Calgarian's basketball dream came true, now he's training the next generation
'It was going to happen, I was gonna play pro,' recalls Kelvin dela Peña
Kelvin dela Peña always knew his destiny: basketball.
The 36-year-old Calgarian lived his dream, playing professional basketball in the Philippines, until a serious injury ended his career.
But now, back in Calgary, he puts his skills to work helping others take the shot.
Dela Peña was born in the Philippines, where basketball has pretty much the same status as hockey has in Canada. It's hugely popular and part of community identity.
"I've always been around basketball," said dela Peña.
- Watch the video above to see Kelvin dela Peña in action at Rise Up Hoops, an athlete development academy in Calgary, after playing pro basketball in the Philippines. (Note: This story was gathered before the latest restrictions were imposed)
"My dad played pro in the Philippines, so it's in my blood. I can remember from … four or five years old, dribbling a basketball, following my dad around a court. You know, waking up everyday and just being around the community."
Dela Peña was 10 years old when his family moved to Calgary, and family life suddenly changed.
It wasn't easy, he says, "watching my dad get up at 3:30 in the morning and watching my mom work her tail off, two or three jobs. I could not complain."
So dela Peña worked hard, and became a star player with the Bishop McNally High School Timberwolves.
He then moved on to play with the Mount Royal University Cougars.
"When I was at Mount Royal, I was taking psychology and met a lot of great people there, ya know, that are friends to this day, and some great coaches. But I knew from the get-go that I had to make it happen. It was going to happen, I was gonna play pro."
He was a man with a plan.
Dela Peña won a scholarship to Mapúa University in Manila. So he left Calgary, and overseas success came quick.
In his first year, he was named the National Collegiate Athletic Association's rookie of the year. In 2008, he was the league's MVP.
He played in the league for four years. Then, during his final year at Mapúa, he suffered a series of back spasms, and with it, excruciating pain.
"It was pretty scary, actually, because I was taking painkillers before a game and then during halftime," said dela Peña.
"Before the game, I would take a painkiller and drink Red Bull. And then during halftime, I would take another pill and I would drink another can of Red Bull.
"I was one of the best players on the team. I was averaging 30 to 40 minutes a game. So for me to sit out and to say, 'I can't play this game,' that wasn't even a discussion. It was like, Kelvin, you better play today, because I had to perform and the team needed me."
Dela Peña played through the pain and was rewarded. He was picked 15th overall in the second round of the draft for the Philippine Basketball Association — the country's professional league. His dream had arrived.
Dela Peña was drafted by the Alaska Aces, a pro team in the Philippines.
He continued to play through the pain. But then, in his second year, during practice, his back gave out.
"I got the ball and I spun and then my whole back seized up on me."
Dela Peña was rushed to the hospital for an MRI and other tests.
"The doctor couldn't believe that I played with three herniated discs on my lower back," he said.
"I started out with one, and from there it gradually got worse, and he couldn't believe that I was playing professional basketball with three herniated discs."
Dela Peña took time off to recover.
He later went on to play three more years of pro basketball, until trying to keep up with younger players while nursing a bad back forced him to retire from professional basketball.
So in 2013, he came back to Calgary. For a while, he suited up for the Calgary Crush, a semi-pro team.
But he had a longer-term plan.
Kelvin settled back into the Monterey Park neighbourhood and put his skills to use coaching.
First, he was at St. Mary's University, and then later at Bishop McNally High School, where he's still head coach of the boys junior basketball team.
His passion for basketball also led him to start Rise Up Hoops, an athlete development academy.
(Dela Peña is following all public health rules for COVID-19; this story was gathered before the latest restrictions were imposed.)
"I just wanted to give back. And I wanted to give an opportunity to kids that are coming up," said dela Peña.
"I wanted to give them a better platform, I wanted to give them tools moving forward, that they can perform at a high level. Even give them a chance to play college or hopefully that one or two per cent have a chance to play pro."
As a professional strength and conditioning coach, dela Peña instructs both professional and amateur athletes, but up and coming basketball players are his focus.
"There's a few trying to make it overseas and trying to follow in my footsteps," he said.
"When I was playing overseas, it was just me," dela Peña said.
"I was the only guy coming out of Calgary. Now we get four, five, maybe eight kids that are coming out of Calgary. So it's a beautiful thing.
"I love these kids. They work hard. And I'm sure they're going to do really well. They're going to represent Calgary."