Basketball Players Emaleena Elson and Kalynne Mendez Had Their ‘Swish’ Come True


Ruhi Samudra

Juniors Kalynne Mendez and Emaleena Elson represent their Filipino heritage and the opportunity to play in an international basketball tournament through the team jerseys. Mendez played in the under-18 division while Elson played in the under-16 division.

For juniors Emaleena Elson and Kalynne Mendez, this was not just another basketball game. In fact, they played it more than 7,300 miles from Irvine in their second home: the Philippines. 

The Fil-Am Nation Select program chooses high school basketball players of Filipino descent from across the United States and gives them the opportunity to play for the Philippines national team. A month-long training camp, entailing two practices a day for just 20 to 24 girls, was held to prepare them for the tryouts. Then, the final team was cut down to 12 players. 

The rigorous selection process and an entire school year of practice led up to one moment: being able to represent their heritage in the 2022 FIBA Women’s Asian Championship.

“It was my first trip to the Philippines, and I was going there with the intention of playing for that country,” Mendez said. “I was really excited and nervous at the same time because I was holding my family’s culture, and I was representing where my family came from.”

I didn’t know what I was going into, and seeing that everyone had the same pride as me, and we all had similarities, I just didn’t know how loving and supporting [my teammates] were.”

— Kalynne Mendez

Throughout the summer, both players faced national teams from Samoa, Lebanon and Malaysia. Elson went on to play teams in Jordan in June and July, and Mendez did the same in India in September. Both Elson and Mendez ended the championship with the bronze. However, the first game for both teams set the right momentum for the rest of their time abroad, according to Mendez.

“The first time we stepped on the court, and when the buzzer went off, it was our very first win,” Elson said.
“We ended up blowing out Indonesia by like 80 points, and it was our first game. We all went crazy that night.”

Playing internationally, Elson and Mendez had an opportunity to reconnect with family traditions that seemed distant in more ways than one. Experiencing the Filipino culture for the first time – from the food to the foreign language – made the trip more personal and rewarding than just tournament wins, according to Elson. 

“For the longest time she [my mom] had been trying to get me and my brother to engage in our culture and learn more about it,” Elson said. “And so with her encouragement, I wanted to learn more about the Philippines, and seeing that there was a basketball way to do it, it just made perfect sense.”

Both athletes regarded forging global friendships of a lifetime, both on and off the court, as one of the most inspirational moments throughout their journey playing basketball internationally. Now, Elson and Mendez are playing for Portola High this winter season and will continue with Fil-Am during the summer. 

“I’ll never forget my coaches because they all push me to the best of my abilities,” Mendez said. “I didn’t know what I was going into, and seeing that everyone had the same pride as me, and we all had similarities, I just didn’t know how loving and supporting [my teammates] were.”