The Flying Mexican

Mar 05, 2011 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir Stankovic Veteran sportswriter and collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the new 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

If there was an hypothetical contest about basketball knowleadge and the question was "Who was the first non-American player ever drafted by an NBA team?" I doubt there would be a lot of correct answers. I am guessing most people would point to some European legend, but the right answer is Manuel Raga Navarro of Mexico. This unforgettable player was born on March 14, 1944 in Adama Villa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with pick number 167 in the tenth round of the 1970 draft. In the following round, the eleventh, the first European was picked, big man Dino Meneghin of Italy, also by the Atlanta Hawks, but the first non-American was always Raga.

Marty Blake, the genius manager in Atlanta, had seen that Raga and Meneghin were a great duo in Ignis Varese, the European champion at that time, and both were capable of playing in the NBA, but that was a different time and teams in the United States didn't trust players formed outside of that country. Maybe that's the reason why the Hawks didn't want to pay the $35,000 to free Raga from Varese. The Italian team didn't even want to hear about letting Meneghin, who would be its undisputted star in the following decade, get away.

A key piece in the great Ignis Varese

The name of Manuel Raga is found for the first time in a great competition at the World Championships of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1963. He was only 19 years old but he was already a regular for his national team. Mexico finished that competition ninth, but the young, 1.88-meter guard caught everybody's attention. He finished the tourney with 12.3 points per game, with highs of 24 points against Canada and 20 against Uruguay. Four years later, in the Uruguay World Championships, Raga increased his numbers to 15.6 points and sank Italy with 31. However, the decisive moment in his career came at the Olympic Games in his country, Mexico 1968. The team, coached by American Lester Lane, Olympic champ in Rome 1960 , finished fifth thanks to two excellent players: Raga and Arturo Guerrero. At the same time, Ignis Varese president Alberto Tedeschi had asked Giancarlo Gualco to renew the team. But instead of bringing in a well-known American, Gualco brought in a rather unknown Mexican player. Shortly after his arrival in Varese, Raga earned the nickname "Indian", but shortly after it was changed for two others: The Flying Mexican and The Phenomenon.

Already in his first season in Italy, he earned the respect of all his colleagues, the admiration of the audience and the kudos of the press. Despite being short, he jumped like nobody else (an estimated 1.1 meters from a standing position). It was said that he could touch the rim with his elbow. Ignis Varese won the Italian League with 418 points by Raga, an average of 19 over 22 games, enough to finish eighth in the top scorers' list of the league in which the leader was ace scorer Radivoj Korac with an average of 26 points even though his Padova team descended into second division. Raga was also the third best rebounder of the team, with 98 boards, only 5 less than Meneghin, while the leader in the team was Ottorino Flaborea with 136. Winning the league, Ignis earned the right to play the European Cup and on April 9, in Sarajevo's Skenderija new arena (which now bears thename of legendary Mirza Delibasic), Ignis beat CSKA Moscow by 79-74 and won its first continental crown. Thus began a golden decade in which Varese would play 10 straight finals, still a record. Raga scored 19 points, one less than Meneghin. On the other side, legendary Sergei Belov scored 21 and Aleksandar Sidjakin posted 18. Before beating CSKA in the title game, both teams had met before in a quarterfinals group. In Moscow, CSKA took the win by 83-60 with 26 points by Raga, and in Varese Ignis won by 79-59 with 17 by Raga. Both teams advanced and in semifinals CSKA got rid of Slavia Prague while Varese outlasted Real Madrid 90-86 in Madrid (Raga 22, Ricky Jones 29) and 108-73 in Varese (Raga 18, Jones 36).

Love in Sarajevo

The title game in Sarajevo was also a turning point in the private life of Raga. It was there where he met Esma Smais, a player at the local Zeljeznicar club, and shortly after they got married. They had two children, Fidel and Manuel Jr., who would be an outstanding player in Lugano of Switzerland and played in the 2000-01 Euroleague. That was also the city where his father put an end to his career.

The following year Ignis repeated the national leagu title with Raga as second best scorer in all the league with 558 points and an average of 25.6, behind only Elnardo Webster of Gorizia with 26.9. In the European Cup, Ignis and CSKA repeated the title game, this time in Antwerpen, Belgium. The Soviet champ CSKA took revenge with a 67-53 win, possibly because Raga scored just... 3 points! The following season Ignis lost the Italian championship to Simenthal Milano, even though both finished with 38 points. Raga was the best scorer of the team and the fourth-best in the league (499 for a 22.7 average). In European competetion, Varese reached the final again, this time against Jugoplastika Split in Tel Aviv. Ignis won by one single point, 70-69, with 21 points from Meneghin and 20 from Raga.

For the 1972-73 season, the coach of Ignis, professor Aleksandar Nikolic, decided to sign a new American, Bob Morse, and for the Italian League he had to sacrifice Raga, but in Europe, Morse and Raga were a lethal pair. Ignis won the Italian title back with no problems and in a new European final, on March 22 in Liege, Belgium, the Italian team faced archrival CSKA Moscow again. In that game, Varese won by 71-66 with 25 points by Raga and 20 by Morse. That was his third and last European title with Ignis. In 1973-74 he also played in Europe only, and Ignis reached its fifth straight final but lost in Nantes, France against Real Madrid by 82-84. The trio formed by Raga (17), Morse (22) and Meneghin (25) did its job but Real Madrid shared the points better with Wayne Brabender (22), Carmelo Cabrera (16), Walter Sczerbiak (14), Clifford Luyk (14), Rafa Rullan (14) under the master conduction of Juan Antonio Corbalan (4).

In 1974-75 Ignis was not the Italian champ, but it was European champ again. It had its revenge against Real Madrid in Antwerpern by 79-66, but already without The Flying Mexican Raga. He had moved to Lugano but before that, during the Summer, in the World Championships of Puerto Rico, he was the tourney's best scorer with 155 points (25.8) destroying the Phillipines with 38 points or the USSR and Argentina with 29 in each game. In four years at Lugano, Raga won two leagues and two cups. His last big competition were the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976.

Honorary citizen

Raga returned to Europe thank to a great initiative by the Euroleague during the 2008 Final Four in Madrid. There, the 50th Anniversary of European competitions spawned a voted list of the 50 biggest contributors to our sport during all those years. Of course, Manuel Raga could not miss that list. In Madrid, he was moved by the recognition and he managed to meet many old teammates and rivals to reminisce about the golden years. He was also back to "his" Varese on March 12, 2010 to receive, in front of 2,500 people, the recognition of Honorary Citizen. Varese had not forgotten about its idol during the seventies. A great player who could jump like a big man, and had an extraordinary fadeaway jumper as he waited for the rival to first fall to the floor. He was incredibly fast, capable of flying over the rival or the rim, which inspired Enrico Campana, a then journalist at Gazzetta dello Sport, to call him the Helicopter Man.

In 1991, Raga was assistant coach on the Mexico national team that won the silver medal at the Panamerican Games in Havana, Cuba. He lives now with his second wife, a former volleyball player from Cuba, Lucia Urgelles. He works at the Sports Department of Tamapulias, where a gym bears his name. On March 2 of 1997, Horacio Llamas wrote history by becoming the first Mexican to ever play in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks, but 30 years earlier a fellow Mexican could have done so with no problems as the first non-American in the league. European basketball should be grateful to the Atlanta Hawks for not spending those $35,000, because if it had not been for that, we would have not been able to enjoy the genius abilities of The Flying Mexican.