They came to witness history. Turns out, just like them, basketball superstar LeBron James was also left in awe.
“I’m at a loss for words; this is unbelievable,” said the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player and two-time NBA champion in front of an adoring throng at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
Serenaded by chants of “MVP! MVP!” James emerged from the makeshift stage, marveled at the adulation showered on him and put on a spectacular show of his basketball prowess.
The Miami Heat star made his first visit to the country and witnessed first-hand what his Filipino-American coach, Erik Spoelstra, had been raving about this basketball-crazy country.
“Coach Spoelstra has been telling me how basketball is in this country and now I know why,” said James.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but this is something I will never forget.”
It was a busy day for James who faced the media shortly after lunch, made a quick stop at Nike’s flagship store at Bonifacio Global City, where he saw another huge crowd braving the rain just to see him, before finally making his way to MOA Arena for the “Witness History” show.
“I’m humbled and overwhelmed,” James told the appreciative crowd at BGC.
Throughout his tour, James acknowledged his role as an inspiration to kids and the youth to become winners in their own right.
Aside from his basketball exploits, James has also dabbled in civic work with his own foundation that benefits underprivileged kids in the United States.
“I’m glad I’m in a position to inspire people to always strive to be great,” he said. “Thank you, guys, for allowing me to inspire you.”
The 28-year-old also talked about his desire to improve aspects of his game and leaving a legacy after his career is over.
“You will see a better LeBron James next season,” he vowed.
“I’ve got a lot more to prove, a lot more to accomplish. It’s too early to discuss about a legacy. Hopefully, when I decide to hang up my shoes and jersey, my game, my resume, my accomplishments will speak for itself.”
Together with Gilas-Pilipinas players, a selection of collegiate stars and the PH Under-16 team, James went through individual and team drills supervised by national coach Chot Reyes.
Instantly, the Gilas stars turned giddy as James posed for a photo with players. So excited were the players that Reyes had to tell them to put away their mobile phones so that the drills could begin.
A 10-minute scrimmage that pitted the UAAP aces and Gilas-Pilipinas turned out to be the icing on the cake as James, acting as playing-coach for the UAAP stars, regaled the crowd with a dazzling display of shooting and dunking.
James played five minutes, but missed two potential game winning shots—a jumpshot and a layup as Gilas came away with a 29-27 win. That wasn’t enough to take the luster off what had been a spectacular show, though.
He hit a pair of triples upon his entry with five minutes left, before completing a dazzling alley-hoop dunk off an assist by Ateneo star Kiefer Ravena. James drove the lane and executed a back dunk on Ranidel de Ocampo, who took turns with Marc Pingris in guarding him.
“We feel blessed to have played with him,” said Pingris, part of the Gilas-Pilipinas squad bidding for a World Championship slot in the Fiba Asia tournament starting Aug. 1 at MOA Arena. “He’s an MVP; he’s humble and his mere presence inspired us.”
Though it was just an exhibition game, Pingris said guarding the 6-foot-8 James wasn’t easy. “I bumped him but I don’t think it affected him” he said with a laugh.
James leaves Manila today, but not before promising to come back soon.
“I can’t believe it’s my first time here, understanding how great the game of basketball is here, but this is definitely not my last,” he said.