On most weekends Jaime Rubio will stroll over to the outdoor courts at Mexico City's Parque Las �guilas and run in a few pickup games. Rubio is the basketball editor at Reforma, Mexico's version of USA Today, and lately he has spotted a new trend: More and more of the park's hip teenagers are shedding their tired Michael Jordan togs and donning the maroon-and-white number 21 jersey of Oklahoma senior Eduardo N�jera, late of Chihuahua, who is already considered the finest player Mexico has ever produced. "I don't know where they get them," Rubio says. "They aren't sold in any stores here, so the kids must order them from Oklahoma or find them on the black market."
As Rubio and other optimistic hoopsistas know, if N�jera (pronounced NAH-her-ah) is already stirring the underground south of the border, by this time a year from now the tremors may have morphed into N�jerapture. "If Eduardo gets to the NBA, it will be an extraordinary chance to cause an explosion of basketball in Mexico," says Rubio, who believes it's possible for N�jera to have the same effect on his countrymen's nascent love of el bosquet that Fernando Valenzuela had on Mexicans' interest in major league baseball.
To appreciate N�jera is to see the little things he does on the court—the way he knowingly worms his way inside the lane, hustles for a follow-up dunk or sets his cinder-block screens—and realize that he exudes a passion for basketball that Mexicans have previously evinced only for soccer. "He's one of the most fun players to watch in the country," says San Antonio Spurs assistant general manager R.C. Buford, who thinks N�jera should be a first-round pick next June. "He's extremely efficient, and he's so tough. Very few players have a greater impact on their team's winning than he does."
Through Sunday, N�jera, a 6'8" forward, was averaging 19.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals a game to lead the 17th-ranked Sooners (14-2) in all three categories. This comes on the heels of a summer in which he was the second-highest scorer—with 20.1 points a game—at the World University Games in Mallorca, Spain, where he guided Mexico to a fourth-place finish, its best ever.
For his part, N�jera knows better than to hype the Fernando comparison—he'll need to improve his 20.9% three-point shooting to get regular time in the pros—but he hardly shrinks from it, either. "Those are some big shoes to fill, and I need to work really hard to get there," he says. "My goal isn't just to make it to the NBA but to play in the NBA." That's aiming pretty high, since so few players have even been recruited out of Mexico to play Division I ball. Indeed, it was only four years ago that Horacio Llamas became the first Mexican to reach the NBA when he joined the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately for the 6'11", 285-pound Llamas, he was best known for his nickname, El Ba�o (the Bathroom), because he spent so much time in the John, and he ended up riding the bench before being flushed out of the league after only 28 games.
Realizing N�jera's potential, the Mexican media are already showering him with more hosannas than they ever gave Llamas. Reforma has plastered him on the front of its sports section two or three times a week this season and runs stories on every Oklahoma game, while Televisa, the nation's top TV network, gives a weekly N�jera update on its evening news. Another network, TvAzteca, recently agreed to broadcast four or possibly five Sooners games over the next three months, and though the network has struggled to fill ad time for its NBA telecasts since Jordan retired, advertisers have lined up eagerly for commercial slots in N�jera's games. "Many advertisers are interested in sponsoring Eduardo next year," says Pepe Espinosa, TvAzteca's international sports director. "Beer companies like Dos Equis, banks like Banamex and telephone companies like Telmex. On our network he is always one of the top five sports stories."
One man who's convinced that N�jera will captivate Mexicans, especially young ones, is Roberto Gonz�lez, president of Basquetbol Mexicano, a Mexico City-based company that promotes youth basketball. A dual citizen of both Mexico and the U.S., Gonz�lez was a freshman teammate of Magic Johnson's on Michigan State's 1979 NCAA championship team, and he was instrumental in bringing N�jera to the attention of Oklahoma coach (and former Spartans graduate assistant) Kelvin Sampson. "Mexicans can relate to Eduardo," says Gonz�lez. "He's a tremendous worker, he wears his heart on his jersey, and he's succeeding in a world where it has always been difficult for Mexicans. He's their blood and bones."
It's those things that have earned N�jera folk-hero status in Norman too. In a now infamous collision during last year's Midwest Regional semifinal against Michigan State, he was steeling himself to set a back-court screen when Spartans guard (and former high school quarterback) Mateen Cleaves bull-rushed him, slamming the top of his skull into N�jera's chin. "All I remember," N�jera recalls, "was a horse running through me." Both players toppled like split firewood, and N�jera lay motionless for eight minutes, a pool of blood running from his chin as though he were the victim of a particularly gruesome mob killing. On the sideline teammates Michael Johnson and Victor Avila began softly sobbing until N�jera woozily rose and stumbled off the floor.
Amazingly, N�jera returned from the locker room minutes later and, with a dozen stitches in his chin, reentered the game. Not that he took any of his wits with him. "Coach told me the play, but by the time I got out there I forgot it," N�jera says. So he did what came naturally. "The first thing he did was go head-hunt Mateen Cleaves with a bone-jarring pick," says Sampson. "The first thing! I'm not talking about tiptoeing in there, either. It was bam! Over the years I've learned that pain is an opinion, and some kids have a high opinion of pain. Eduardo has a really low opinion of pain."
Ask N�jera who's responsible for his toughness, and he'll tell you a story about his father, Servando. A former shortstop in the Chihuahua state baseball league who was nicknamed El Vikingo for his long, flowing hair, Servando, 55, toils these days at a waterworks, despite having suffered a heart attack last July. "He was really bad for a week," says Eduardo, who was home from school when Servando was stricken and endured a terrifying ambulance ride by his side. "They finally gave him a pacemaker, but I stayed with him in the hospital the whole time. He almost died." Servando, however, wouldn't let a little thing like a near-death experience keep him on the sideline. Just days after leaving the hospital, he played shortstop for his over-40 baseball team.