SHANGHAI — The crisp autumn air carries the sounds of happy young voices; fifteen young athletes – ten from the Jr. NBA and five from the Jr. WNBA – eagerly approach the massive Mercedes Benz Stadium. They are here for a very special reason: to watch the first of two NBA 2016 Global Games between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Houston Rockets.
Fritz Valencia of Bacolod is all smiles as he remarks on the cold weather, nevertheless delighted just to be here. As one of the ten chosen All-Stars from the Jr. NBA program in the Philippines, he and his teammates were selected as All-Stars in April from the over-20,000 hopefuls who joined the national training camp back in January. Each of the athletes knows how lucky they are to be here, the chance to actually see their idols in real life – in action, no less – reminding them that their hard work and sacrifices were all worth it.
Along with the ten Jr. NBA All-Stars are five Jr. WNBA All-Stars, one of whom is Aloha Betanio of Bukidnon, whose love for basketball came from growing up with two brothers. A Cleveland Caveliers fan, today she’s rooting for the Pelicans, and hoping for a chance to meet Anthony Davis. Like her teammates, she is excited to be here, it being her first time in Shanghai.
This is Day 3 of the Philippine contingent’s China experience, and part of a culminating activity that has seen the young athletes meet with their All-Star counterparts from Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia to learn from NBA-trained coaches and meet actual NBA personalities.
The day before, the young athletes distinguished themselves as the top scorers in a series of Hotshot challenges with their counterparts from other countries. Ric Gatuz of Pangasinan was the individual top scorer, snagging 31 points in 45 seconds.
According to 14-year old Isaiah Blanco, getting to meet and know athletes from other countries was a worthwhile experience that helped him to get over his fear of playing against foreign teams, saying, “When I saw our opponents, I was a bit kabado, scared, but once I got to hang out with them and know them more, when we played basketball, it’s fun. No intimidation.”
That same day, the athletes had the privilege of meeting with four-time NBA All-Star Vin Baker, who guided them through advanced drills. The 6’11” Baker gave special attention to the Philippine squad’s tallest members, Kai Sotto and Miguel Tan, showing how to make use of their height while directly underneath the basket.
After a hard day’s training came a sightseeing tour of the city which took the young athletes to Shanghai’s waterfront area, the Bund, where they were able to take photos against the world famous skyline. Also included on the tour was a trip to the picturesque Yuyuan Gardens, and some shopping.
The following day would be when the All-Stars would be able to see their heroes on the hard court do their thing.
“I’m really excited,” said 13-year old Manileño Carly Monreal. “I want to see James Harden!”
Miguel echoed the sentiment, saying, “I’m excited to see the All-Star players play, like Anthony Davis and James Harden. I wanna see them, how they play. How they use their moves.”
And see their moves, they did, as the very next day, the Pelicans and Rockets delivered a full-on NBA performance in front of a packed Mercedes Benz Stadium. Amid chants of “AD! AD! AD!” Anthony Davis managed to score 23 points, but was ultimately unable to secure the win, as the Harden-powered Rockets overcame their Southwest Division rivals, the 123-117.
While at the Stadium, Kai was called to have a photo op with NBA Legend Dikembe Motumbo, who was on hand as a special guest, while three of Kai’s teammates were able to fulfill their dreams of meeting the Rockets when they were invited for an exclusive meet and greet.
Jr. NBA Coach of the Year Cholo Elegino of Davao called the whole Global Games experience a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” describing himself as a Rockets fan from way back who’d never dreamed he would be able to see these athletes outside his television set back home.
When all was said and done, the Jr. NBA excursion to China was a fitting testament to the heights young athletes can achieve if they devote themselves to the values of hard work, discipline, teamwork, and good sportsmanship. These All-Stars and their accompanying Coaches of the Year had come this far based on how much they’d put into their respective programs, proving in no uncertain terms, that there are no limits when passion is involved.
With 2017 being the 10th anniversary of the Jr. NBA in the Philippines, who knows where the next batch of All-Stars might find themselves?
The Jr. NBA and Jr. WNBA programs will return in January 2017 with tip-off and Regional Selection Camps. Visit www.jrnba.asia/philippines/ and check back with PlayPH for more information.