Talking Basketball, in Spanish, Is Definitely No Slam Dunk – ‘Donquear’ Would Be Spanglish; Covering the NBA Finals for Latino Fans

June 8, 2011

MIAMI—Broadcasters covering the NBA finals for Spanish-speaking fans from different parts of the world do it from a Tower of Babel where a dunk is not a dunk, but the play-by-play guys disagree about just what to call it.

As the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks vie on the basketball court for the championship title, two of their broadcasters are duking it out with each other.

“Some say donquear. That’d be Spanglish,” says José Pañeda, the announcer calling the play on Miami’s WQBA-AM radio. But donquear doesn’t work in Argentina, where dunk is volcada, he says. In Spain, it’s mate, which literally means “the kill,” as when a matador administers the lethal thrust in a bullfight.

Miami Heat percussionists in the stands

None of those terms work for Victor Villalba, radio KFLC’s Latino basketball jock, who is handling the finals this week for the Dallas Mavericks. Spanglish, a mixture of Spanish and English, makes his Texas audience uneasy, says the 51-year-old broadcaster. So for the word dunk, he prefers clavada, which comes from clavo, the noun for “nail.”

Messrs. Pañeda and Villalba are just two of the broadcasters who are confronting the vagaries of Basketball Spanish for an immigrant audience increasingly interested in the game. Basketball in English is already tricky, full of arcane terms like “cross-over dribble,” “tomahawk dunk” and “alley oop pass.” In Spanish, the challenge is magnified because listeners to Spanish broadcasts hail from or live on three different continents where language and dialects vary.

This season, 11 of the 30 NBA teams did Spanish broadcasts, with all four conference finalists airing playoff action in Spanish. That’s a far cry from a few years ago, when cities like Miami, Los Angeles and San Antonio were about the only NBA markets reaching out to Latino fans. The growth has been a huge boon for U.S. Latino radio, which is adding basketball broadcasts even as some Major League Baseball teams—the Oakland Athletics, for example—have dropped money-losing Spanish broadcasts.

Fans and announcers alike are taking part in the evolution of Basketball Spanish, with broadcasters experimenting with ways to express common basketball-ese like “alley oop pass.” It’s puente del aire, (literally, “air bridge”) in some media markets, or pase de puente (“bridge pass”) in others. Adding to the mix, new immigrants bring terms from home while Spanglish hybrids rise out of Latino neighborhoods in many U.S. cities.

The major fault line dividing Latino hoops broadcasters is which style of Basketball Spanish should prevail: the international announcing style used in Latin America and Europe, or a U.S. style more in touch with regional dialects. Both have their proponents.

Some international announcing styles, particularly in South America, “borrow vocabulary from soccer,” says Antoni Daimiel, who is broadcasting the NBA finals for Spain’s Sogecable network. A typical Euro-wrinkle is calling a three-point shot a bombazo, a soccer term for a goal shot from far out. A bombazo specialist might be a francotirador, Spanish for sniper, explains Mr. Daimiel, one of nearly a dozen out-of-town Spanish broadcasters shouting their play-by-play over the din of the crowds and the Heat’s Cuban percussion combo during Game 2 last week.

Joel Millman for The Wall Street JournalVictor Villalba covers games for Spanish speakers in Texas.



The American style is more a work in progress. Language debates are getting hotter as broadcasts spread to more NBA cities. There’s the so-called Florida style of WQBA’s Mr. Pañeda, where Cuban vocabulary dominates, versus the Sunbelt style, which is more Mexican and which prevails in Texas and California. Puerto Rican, otherwise known as Spanglish, rules in New York.

Such regional differences have sparked controversy. Mr. Pañeda recently was in a kerfuffle over the supposed verb driblar. “Of course driblar is a verb, to dribble,” says the broadcaster, now in his 22nd season calling Heat games. He points out that driblar has been certified by the Real Academia Española dictionary, which he says is “the bible, the Webster’s of Spanish.”

No way, retorts Jorge Ebro, who covers the Heat for El Nuevo Herald, Miami’s leading Spanish newspaper. He first covered hoops in his native Cuba, for the Communist Party’s Rebel Youth magazine. Using “driblar” is “just wrong,” says Mr. Ebro. “It’s maniobrar. You know: ‘to handle.’”

Fans, meanwhile, have their own disputes—particularly over the word dunk. While Messrs. Pañeda and Villalba have settled on clavar, that doesn’t travel in Puerto Rico. There, clavar’s other meaning, “to nail,” comes off as vulgar.

New York Knicks’ broadcaster Clemson Smith Muñiz avoids offending local Puerto Rican fans with “nailed” by calling a dunk a martillazo—meaning “hammer blow.”


The debate over Basketball Spanish traces back to the 1990s at ESPN International, where narrators often called games for an overseas audience. “Everyone would take out their dictionaries,” say Mr. Smith Muñiz, who had worked at ESPN. “When you have 22 countries that speak Spanish, who’s right?”

Arguments routinely started over pito, Spanish for whistle, but a vulgarity in Puerto Rico. “Let’s be sensible,” Mr. Smith Muñiz recalls advising colleagues. “In a sports context, ‘pito’ is not a vulgarity.”

Nonetheless, ESPN’s politically correct Argentine staffers insisted on using the arcane silbato, a Spanish word commonly used to describe the sound made by tea kettles, not umpires, says Mr. Smith Muñiz.

Silbato won. ESPN broadcasters stay away from “salacious terms” to this day, says Álvaro Martín, who works for the network as an announcer.

Anthropologists, sociologists and linguists now are tracking the evolution of Basketball Spanish with growing fascination. Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latino culture at Amherst College, marvels at the emergence of the new “language” driven by immigrants, just as many academics bemoan the demise of indigenous tongues world-wide.

“Broadcast Basketball Spanish is yet another variant of Spanglish,” says Mr. Stavans, who grew up in Mexico City. “Spanglish is a very fluid phenomenon. There’s a lot of improvisation. It’s a kind of jazzy exchange.”

Maybe too jazzy for Mavericks fan Ana Lida Ramirez, an El Salvador native who lives in Mansfield, a community near Dallas. She’s fed up with Spanglish. Her take on “dunk”: “The proper word is encestar,” to put it in the basket, she says. “If I wanted to hear English words, I’d switch channels.”