Thursday, November 23, 2017     Volume: 18, Issue: 38
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Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on November 8th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 36 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 36

Hooping beyond borders: Pioneer Valley's newest coach is fresh off of two pro basketball championships in Mexico

By PETER JOHNSON

Aspiring freshmen basketball players at Pioneer Valley High School will have a coach this season who they can literally, and figuratively, look up to.

Joining the Panthers’ coaching staff this year is 26-year-old Ross Rivera, a former Division 1 college basketball player and two-time champion of professional hoops leagues in Mexico.


CHAMP
In the two years prior to joining the Pioneer Valley High School athletics coaching staff, Rivera won two league championships playing professional basketball in Mexico.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROSS RIVERA

A Visalia native with lots of family on the Central Coast, Rivera will settle into the head coaching position for Pioneer Valley’s freshman basketball team and also help out as an assistant to the cross country and boys’ tennis teams.

Rivera told the Sun in a phone interview that he moved back to California from Mexico in August after making the decision to hang up his brief-yet-successful pro basketball career in lieu of a more pressing dream to become a coach and teacher.

“Every year I was playing basketball I was getting away from what I wanted to do here in America,” Rivera said. “I’m working on my teaching credential right now.”

Rivera looks back with no regrets, though. The 6-foot-7 power forward played a vital role on University of the Pacific men’s basketball team from 2011 to 2014, using his combination of size and shooting ability to help the Tigers win a Big West Conference tournament title in 2013.

Then, what transpired behind the scenes during his senior season at Pacific really altered the trajectory of Rivera’s basketball journey. Basketball scouts in Mexico caught wind of the fact that Rivera had half-Mexican heritage. Soon enough, the pro hoop leagues south of the border commenced their recruitment efforts.

“I had coaches and agents calling me because they found out I was half-Mexican,” Rivera said. “What I was able to do was obtain a Mexican passport through my lineage, and play in Mexico as a native.”

Upon graduation, Rivera moved to the city of Mexicali and signed a contract with Soles de Mexicali, the best team in the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional, the most competitive basketball league in the country. But despite his heritage, Rivera had only visited the country once and didn’t know much Spanish.


COLLEGE DAYS
Pioneer Valley basketball coach Ross Rivera drives to the hoop as a forward for University of the Pacific. Rivera helped the Tigers win a Big West Conference tournament title in 2013.
PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC

“It was a big shock,” he said. “I learned a few words and how to say certain things so I could definitely survive and order my food.”

Rivera said basketball is a burgeoning sport in Mexico. The crowds are rowdy and enthusiastic, and the style of play is very physical.

“It’s a lot tougher. It’s more of an old-school basketball, a ’90s feel,” he said. “They let you bang and get away with forearms and pushing.”

The Mexican teams were made up of a mix of Mexican natives (“countrymen”), non-native players with Mexican roots, like Rivera, and American players (“imports”). Rivera said everyone, no matter his place of origin, was made to feel welcome in the league and in the country.

“My teammates welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “They brought you in, they took care of you, and wanted you to feel good about where you were and make things easier for you.”

After winning a championship his first year but receiving limited playing time, Rivera moved to the De La Costa del Pacific, a lower league, where he became a star for the Nauticos de Mazatlan team and led the league in three-point-percentage. Even though the competition wasn’t as stiff, in many ways the lifestyle in the new league was more difficult. The teams played four games per week and were constantly traveling the country by bus.

But all the travel allowed Rivera to see and experience Mexico in its entirety and authenticity. He said that the common American perception of Mexico as being dangerous is a distortion of reality.

“I think a lot of the stigma about it not being safe is just American hysteria,” Rivera said. “I think it’s a safe country. It’s very family-oriented. The togetherness that they bring is amazing.”

Back in California and on a new path, Rivera said he’ll “never forget” his two years in Mexico and noted that, while playing there, he learned many valuable lessons that he can now impart to his players on Pioneer Valley High School teams.

“[One lesson] is just the mentality of going into every day to get better at something, and not getting frustrated with not seeing improvements right away,” Rivera said. “It takes time to see improvement. That was probably the hardest thing for me. I would get frustrated, but then [my teammates in Mexico] always said, ‘You just gotta relax and take it day by day.’ That’s something I preach to the teams that I coach. Don’t get frustrated with what’s happening right now because in a month, it’s going to be a lot easier for you.”

Sports contributor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.




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