Less than a week before Kobee Mendoza left his small island to pursue his basketball dreams, a historically destructive storm cast everything in doubt.
Tonight Mendoza will suit up for the basketball team at Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn, Washington, a suburb south of Seattle. When he does, it will mark the first time the 17-year-old has played a game on continental U.S. soil—or "the mainland," as he calls it.
"When I tell people where I'm from, they automatically think grass skirts and dirt roads and stuff," Mendoza says. "That's kind of funny."
Mendoza was born and raised in Saipan, a Pacific island roughly 6 miles wide by 12 miles long, located east of the Philippines. Saipan and two other islands (Tinian and Rota) form the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which are home to about 50,000 people. CNMI is a U.S. Territory, similar to Guam and Puerto Rico.
On Saipan, Mendoza was a top player. He participated in international tournaments and led his former high school team to two consecutive island championships. At the urging of his family and coaches, Mendoza left Saipan this past August with one goal in mind: To become the first person born-and-raised on his island who earns a basketball scholarship at a U.S. college.
For Mendoza, the first step toward realizing that goal starts this evening, when Thomas Jefferson travels to Puyallup High School to open their season.
Family ties brought Mendoza to Jefferson. His aunt and uncle, Tess and Jim Guiao, who are now his legal guardians, reside in the school district. Their daughter Joneva is a senior at the school.
Mendoza, who's also a senior, has impressed school faculty members, fellow students and teammates in his short time at the school. "When we've played against each other, he's done some things where I'm like, 'Dang, I have never seen that before,'" says Tarence Taylor, another senior on Jefferson's team. "I'm glad that he's bringing that to our team."
During the next few months, Mendoza will need to gel with Taylor and his other teammates and coaches, all of whom he's only recently met. Together, they'll need to find a way to win games in Washington's highly competitive Class 4A basketball bracket—which Jefferson's teams historically have had a difficult time doing. The program ranks near the bottom of the state's big schools in terms of wins and losses. When Jefferson reached the state tournament three years ago, it marked its first appearance in decades.
As his team's starting point guard, Mendoza will need to show that he not only has the skills to play at a high level, but also that he can manage the action on-court and make smart decisions when the game is on the line. "You can't have your point guard, and possibly your best player, not be a leader," says Thomas Jefferson head coach Kyle Templeton.
That might be a tall order for someone who met his teammates only three months ago. But Mendoza traveled more than 5,500 miles to be in this position. And just before he left home, his decision-making helped steer his family away from danger when the stakes were far greater.
Typhoon Soudelor was unlike anything Mendoza or anyone else on his home island of Saipan had ever seen. "The worst part was that we'd underestimated it," Mendoza says. "Usually when it's a typhoon, it's a lot of heavy rain and that's all. This one was just so bad."
Making landfall just before midnight on Aug. 2, the storm pummeled the island with winds well in excess of 100 miles per hour. Gusts reached 150 mph. Inside their concrete-and-tin house, Kobee, his mother and sister heard debris slamming against the metal roof over their heads. Heavy shingles flew off the roof of a nearby hotel, punching holes through the Mendozas' ceiling. Water began to pour into their living quarters.
With Kobee's father, Edsel, at work in another part of the island, Kobee felt responsible for leading his family to safety. "He manned up that night, I must say," Clarice Mendoza says of her son. "I was totally in panic mode. I was so frightened."
Kobee told his mother they would be safer at his grandparents' house, which is located on the same lot and connected by a hallway. He led her and his younger sister Jayda to the larger, more stable home, and waited.
"It was so loud. We just sat in the middle of the room and hoped," Kobee says.
The worst of the storm lasted about 30 minutes. Somewhere around 1:00 a.m., the winds died down enough for the family to emerge from their home. When the sun rose later that morning, the damage the family saw surrounding them was overwhelming.
Fallen trees and downed power lines turned island roads into "a maze." More than 350 people were without homes. FEMA quickly declared the island a disaster area.
"A lot of my friends' homes were just devastated. That was the worst part," Kobee says. "Power was out for the whole island. Gas lines were so bad. People would wait all day, from like 8 in the morning to 6:00 p.m., just to get 20 dollars' worth of gas."
Kobee's flight had been scheduled for Aug. 8, just a few days away. But the athlete set aside thoughts of his trip and focused on helping his family rebuild. After almost two weeks spent fixing his own roof and other homes, Kobee's parents told him he still needed to go to the mainland and pursue the dream the whole family shared.
"They thought this was an opportunity I couldn't pass on," Kobee says.
A Dream Spanning Two Generations
Kobee isn't the first Mendoza to leave home in pursuit of basketball. His dad Edsel was a standout player who competed for the island territory in tournaments put on by FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, which oversees the World Cup and the Basketball World Cup.
After graduating in the late 1980s from Marianas High School, the same school his son would later attend on Saipan, Edsel moved to the Philippines to play college ball. He found his densely populated new home overwhelming.
"The transition of coming off an island and moving to the Philippines was very tough for me," Edsel says. "The Philippines was more than I expected. It was a rough place, you know? The environment wasn't something I was comfortable with. There were so many people all over the place. I didn't feel like that was for me."
In 1992, Edsel returned to Saipan. When he and Clarice started their family, they stayed close to Edsel's parents in Fina Sisu, an inland area near the southern end of the island. That placed them near Northern Marianas College, home to one of the few indoor basketball gyms on the Saipan.
"The coolest part about growing up in my village was that I lived like a minute away from that college," Kobee says. "There are only about three gyms on the island, and the college has one of them. So that's where I kinda just honed my skill."
Kobee says he started playing on that court "before I can remember." By third grade, he was playing pickup games regularly. He says he could name every player in the NBA. By 7th grade, the younger Mendoza was representing CNMI in games abroad, just like his dad. At the 2010 Micronesian Basketball Tournament, he was the youngest starter for CNMI's U-15 squad.
"It was an unforgettable experience," Mendoza says of the tournament, which took place in Palau.
When he got to high school, Mendoza was waking up for 5:00 a.m. workouts with Elias Rangamar, a former teammate of his father's, who was then a development officer for the Northern Marianas Islands' Basketball Federation.
"We trained about five times a week for an hour to an hour and a half during the off-season and about two to three times a week in-season," Rangamar recalls.
Mendoza says things really began to click for him during his sophomore year, the first season in which he led Marianas to an island championship. Following that season, his father told him he had the potential to play in college. Rangamar agreed, adding that if Mendoza wanted to continue to develop as a player, he needed to play elsewhere. But Kobee says it was his father's encouragement that truly made him feel that he could realize his dream. He says, "I still didn't think I was that good, honestly. But it was my dad who was like, 'Kobee, you can really do this. If you put in the work, you just gotta trust your skill from there. Because you are really talented.' And I believed him."
After repeating as champions in his junior season at Marianas, Kobee and his family began their search for a place where he might be able to move on the mainland. The Mendozas had extended family in Texas who said they could take Kobee in, but that fell through. When they later contacted the Guiaos, and Jim and Tess agreed that Kobee could live with them, things moved quickly.
"I was in the middle of work one day when I got an email from my dad asking if I really wanted to go to Seattle," Kobee says. "I said, 'Yes.' He replied later that day with a travel itinerary—boom. And I'm just like, 'Wow, this is really happening.'"
Life in Auburn
With much of his island still in ruins and without electricity, Mendoza boarded his flight out of Saipan on Aug. 15. After more than 16 hours of flight time, he arrived in Seattle.
"My first memory [after landing in the U.S.] was my Uncle Jim taking me out of the airport. It was so sunny, and he was complaining that it was hot, but it was like so cold," says Mendoza, who was accustomed to Saipan's 80-degree average temperatures.
Mendoza first met his new coach, Kyle Templeton, at Thomas Jefferson's senior registration day toward the end of that month. The two had communicated a few times by email and through Twitter, but Templeton had never seen the athlete play before. He asked other members of his team to take the new player out for a pickup game a few days later, where Mendoza made an immediate splash.
"I got a phone call in the middle of the day, and it was Tarence [Taylor]," Templeton says. "There are balls bouncing in the background, and he's so excited that he's shouting. He's saying, 'Coach, Coach, Kobee is legit. He is going to be so awesome.'"
"He's our best passer, a great dribbler, and great on the defensive end," says Darius Anderson, the team's senior center and power forward. "He's also a great person off the court. He's kind to everyone. There's really no way you can't like Kobee."
Anderson and his teammates aren't the only ones who've been won over by the Pacific islander's easygoing demeanor. Awsten Olyano, a second-year math teacher at Jefferson who also leads Mendoza's advisory class, describes the young athlete as calm and unusually mature for his age.
"He has his head on straight and is pretty even-keel," Olyano says. "He was a little quiet at first, but that's how anybody would act in a new situation. The kids love him now. We move around all the time in my class, so he has sat with several different groups of students, and he's gotten along with all of them. He's just a friendly, awesome kid."
With his new teammates, coaches and school behind him, Mendoza's next challenge is to be awesome on the court in game situations. The crowds he'll play in front of as a member of Jefferson's team will be far larger than any he experienced on Saipan, especially when the Raiders take on their crosstown rivals and last season's state champion, Federal Way—a team Jefferson hasn't beaten in recent memory.
Templeton says the makeup of this year's team may bring that losing streak to an end. He says, "This is the most talented group [of athletes] that we've ever had. We made the Sweet 16 a few years ago and lost to the eventual state champion. This team is better than that. And not to put too much pressure on Kobee, but I wouldn't have said that before he was here."
If Jefferson can knock off Federal Way and other top teams in the state, and Kobee wins enough attention from college coaches to attract a basketball scholarship, it's difficult to know with 100 percent certainty whether he'll be the first person from Saipan ever to do so. But info supplied by the NCAA and knowledgeable sources on Saipan all indicate that he would be.
The NCAA's Eligibility Center, which maintains records on all athletes who want to play Division I or Division II college sports, says only 17 people from Saipan have ever registered with the organization. Of those, only one identified himself as a basketball player, and there's no record of him actually playing for a college team.
Similarly, Rangamar's organization on Saipan is not aware of anyone born and raised on Saipan who went on to play college ball on the mainland. The closest example they could find was Richard Woodworth, a former player and current assistant coach at Division II Western Washington University. He has enough family from the island that he could play for the team in international competition, but he was not born there himself.
"I've been involved with basketball here since my early playing days and personally only know of a few [athletes who] moved to the states in pursuit of that same dream," Rangamar says. "I can't recall any of them making it to the collegiate level."
With a laugh, Mendoza says that his dream school would be Duke, but he adds that he's being practical about his (slim) chances of anything like that happening. He expects it may take time before he's proficient enough to draw attention from colleges at any level, and that he's willing to be patient.
"Every athlete will say they want to go to D-I, you know, but i'm just trying to be realistic," Mendoza says. "I may have to go to a community or junior college and work from there. Since I just moved here, I feel like I am behind in some ways, and you can only do so much in one year."
No matter where he ends up next year, Mendoza says his biggest motivation is to make the people on Saipan proud. "They are all rooting for me," he says. "I get messages here and there from younger guys I used to play with saying how much I inspire them. And that's the greatest feeling ever."
Stay up-to-date on Kobee Mendoza and Thomas Jefferson High School's season by following @JeffersonHoopz on Twitter.
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