Edmonton Filipino basketball community is raising a new generation of players
'Basketball is my life'
Local basketball player CJ Liwanag left Edmonton for the Philippines on Sunday to chase his dream of playing in the big league.
He earned a full scholarship to play on a college team. It's a big move for the 17-year-old, who was born and raised in Edmonton and has only visited the Philippines once before as a child.
"I'm pretty excited because this is a big opportunity," Liwanag said.
"I was given some scholarships to other schools in the States, but I think the Philippines just has more opportunities for me."
Liwanag said his goal is eventually to play in the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association), and later with an international league, either in Europe or China.
"If I played in the NCAA [in the U.S.], I'd only play four years in college and probably not get drafted to the NBA," he said. "But if I move to the Philippines, I could play more than four years — so college, plus pro."
Liwanag credits his coaches and mentors on teams in Edmonton with his success. Among them, Merwin Castello, an ex-PBA player.
"I wouldn't be the player that I am today if it weren't for all these teams that I've played for, all these coaches that gave me guidance," Liwanag said.
At 12, he started playing during recess at school, but soon he was playing with a league: the Philippines Sports Association (PSA).
'Biggest league in Canada'
The Edmonton area has multiple Filipino basketball leagues, including the PSA, the Pinoy Basketball Association of Canada (PBAC), the Leduc Pilipino Ballers Association, Flip Hoops and the Gathering Church Basketball League.
The PSA is the largest league with over a thousand players and 68 teams. Most recently, it added a supermaster 42+ division, which players affectionately call the super-lolo (super-grandpa) division.
Basketball is the most popular sport in the Philippines and in Edmonton, a community of Filipino ex-pats have built up one of the biggest Filipino basketball leagues in Canada.
Gary Perpetua, the founder and president of the PSA, said the league is even bigger than the ones he's connected with in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg.
"When we met [the Winnipeg league] in Calgary, they saw I was wearing the PSA shirt and they approached me and asked me how we do it," he said. "We are the biggest league in Canada."
Perpetua has four children and said basketball talk at home is "non-stop."
"The little one, he knows more NBA players than I do," he said.
Perpetua said he started PSA in 1996 to create a program that would keep youth focused on a positive activity and motivate them to exercise.
Last week, his youngest son Geoffrey, 10, attended a basketball camp fundraiser for CJ Liwanag, to support the young player through school in the Philippines.
"Basketball is my life," said 10-year-old Aston Ela as he stood next to Geoffrey. "Me too!" Geoffrey chimed in.
Aldrin Talens, who organised the fundraiser and sponsors Liwanag's former PSA team Changes for Hope, said he'd like to see Liwanag become a model for these younger players.
"He could represent Edmonton somewhere," he said, "that's what everyone is gunning for."
For Liwanag, he feels the pressure of representing the Edmonton Filipino basketball community internationally, but he said he's used to it.
"I'm so grateful for these people in my life. They all have my back," he said.