Francisco Cruz:
I've Reached A New Level In The VTB United League

VTB United League stalwarts VEF failed to make the playoffs, but have left a positive impression throughout the season. After a slow start and change at the head coaching position, and without a big budget or star-studded roster, Riga managed to enjoy some success in recent months, winning four of its last nine games.

One of the important factors in VEF's transformation has been the terrific play of guard Francisco Cruz. He's the first Mexican national to ever play in the league and quickly made an impact in Latvia, averaging 13.9 points (40.7% from beyond the arc), 5.0 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game.

Cruz spoke with VTB-League.com about how he chose basketball as a kid, admitted that he's been fortunate to play at a VTB League club, praised Latvian basketball, shared how happy he is for Mexican national team teammate Paul Stoll of Avtodor and described the main difference between Mexico and Krasnoyarsk.

- Growing up in Mexico, how did you end up playing basketball?
- My full name is Francisco Xavier Cruz Saldiva. I'm from Nogales, which is in the Sonora Province on the border between Mexico and the USA. It takes two and a half hours to get to the Pacific Ocean, while the Arizona border is only a few minutes walk away. So there were always a lots of "gringos" in our city and basketball was pretty popular. My path in sports was already decided for me. My dad played basketball and I was always better playing with my hands than with my feet. When I was 16, I moved to Denver and attended Abraham Lincoln high school. Then I played in the NCAA for two different schools (Western Nebraska and Wyoming).

- After the NCAA, you played in Mexico and Argentina, before suddenly moving to Europe this season and landing in Latvia with VEF...
- It's all because of Carlos Frade (VEF's head coach during the first half of the season). He noticed me playing for the Mexican national team at the 2014 World Championships in Spain and followed me thoughout the subsequent season. Last summer, Frade got in touch with my agent and proposed I play for him in Riga. I didn't take long to decide. I packed my stuff, grabbed a burrito for the road and got on the plane (laughs). I'm joking, of course. I know you can get burritos and other Mexican dishes in Europe without any trouble.

I'm happy now about how it all worked out. I'm happy that I signed with VEF, where I've had an opportunity to play in a strong league with talented opponents. Playing in the VTB United League against teams like CSKA, Khimki, and Lokomotiv-Kuban you get stronger as a player. I'm happy that I managed to fit in with the team and feel at home here. We have great team chemistry at VEF and everyone's ready to go to bat for their teammate.

- How much did you know about Latvia before your move?
- Absolutely nothing. After all, I was born in a different part of the world. People in Mexico know about other European countries: Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Great Britain... Latvia and the Baltics? No one's heard of them. I wasn't worried about moving to Riga, because I didn't even know what to expect. But from the very first time I went out to explore in downtown Riga, I knew that I liked it here. I'll admit, it was hard at first. It was tough not having friends or family close by. All of my teammates can go see their families on days off, but for me going to Mexico is like going to the moon. I do want to bring my relatives to Latvia and Riga in the near future, though.

- You are one of VEF's most important players. You're a leader and someone the team trusts to take the final shot in close games.
- Usually people say: "This guy's got big, steel ..." Well, you get the idea. But it's so important to have the trust of your coach. Carlos Frade in the first few months and now Janis Gailitis have trusted me and had confidence in my composure. For my part, I sense the team's support and try not to let them down.

- What has your first season in European club basketball done for you as a player? What's the biggest difference from Latin American basketball?
- You know, there are a lot of good players in the Mexican league and plenty of them have NBA experience. But it's more of a run-and-gun approach there, as opposed to European basketball, and, specifically, the VTB United League. In Europe, everything revolves around a system and a complex understanding of the game. In less than a season, I've really grown in my understanding and ability to read the game. You could say that I've reached another level. The credit, of course, goes to my coaches, teammates and opponents on the court.

- Did Latvia surprise you in terms of basketball?
- Yes! There are really talented guys here. Just take Kristaps Porzingis, who's excelling right now in the NBA. I think that the Latvian national team is in good shape for years to come. There are a lot of young, talented, smart players on my team, guys who can already do a lot. The Latvian national team's biggest advantage is its wide selection of tall, mobile, sharpshooting players. They're tough to play against on defense. I really hope that our national teams--Mexico and the Latvian national team--play well at the Olympic qualifying tournament and make it to the Games in Rio. It would be great to play against Latvia and my current teammates at the Olympics! Especially since I know a few tricks for beating these guys now (laughs).

- By the way, you're not the only Mexican in the VTB United League anymore. Avtodor made a very successful addition by bringing in countryman Paul Stoll during the season.
- I'll be honest, I was really happy when I found out that Paul was coming to Russia. We're close friends and former teammates at Mexican club Rojos Veracruz. Plus, of course, we've played together on the national team for years. We see each other a lot and stay in touch. Before joining Avtodor, he reached out to me and wanted to know more about the talent in the VTB United League. I think my advice helped him make his decision. I'm happy that he's had a big impact at his club, and, unlike me, will keep competing for a championship in the playoffs.

But Stoll and I aren't the only Mexicans in Europe. The most famous Mexican over here is Gustavo Ayon. I hope I can play against him and Real next season in Europe.

- Mexicans are very outgoing and love and support their stars. It's not surprising, then, that you've got so many followers on social media.
- I think my popularity is because I was the first Mexican to play in the VTB United League. And, of course, because I play on the national team. I never miss an opportunity! I won't deny that it's nice to have so many fans. I hope I can continue to make them happy with my performances for my club and the national team.

- What will you remember most about this season?
- Honestly, the ridiculous cold that followed me on almost every road trip. Yes, Krasnoyarsk and Helsinki are no Mexico (laughs).