor had set up a makeshift basketball goal on Sicomoro Street, a quiet thoroughfare in Chihuahua's Las Granjas neighborhood, and one day after playing soccer, the friend invited him over for a game. Eduardo started playing well enough that he made the school team later that year, but he watched most of the games from the bench. "I told myself I was never going to go through that again," he says, "so I started practicing by myself and playing on as many teams as I could."

Modeling himself after Scottie Pippen, whom he watched on Chicago Bulls games that were televised in Mexico, and after a tough, sharpshooting forward from the Mexican league named Ra�l Parma, N�jera burst onto his country's hoops scene two years later, leading the Chihuahua team to the national age-group title in Puebla. It was there that Chuck Skarshaug, an American who coached in Mexico, convinced Eduardo that he had a chance to get a basketball scholarship from a U.S. college. While playing for Skarshaug at Cornerstone Christian School in San Antonio the following year, N�jera averaged 24.8 points and received recruiting overtures from Duke, Indiana and Oklahoma State before he chose Oklahoma.

One giant obstacle remained: N�jera couldn't carry on a simple conversation in English. At Cornerstone, where he was joined by his best friend and three other Mexicans that he knew, he rarely had to speak anything but Spanish outside of class. Once he arrived in Norman, his first year turned into a long nightmare as he sat out the basketball season—it had taken him four tries to pass the required standardized test—and struggled with the simplest tasks. "I was scared to talk to people," he says. "I started eating at Subway all the time just because I was afraid to go to the cafeteria."

Homesick and isolated, N�jera spent hour after hour in the office of a helpful bilingual athletic counselor named Veronica Trujillo. "At one point Eduardo told me, 'I can't do it,' because he was so frustrated," she says, "but he kept working. I'll never forget the day he walked in and said, 'What's up?' I remember telling Coach, 'I think Eduardo's in with the guys now.' "

These days N�jera speaks flawless English, gabs endlessly with adoring fans and looks forward to graduating with a degree in sociology in May. "When I see Eduardo today, I see where he came from," says Sampson. "Here was a shy Hispanic kid who didn't speak the language well, who didn't look you in the eye when you talked to him, and who spent his first year here taking classes and sitting alone in his room. I know what he's gone through to get here."

Comfortable playing in the shadows of Nate Erdmann and Corey Brewer during his first two years, N�jera became the focal point of Oklahoma's offense last season after several closed-door sessions with Sampson, who exhorted his Hombre Malo (Tough Guy), as he calls him, to take charge. "Eduardo has no ego," Sampson says, "but he listened, and my greatest gift is that our best player is also our hardest worker."

Things are going so well that N�jera's biggest concern is that he's getting too much publicity in Mexico. The N�jeras are middle-class, but that could change a year from now if Eduardo makes the NBA. And in Mexico, where the father of soccer star Jorge Campos was kidnapped and held for ransom last year, wealth can put a target on people's backs. "I don't want anybody to do anything bad to my family," Eduardo says, "so I'd like to bring them to the United States if I get the opportunity."

If that happens, Rosa and Servando may well lead a hoops-related migration northward. Already their son has sparked the interest of young Mexicans who want to play college ball in the U.S. During a recent Internet chat session organized by Reforma, N�jera was bombarded with questions from 75 Web surfers—not as many as sign on to chat with Mexico's soccer stars, but still impressive. It was just one more subterranean sign that, in a f�tbol-mad nation, the Pied Piper of el basquet is playing an intoxicating new tune.

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