CEBU CITY – Heading to the country, the trio of Portland Trailblazers Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews and former NBA Coach of the Year Avery Johnson had heard of how popular basketball is in the Philippines.
After Friday’s trip to the municipality of Compostela in the northern part of Cebu, they soon realized how really big the Philippines' fascination with the sport is as fans of all age, shape and size celebrated their visit that was part of the NBA and World Vision Philippines’ commitment to help victims of typhoon Yolanda.
Arriving at high noon, the NBA delegation was greeted by shrieks of adulation from basketball fans, prompting Johnson, a former NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs who won the Coach of the Year plum in 2006 before turning into an analyst for US sports network ESPN, to remark that the popularity of the NBA here in the country has reached “fanatical” proportions.
“I didn’t realize that the NBA was so popular here. People I’ve met here tell me that they watch my old games on ESPN all the time. I’m definitely coming back,” said the 5-foot-9 left-handed guard, who teamed up with Tim Duncan and David Robinson to win the 1999 NBA title for the Spurs.
Lopez, a seven-foot ball of energy, unmistakable for his mammoth size if not for his curly locks, said what impressed him the most about Philippine basketball was the passion that Filipinos exude while playing the game.
"I really admire the passion that Filipinos have for basketball. Y’all just love playing. What impresses me the most is everywhere they play, they just have so much fun. In the USA, it can be a drive playing but here, they do such a great job of balancing the work and the play,” Lopez, the Blazers’ starting center, said.
For first-time visitor Wesley Matthews, he didn’t know what to expect in his visit to Cebu. What he saw blew him away.
“I didn’t know what to expect. To see the resilience, the excitement of today, it’s awesome and amazing. I don’t have the words right now,” said Matthews, who along with Lopez and Johnson taught fundamental basketball drills to kids.
“Just to be able to give a little bit of excitement and relief means a lot,” added Matthews.
Lopez also heaped praise on the Philippines’ basketball heroes, the Gilas Pilipinas. He even surprised many with his pronounced desire to become a naturalized Filipino in order to suit up for the country.
“Right now they got a great import in Andray Blatche. The Gilas played amazing. They had a great run. Andray played wonderfully and the whole team played with passion. They really caught a lot of people by surprise. But I’d like to think that wherever I’d be, I would work hard. Right now, they got Andray and he’s not just a great fit, he’s a perfect fit,” Lopez said.
Matthews also said that after a few days of watching Filipino basketball, he has had a good grasp of the country’s fascination for the sport.
“There’s a lot of talent. They play hard,” he said while Johnson went so far as saying that it won’t be long before a full-blooded Filipino makes it to the big leagues. “I think you’re close. Keep going strong. Keep working hard. It doesn’t matter how big you are. Look at me, I’m not big. But what matters is the size of your heart.”
Before the delegation moved on to a mural painting session at the Bagalnga Integrated School, Matthews summed up their trip, “The food is great. The people are great. The traffic is terrible,” he said with a laugh.