After months of training, preparation and anticipation, the Jr.NBA and Jr. WNBA All-Stars reunited for the first time since graduating from the National selection camps in April of this year. As a team, they would make the 1,000-kilometer journey from Manila to the city of Dongguan, China. Located in the mid-south region of Guangdong province, the All-Stars looked forward to exploring the historic city.
For most of the team, it was their first time to be in a different country. For 14-year-old John Ernest Felicilda, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect; Speaking with playPH before boarding the plane to China, Felicilda shared that, now that he was in his final year with the program, he would, “(Definitely) make the most out of it.”
As they were shuttled from venue to venue, the bus became a hub where the All-Stars could bond through the sharing of food and stories, cracking of jokes, and even the singing of songs. Taking in the sights and sounds of the sightseeing activities that had been planned for their first day, the All-Stars visited the local zoo, where they saw various animals that they had previously only read about.
Anticipating autumn cold, the Filipino delegation found the Dongguan weather to be similar to that of Manila’s, only really getting chilly when it rained. When it came to food, the cuisine may not have been of the type that the children were used to, that just made the immersion all the more exciting.
Aside from the sightseeing, everyone was looking forward to their scheduled training and scrimmages with their Southeast Asian Jr. NBA and Jr. WNBA counterparts.
“I would love to share with them (All-Stars from other countries) the Filipinos’ brand of basketball,” said Jr. NBA All-Star Lloyd Raphael Oliva. “I would share with them our culture, our love for the game, how we always go hard and fight for whatever we do.”
Although their respective native languages made their interactions more challenging, it was through their time training and playing together on the hardwood that the All-Stars from different countries got to understand, and know, one another better.
The Filipinos’ love for the game was on display as soon as they stepped on the court. What was the most impressive about their team was their amazing chemistry on and off the court – chemistry that also showed the values that they had learned.
While in most cases, the players shared no common language, the All-Stars managed to make themselves understood through context clues and gestures. As the day wore on, cultural differences became a means of breaking the ice, and strangers found themselves becoming fast friends. Some players from other countries, like Anggie Tran, a Jr. WNBA All-Star from Vietnam, enjoyed the company of the Filipino squad so much that they began treating her like a member of the team.
“We were all shy at first,” said Flores. “We were trying to get a feel of each other and it was when we started playing together when we got more comfortable. Soon, we all felt like one big family.”
The Filipinos’ excellent play and competitive spirit not only helped them to make friends, it caught the attention of NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo who made a scheduled visit to one of their training sessions. As he watched the All-Stars play, Mutombo said that he was impressed with the Filipino team and praised them for having advanced skills compared to those in other Asian countries. He also expressed a desire to visit the Philippines if given the chance.
Honored to be in the presence of a legend, the All-Stars gravitated to Mutombo, fascinated by his towering height and the emotional story he shared with them on how he took up basketball. As an African boy who knew nothing about the sport, Mutombo told the children that basketball had changed his life.
Though his heydey came before most of the All-Stars had even taken up the sport, Mutombo is known as one of the greatest defensive players of all-time, and the second most prolific shot-blocker in NBA history, playing 18 seasons in the NBA before retiring in 2009.
Able to relate to Mutombo’s story, Alaska Youth Ambassador and Jr. NBA All-Star Miguel Santos said, “Basketball helped my life. It helped me develop a good attitude towards other people and how I approach the game.”
Finally, on the 3rd day, the All-Stars filed onto the bus for the drive to the Shenzen Universaide Center, where they would watch the Global Game between the LA Clippers and the Charlotte Hornets. Thrilled about seeing their NBA idols up-close, the All-Stars cheered for both teams and celebrated every heart-pumping play. During the game’s second quarter, the Jr. NBA and Jr. WNBA All-Stars got an unexpected thrill when they were acknowledged and shown on the stadium’s Jumbotron. As they smiled and waved to the cheering audience, the children had no idea that the biggest surprise was yet to come.
Over the past few days, reports had come in that His Airness, Michael Jordan, himself, was on a personal trip in nearby Hong Kong, and rumors swirled that there was a possibility he might stop by to see the game. While jubilant cheers filled the venue for almost the entire duration of the game, nothing could have prepared the All-Stars for the euphoric outburst that came over the arena when basketball’s biggest legend (and, coincidentally, owner of the Hornets, who ended up winning the game) emerged to make his presence known.
“I will never forget this,” said Flores. “I am so happy I got to see the greatest basketball player of all time!”
Through discipline, hardwork and passion for the game, the All-Stars were able to experience first-hand how big basketball is on the global stage. For these inspiring champions, their 1,000-kilometer journey from home for the experience of a lifetime has made all the months of training, preparation and anticipation, worthwhile.