MANILA, Philippines – At only 12 years old, Kristine Cayabyab is proving nothing – be it circumstance or gender – can stop her from chasing her dreams.
Cayabyab is one of two girls in the initial pool of the Nike Rise basketball program, which aims to gives kids a real shot at their hoops dreams through exposure and a 6-week training program under former national team head coach Chot Reyes.
She made the final 12-player line-up that will go up against a collegiate selection on Sunday, August 23 for one final game to culminate the program. But even before camp’s end, opportunity already came knocking on her door.
“Kristine is already in the sights of the national women’s team coach,” Reyes, also the brainchild of the program, said following Team Rise’s scrimmage with NBA star LeBron James Thursday, August 20 at the Mall of Asia Arena. “We’ve gotten in touch with coach Pat Aquino.”
It’s been Cayabyab’s longtime dream to play for the national team Perlas Pilipinas and she’s happy to get the invite. But before anything else, the Dagupan native first wants to finish high school and then go through college in Manila.
Girl power personified
Born to a basketball-loving family and influenced by her father to play the sport, Cayabyab has no qualms navigating her way through a male-dominated world.
“Nacha-challenge ko yung sarili ko na kalaban ko lalaki,” she said in an earlier interview. “Para masanay rin na hindi lang babae lagi ang kalaro.” (I’m able to challenge myself playing against boys. So I can get used to playing with them and not just girls all the time.)
The second of 5 siblings, Cayabyab began playing basketball in fourth grade at 8 years old when she tried out at school. It was her first sport. Her sister also plays basketball and both of them burned the local barangay court with other girls in their community.
Her mother, a housewife, and her father, a butcher, both support her dream to play basketball and, together with Cayabyab’s high school coach, encouraged her to join Rise.
“Para mas lalong matuto. And para yung matutunan ko dito ishe-share ko sa province namin (So I can learn more. And I want to share to our province what I’ve learned),” the cheerful Cayabyab, who is a fan of James Yap, Marc Pingris and Steph Curry, shared why she tried out for the program.
Together with Rossini “Chinni” Espinas, another girl on the Rise team who is now a reserve, Cayabyab aims to shatter gender limitations imposed on basketball. The two have grown close during their time with Rise and both showed great potential.
“Ang paglalaro ng basketball hindi lang para sa mga lalaki,” the 16-year old Espinas said in a previous interview. “Kaya ako sumali dito para yung mga babaeng mahilig sa basketball ma-encourage din sila na maglaro.”
(Playing basketball is not just for boys. I joined this so the girls who love basketball will be encouraged to play too.)
Standing on a world-class basketball court after playing before a full arena crowd, Cayabyab still could not believe her luck, but she is determined to keep going.
“Hindi ko po inexpect dahil bilang isang babae po, naisip ko baka hindi ako makasabay sa mga lalaki,” she said Thursday night. “Ngayon po nakapasok po ako sa final 12.” (I did not expect I’d be included because I’m a girl, I thought I might not keep up with the boys. But now I’m in the final 12.)
Rubbing elbows with greatness
Cayabyab’s journey brought her once in a lifetime opportunities most kids from all walks of life can only dream about. Not only did she rub elbows with local stars such as Jimmy Alapag, Cayabyab also made NBA stars take notice of her.
First, she impressed Indiana Pacers forward Paul George last July when she managed to get a steal from him during a scrimmage and score the breakaway basket.
A few weeks later on a rainy Thursday night, Cayabyab received a standing ovation from the game’s best player James after she won the 3-point shootout competition.
“Hindi ko akalain na tatayo si LeBron (I never thought LeBron would stand up),” she said in disbelief as the crowd dispersed inside the Arena.
Cayabyab’s unforgettable night did not end there.
The 4-time NBA MVP, who suited up during the final 5 minutes of Team Rise’s scrimmage, did not miss the chance to guard Cayabyab a couple of times. In one instance, the Cleveland Cavaliers forward defended her by hugging her.
“Tuloy-tuloy po kasi yung 3 points ko kanina kaya binantayan niya po ako tapos niyakap niya ako, hindi niya po ako pinaalis. Tawa po kami ng tawa,” Cayabyab animatedly recalled what many would dub as a magical moment with a superstar.
(I kept shooting 3-pointers so he guarded me then he hugged me and did not let me go. We just kept laughing.)
Later on during the photo opportunity after the scrimmage, James, an arm around each of the two girls, had some words of encouragement for Cayabyab and Espinas.
“Sabi niya magaling daw po akong basketball player, pagpatuloy ko daw po yun (He said I was a good basketball player and I should continue what I’m doing),” Cayabyab shared as she clutched her shoe signed by James.
The two-time NBA champion also gave her a basketball. Beaming, Cayabyab proudly declared she was the only one in the team who got a ball from James.
As the Rise program winds down, Cayabyab is not the only kid getting rare opportunities.
According to Reyes, a number of players have received invitations from schools such as Far Eastern University, as well as from some schools in Cebu including CESAFI powerhouse Southwestern University. Steven Andres also has a tryout with Technological Institute of the Philippines despite not making the final 12.
“Our next step now is to get them something beyond this,” said Reyes. “Hopefully we can get them at least a tryout. Everything else is up to them.” – Rappler.com