A passion for the game
Heading into March 2020, organizers of the Oregon Latino Basketball Tournament were gearing up to celebrate the 30th iteration of the annual community event.
Early bird registration was concluded, teams were signed, courts at Willamette University were reserved, members of the Portland Trail Blazers organization were scheduled and a media blitz was making the rounds through Facebook and radio.
Then, less than two weeks before opening games were ready to tip off, the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head and all gatherings of more than 25 people were banned indefinitely.
Organizers pushed back the event in hopes of weathering the storm, but ultimately were forced to cancel the tournament in May. It was the first time in 25 years that the event — which has grown to become one of the largest Latino basketball tournaments on the West Coast — would not take place.
But as former OLBT player and author David Espinoza can attest, this is not the first time that tournament has skipped a year. While event organizers were navigating 2020, Espinoza was putting the finishing touches on a book detailing the history of the tournament dating back to its inception in 1986.
Espinoza published "Oregon Latino Basketball Tournament" in November, the culmination of nearly four years of research into the event that began as a small competition 35 years ago. It is the seventh book published by the former Gervais resident who has become a prolific sports writer in his retirement as he celebrated his 62nd birthday in December. While all of his books touch on sports in some way, Oregon Latino Basketball Tournament is the first historical account since he published his first book in 2008.
In the decades since, the tournament has ballooned well beyond the scope that the original organizers had envisioned into a celebration of basketball and Latino culture that has crossed state boundaries, attracting teams from Washington, California, Idaho, Arizona and beyond.
A positive image
Originally from Texas, Espinoza moved with his parents and five siblings to Gervais in 1976. A three-sport athlete, he attended Woodburn High School a year later and competed in football, basketball and track and field before eventually graduating from Gervais High School in 1978.
"I used to get bullied in grade school. I started learning that my parents couldn't always be around, so I figured out a way to overcome this bullying," Espinoza said. "The way was through sports.
"The sports thing was my counseling. Because I got so good at three sports, it was kind of a growth mindset. Learn from your failures, get better every time."
Espinoza went on to kick for the Salem Stars of the National Football Alliance and tried out for the Portland Breakers of the United States Football League before it folded in 1985.
But basketball was always Espinoza's favorite sport. There were no organized leagues in northern Marion County in the 1980s, but that didn't stop the Latino community from getting together on the weekends to play on courts at places such as Settlemier Park or St. Luke's Catholic Church, wherever they could get a game in.
"There wasn't an established league for Latinos," Espinoza said. "They'd get families together and play together. A town against a town. These groups of friends and family."
The competitions were intimate, passionate, but always friendly. Hard elbows and curses on the court gave way to smiles and drinks afterward. It was a positive side of the Latino community that wasn't often seen in newspapers and television, where crime dominated the headlines.
The first organizers of the OLBT wanted to change that perception, and envisioned the tournament as a way generate positive coverage while providing an avenue for the community basketball games to become a legitimate event.
Espinoza was among the first players to compete in the inaugural event in 1986, but wanted to reach out to Victor Alvarado — the tournament's first director — to get his first-hand account of the event's inception.
"It's just great because you bring the community together. It's a positive thing for Latinos," Espinoza said. "What Victor and these guys were saying is that Hispanics got a bad image. They wanted to change it to a positive thing so Latinos have something they can look to that's positive."
With the help of his wife, Lupe, Alvarado ran the tournament for five years through 1990 before eventually stepping aside. "He needed to take a rest," Espinoza said. "He was getting overloaded."
The tournament went on hiatus for five years, but returned in 1996 when basketball interest in the area was at a fever pitch following an improbable run by the Woodburn High School boys basketball team to the 3A State Championship.
Anthony Veliz took over the director position, running the event from 1996-2006 before handing the reigns to Rolando Ramirez, who has since served as the tournament's longest-running director.
A cultural event
For the book, Espinoza spoke with Veliz and Ramirez, along with a host of former players and contributors, seeking out the history of the event and what it has meant to the Latino community.
As the tournament grew in popularity, people from outside the Latino community wanted to play, putting organizers in a difficult position. Expanding the tournament field to include non-Latino players would further grow the event and allow for the organization to use the money and influence to benefit the Latino community. But some felt that in doing so, the tournament would lose the cultural significance that the event had built over the years.
"It's a cultural event for Hispanics and their heritage," Espinoza said. "Of course, anybody can come watch to see the Latino culture. But as time went on, it got really hard for the committee or the director to fight this. So they started allowing one non-Latino and two non-Latinos."
Over time, the OLBT continued to grow, expanding to an additional weekend by adding a 3-on-3 youth tournament as a preamble to the main event. The competition moved over the years from Woodburn to Gervais, ultimately landing at Willamette University in Salem to accommodate the capacity for the number of games and competitors.
Espinoza's research took him across state lines to track down former players who were eager to speak about the event and what it meant to them. Kids who grew up playing in the event — including Espinoza — now have children of their own who look forward to competing each year.
"I had no idea how much that tournament meant to them and how much they want it to continue," Espinoza said. "I wanted to really share what these people went through. Sometimes they start preparing (for the next tournament) right after the tournament's over."
What that means for this year's tournament remains to be seen. The OLBT's annual March date is fast approaching. Whether the climate will be right for an event of its size is yet to be determined. But rest assured, whenever the tournament is able to return, there will be a host of eager participants ready to compete.
"There's so many people that want kids to play," Espinoza said. "We'll see what happens."
"Oregon Latino Basketball Tournament"
To order a copy of David Espinoza's book detailing the history of the OLBT, go to
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