When LeBron James first visited the Philippines in 2013, then 15-year-old Kobe Paras stole the spotlight with a dunk right in front of the NBA superstar.
That was the start of the teen sensation’s rise to the radar of the basketball world, with fans dubbing him as “the kid who dunked on LeBron.”
In James’ second visit to these shores on Thursday night, it was the turn of young Kristine Cayabyab to showcase her wares with the four-time Most Valuable Player watching from the sidelines.
Cayabyab, 12, is one of the final players hand-picked by former national team coach Chot Reyes to make up the Rise team from a group of street-ballers gathered from all over the country.
Hailing from Dagupan City, Pangasinan, she was the only girl among the squad of teenage boys, making her an instant crowd favorite during the exhibition game at the Mall of Asia Arena.
With Paras and athletic PBA forwards Chris Ellis and Cliff Hodge executing dunks one after another, Cayabyab did not make much noise in the first half of the game.
But her moment of truth came at halftime during the three-point shootout, when she was called by Reyes to be an additional contender after Ateneo’s Thirdy Ravena and Perlas Pilipinas captain Ewon Arayi tied for 11 points.
To the delight of the full house crowd, the 5-foot-8 kid found her rhythm early, draining three-pointers one after another and emerged as the runaway winner with 15 points.
“Si Coach Chot may tiwala po sa shooting ko. Ayaw ko po siya mapahiya. Ginawa ko po ‘yung best ko,” said Cayabyab, who had the confidence to perform even with the most dominant NBA player sitting a few feet away from her.
Rain or Shine’s resident sniper Jeff Chan, who also played in the game, was impressed with her sweet stroke.
“Natuwa ako nung natalo niya pa ‘yung mga ano sa shootout,” said the former Gilas Pilipinas gunner. “Maganda, sana magtuloy-tuloy lang saka sana suportahan natin sila kasi hopefully sila ‘yung maging future sa basketball.”
But nothing beats the acknowledgment she received from King James himself, who even defended against her during the game and hugged her after the buzzer.
“Binantayan niya po ako, niyakap niya po ako. Di niya po ako pinaalis,” Cayabyab said. “Kanina po sabi niya magaling daw po akong basketball player. Ipagpatuloy ko daw po ‘yun.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers forward also gave her an autographed ball and signed her basketball shoes.
“Masayang-masaya po ako dahil binigyan niya po ako ng bola. Ako lang po ‘yung kaisa-isang binigyan niya ng bola sa team namin,” she said.
Just as it did for Paras, the rare opportunity to play with James could be a life-changing encounter for Cayabyab, who aims to be a member of the women’s national basketball team in the future.
“Masayang-masaya po dahil hindi ko po akalain na makakalaro ko si LeBron,” she said.