MANILA, Philippines — Basketball is far from just being a sport for Filipinos.
And the NBA stars, who are in the country for the Gilas Last Home Stand, couldn’t agree more.
“It was a great reception,” said the Portland Trail Blazers’ Lillard of the crowd upon arriving in basketball hotbed Manila Monday afternoon during the event’s press conference at the NBA Cafe at SM Aura in Taguig.
“Coming from the United States, I think we can appreciate the reception that we get here and just being able to see another culture of basketball and how you guys (Filipinos) love the game just like we do,” the 24-year-old Lillard, already considered as one of the top point guards in the NBA, added.
Newly-minted Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard of the 2014 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, a fan-favorite, is in the country for the first time but he had known of the Philippines through one of his assistant coaches with the Spurs in Chip Engelland.
“I got a coach in the Spurs he played for the Philippine national team so he told me a lot about the Philippines. Heard good things about the Philippines,” said the soft spoken 23-year-old Leonard.
Engelland, who works as a shooting coach for the Spurs, is a naturalized Filipino who was part of the Philippine team which won the Jones Cup in 1985.
Asked what Engelland has specifically shared to him about the Philippines, Leonard said it was more of his coach able to experience somewhat the other side of the world.
“I wasn’t able to have a chance to see him compete against the USA national team when he played about 1984 for the Philippines. He just shared that experience with me how many points he scored and just the culture with the fans,” Leonard explained.
Leonard is known for his defensive abilities but he has become he’s a two-way threat since he came into the NBA in 2011. And his steady improvement may well be attributed to the work Engelland has put in with his student.
“Just watching him play and being on the Philippine national team beating the US, and just learning from him on how he moved on to the pros,” said the 6-foot-7 Leonard, who gave LeBron James and the Miami Heat fits in the Finals last June. “He’s our shooting coach and I just learned my shooting technique from him.”
The Last Home Stand, a two-day charity event for the benefit of the Philippine Disaster Recovery Foundation happening at the Smart Araneta Coliseum on Tuesday and Wednesday, also marks Gilas Pilipinas’ final games on home soil before flying out of the country to continue its preparations for the Fiba World Cup in Spain this August.
While Lillard and Leonard are first timers here, Toronto Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan and Houston Rockets’ James Harden are just elated to be back.
“It’s definitely great. I was here a couple weeks ago and the fans’ support is definitely amazing. It’s just fun to see all these faces and the energy is definitely great,” said the 6-foot-7 DeRozan, who graced the NBA 3X event recently.
“I’ve been here a couple of times and these fans are amazing. They’re crazy over basketball and we played a preseason game here with the Pacers last year and the crowd was amazing. So it’s good to be back,” said Harden, who is here for the fourth time.
Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin, Indiana Pacers’ Paul George, Dallas Mavericks’ Tyson Chandler, Raptors’ Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross, Los Angeles Lakers’ Ed Davis and rookie Nick Johnson complete the 12-man NBA lineup.
Apart from two exhibition games vs the Nationals, there will also be a three-point shootout and a slam dunk competition.
“I think these guys’ commitment to come over and participate makes it very special. It definitely is a chance to work with the national team and to give them a chance before they go and play their friendlies and before they go competing in Spain,” said former NBA guard John Lucas, who will steer the Fibr All-Stars.