Cairo Almarez grabbed the ball in the mid-court, passed it ahead and moved toward the opponent’s basket, watching as a teammate drove to the hoop. At the last second, that teammate kicked the ball out to Almarez, who pulled up and launched a jump shot.
The moment played out in slow motion, the ball arching through the air and dropping through the basket with that satisfying swish that all players love.
A shot that the 16 year old has made hundreds, nay, thousands of times, in games and practices.
But this time was special.
This shot came at the Mall of Asia Arena in the Philippines, at a prestigious tournament called the SM-NBTC National Finals.
The moment the ball dropped through the basket, the teenager heard them.
His cheering section.
His grandma, uncle, aunt and several very loud cousins — 10 people making more noise than hundreds of people around them.
A smile stretched across Cairo’s face.
“I’ve been working so hard for what feels like forever, all so I could see them,” he said. “It’s been so long but it was worth it.”
The Mall of Asia Arena is in Bay City, Pasay, near the Filipino capital city, Manilla.
Cairo was born in the Philippines, but came to Canada when he was just seven months old. The last time he was here, he was just three years old, and all he has are faint memories of helping his father build something in a village.
“And playing outside a lot in the sun with my cousins,” he said.
Vancouver-based Top Flight Hoops and Coach Nap Santos gave Cairo this chance to go back, but he had to earn it.
He traveled into Vancouver for a tryout, so long ago he can’t remember exactly when it was. But the best of the best in Filipino basketball talent were there, coming from all over B.C.
The GW Graham student shared the floor with seven foot tall centers and lighting quick guards, providing an ‘insane level of competition.’
“Everyone was strong and athletic and bigger than you’d think Filipinos could be,” Cairo laughed. “It was crazy.”
But nothing was going to stop Cairo.
“I shot. And shot and shot and shot and they kept going in and in and in,” the guard said. “I’m tall but I was one of the smaller guys there and I had to prove myself. I wanted to show them I could be the spot-up shooter on the team and I had my place.”
He went home from the tryout feeling good, but unsure if he’d done enough. Within days his mom, Fatima, got an email from Coach Santos.
He made the final roster of Team Canada West.
He was going home.
“I was sitting in French class when she forwarded me the email,” Cairo says. “I got so excited my teacher had to ask me what was going on. Nobody in the class had any idea what was happening.”
From that point on, Cairo practiced with the team every weekend, counting down the seconds, minutes and days until he could get on the plane and see his relatives face to face.
“It’s been difficult to stay in contact because of the time difference,” he said. “It’s three hours ahead and then you flip the sun. So, if it’s eight a.m. in Chilliwack it’s 11 p.m. where they are, and that makes it tough.”
Everyone was on the same clock when Cairo stepped off the plane in the Philippines Mar. 18 and was greeted by his grandma, one of his uncles and three cousins.
“I haven’t seen them since we were all babies, so seeing their faces it was like, ‘Are you sure you’re my cousin?’” he said. “It was like, ‘Woah.’
“A big shock to me.”
There are more than 120 languages and dialects spoken in the Philippines, and Cairo didn’t know any of them except English, which thankfully is one of the country’s official languages.
“They have good English, but they’re really shy to use it because they don’t think it’s good,” Cairo explained. “They said little things in English, but eventually, when they start talking regularly with me, after three weeks it was completely fine.”
Life in the Philippines is, obviously, different than it is in Canada.
As his family took him on a tour of rural villages, including their own, Cairo was struck by the things he takes for granted.
Paved roads for one.
The roads in the Filipino villages were all gravel, with the odd patch of asphalt.
“My dad’s village is more wealthy, but my mom’s village is more low-going,” Cairo said. “It’s a farm, go home, eat and sleep kind of thing.
“It was a strange but pretty place to relax and do nothing or go ride dirt bikes and run around. Other than basketball it was my favourite part of the trip, just hanging around with my family in the village.”
The basketball was good too.
In a knockout-format tournament, most international teams are happy just winning their first game so they can play another.
His team exceeded expectations, advancing to the ‘Elite Eight’ before being knocked out by a team that eventually made it to the final.
“We beat the number three team to make it as far as we did, which was really exciting, and we were all jumping around and screaming after we did that,” Cairo said. “I didn’t get a lot of floor-time because I was the youngest player, but when I got on the floor I had my moments.
“And, being able to play in front of my family is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”
A feeling he won’t soon forget.
A trip he’ll never forget.
“This experience taught me to take your chances when you get them and appreciate what you have,” he said. “Being in the city and the villages was so humbling, and I’m so grateful for what I have and being able to do this.”