MEXICO CITY — An array of blue tarps shielded vendors from the hot sun as they sold fruits, vegetables and every part of a pig, chicken or cow imaginable. The Aves Ferreira market, which sits in the shadow of the giant Ciudad de Mexico Arena, was full of shoppers on Saturday afternoon. For these Mexico City residents, it was just another day.
But for one Mexico City native, Saturday was anything but ordinary.
Gustavo Ayón returned home Friday night. He is preparing for the Orlando Magic's game against the New Orleans Hornets Sunday in Mexico City. The preseason clash starts at 2:30 p.m. and will air on NBA TV.
Ayón, who will primarily play center for the Orlando Magic this season, is here to show his countrymen what's become of the third Mexican-born player in NBA history.
Ayón walked onto the court for practice Saturday and headed straight for Hornets guard Greivis Vásquez, a native of Venezuela. The former teammates joke like old friends, communicating in Spanish.
If Ayón was nervous about his first game in Mexico as a rising NBA player, it didn't show.
"No, I'm not nervous," he told reporters in Spanish. "People always expect the most of you. Nerves are part of every game. The pressure — it's normal."
While the trip to Mexico is a dream for Gustavo, he's just trying to get the rest of the Magic players to feel comfortable in the city.
"They we're a bit scared at first, but I told them that this is a great city, really safe," he said. "You can walk around and enjoy it calmly. They're figuring out that's the truth."
Although he'd like to do it, Ayón hasn't been able to play tour guide for his teammates. Since being home, his focus has been on spending time with his son, who was born in March. Ayón's son will be attending his first NBA game Sunday.
The trip is a bit weird for some, including Ryan Anderson, last season's NBA most improved player who was shipped to the Hornets in a sign-and-trade deal for Ayón. But Anderson says the Magic lineup has changed so much, it's hard to feel like he's playing against his old team.
"It's a completely different team from last year than the guys I was playing with, different coaches. It won't be too weird, but it'll be weird," he said.
The young Magic team, which boasts 12 new players, is still getting to know each other and first-year coach Jacque Vaughn said the trip to Mexico City is helping the team bond.
"It's been fun. We had breakfast together, lunch together, we'll have dinner together," he said. "So it's a unique part for us to get to know each other."
As for Sunday's game plan, Vaughn said it's pretty loose. The Magic just need to get out and play.
Vaughn will be making his debut as the Orlando head coach. Asked if he was nervous for the game, Vaughn promised he was the right man to lead the team.
"This is what I am," he said. "I'm a coach and maybe if I was trying to be something I wasn't, maybe if I was trying to be a chef, yeah, I'd probably be nervous. But I'm a coach and this is what I do."
While eyes in Orlando may be on Vaughn, the team agrees: Sunday feels like Ayón's day. Vaughn erased any doubt whether Ayón would be in the starting lineup.
"You bet he will start tomorrow. So, he should get a loud applause. I hope he does," Vaughn said of Ayón.
Uriel Ortega, a fan who got to check out the Magic's practice Saturday, said he could only imagine what it will be like for Mexico City fans when Gustavo's name is called.
"It will be euphoria," Ortega said. "It's going to be something very special for everyone. We'll be very proud."
The last time most of his countrymen got to see Ayón play live, he was winning championships in the Mexican league with the Xalapa Halcones.
The atmosphere is expected to be electric. Ciudad de Mexico Arena should be rocking for the homecoming. Most Mexico City fans are just hoping the NBA, along with Ayón, will be coming back soon.
Regardless of whether he is with the Orlando Magic — or the NBA at all — Ayón promised he will be back.
"[Mexico is] my country, my family, my blood," he said. "It's where I'll return once I've finished my career."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun